I’m not upset. It’s nerves

Julian Bell

  • Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse Vol. II The Conquest of Colour 1909-54 by Hilary Spurling
    Hamish Hamilton, 512 pp, £25.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 241 13339 4

The subtitle Hilary Spurling has given to the second half of her biography of Henri Matisse is upbeat and triumphant, in line with orthodox interpretations of the painter’s career: ‘The Conquest of Colour’. To place the volume still more squarely in line with exhibition-poster stereotypes, she has capped that with ‘Matisse the Master’. These labels are deceptive. They seem to be pasted over some more appropriate tag for the biographical material to hand: one that should probably read along the lines of ‘the long anguish’, or maybe ‘84 years of acute discomfort’. ‘Unremitting angst’ wouldn’t quite catch the tone: that would suggest something rather more spiritualised and philosophically pitched.

What this volume gives form to is a just about containable, just about respectable, but always incipiently physical type of agony. Its second page finds the 39-year-old, internationally renowned avant-gardist in a state of grim ‘nervous tension’, mistaking a wreath of bay sent by an American admirer for an omen of death. Three pages later, he is wielding his brush ‘on a tide of bitterness and rage’. A chapter and a year on, the winter of 1910 constitutes for Matisse his ‘martyrdom’, with Parisian art fashion switching from his own Fauves to Picasso’s Cubists, while floodwaters fill the streets below his new suburban family home. The ensuing years, during which his wife, Amélie, raised their three teenage children at this address, are deemed to be ‘the times I suffered most’. At a point when he is ‘completely crushed’ and ‘utterly demolished’ in the wake of his father’s death, his dealers double-cross him over a commission from his main Russian patron; he flees to Spain in a state of breakdown, uncontrollably wailing through sleepless nights and painting almost nothing during days passed in ‘fatigue and revulsion’.

After that crisis, the nervous stress-lines converge around the quarrels, stand-offs and reconciliations that punctuate the Matisses’ marriage. Painting a portrait of Amélie in 1913 gives Henri ‘palpitations, high blood pressure and a constant drumming in his ears’. The advent of the Great War overshadows his personal agitation for a while, and his decamping afterwards to Nice refreshes the narrative with a change of light, but the underlying refrain is never far away. The discomforts of increasing age, the loneliness of his artistic labours, the fickleness of models, patrons and critics, the difficulties of launching three children out into the world, all these merely serve to feed a compulsive will to anxiety. In 1924 his daughter is writing of him generating ‘an uneasiness that spreads over everything’ in their family’s affairs, and two years later he is telling her that ‘It’s still a harsh life, Marguerite, at nearly sixty years old – surrounded by almost total incomprehension.’ As her parents near their seventies, the marital rope they have been tugging this way and that for forty years finally frays and snaps. Henri is sent reeling into the care of Lydia Delectorskaya, the Russian model-cum-secretary whose presence had been the immediate cause of the dispute between them. She tends him through increasingly arduous medical struggles that do nothing to dim ‘the urge to strangle someone before he could begin to paint’, in Spurling’s paraphrase of a confessional remark. Even as he starts to metamorphose into a French national monument, the dressing-gowned sage who sketches doves in Cartier-Bresson’s iconic portrait still sees himself coming at his work ‘like a drunken brute trying to kick the door down’. The design and decoration of the Dominican chapel at Vence, completed in 1951, is a final travail of grim brooding and grinding frustration, before his ‘long career of turmoil, panic and upheaval’ can be resolved into mere art history.

In her first volume Spurling established a workable rationale for the colours in which she has painted Matisse. That book described a youth who somehow happened to have been born in the wrong place: France’s industrial north-east, a land whose raw, rainswept, utilitarian heartlessness would only fully be disclosed to him when he was handed a paint-box at the age of 20 and thereby chanced on a way to escape it. It was an intrinsically mysterious myth of origin, and perhaps for that reason a compelling and effective one. The new-found artist heads south, first for Paris and then for the Mediterranean, to lay his claim on sunshine, sensuality and civility. Yet he carries the north inside him, a dark weight he’s forever fighting with. ‘Suffering is with you for life’: such is the motto of his shopkeeper parents. And this is his artistic dynamo. The inner fight is generative and imposes a new type of imaginative order on the canvas: we are shown how the blurts and breakthroughs of Fauvist painting welled out of an individual psychology. The first volume of the biography had the natural buoyancy of its protagonist’s upward journey towards light and renown, and also had a wonderful runaway subplot about a national scandal in which Amélie’s family had the misfortune to get entangled. The second volume has to chew on the psychological consequences of Matisse’s alienation and relocation, as well as their artistic ones, and this is not quite such succulent material.

But then this sackload of suffering is the material which Spurling’s whole project obliges her to shoulder. I believe her statement, in the first volume’s preface, that she set about her work ‘without preconceptions’, and I also follow the consensus that this is a finely crafted, illuminating narrative and the best biography of Matisse that is likely to be written for a long time. I’m still nagged, however, by the problems inherent in writing a biography of him at all. Various things suggest the subject is right – notably, here is an artist whose work fills you with delight and whose life no one has written before. You research: the papers pour out, vast piles of letters rather than journals or publications in this case. Surrounded by them, you bond. From beyond the grave, the voice of the old painter reaches out: ‘If my life were ever to be written down truthfully from start to finish . . . it would amaze everyone.’ An irresistible appeal in the circumstances, surely, and Spurling has responded to it handsomely, producing a reasoned vindication of Matisse’s need to be so difficult to those immediately around him. The plaintive sense of injury in his voice has brought out in her a corresponding fortitude.

And yet all this is only a half-truth. Matisse was dealt by no means a bad hand in life, in terms of physique, wits and opportunities, and if he had not played it so well he would not be the subject of so many publications. It is just that all the joy seems to have passed over into the art, while the recorder of his verbal and interpersonal dealings is left handling the somewhat depressive residue.

Both parties involved are aware of this. The no pain, no gain equation is no mystery to Matisse, who comments on it frequently enough. He is very much the product of a respectable French education, with thought-patterns predicated on notions of order, balance and discipline. His behaviour may seem self-pitying and his demeanour lumbering, but he is fundamentally a decent person and very rarely a dishonest one, as the evidence collected here demonstrates. The pomposity of his addresses to the mirror may grate on Anglo-Saxon ears: ‘Of course Cubism interested me, but it did not speak to my deeply sensuous nature, to such a great lover as I am of line and of the arabesque.’ But the policy behind them was coherent: to rechannel those sensuous energies away from lovemaking and into art. In a sense, this makes Spurling’s task harder. What she is left to ‘amaze’ readers with is the non-event that he failed to sleep with all those pretty women he was busy painting during the interwar years in Nice. Well, sometimes he might go to the brothel at the end of the working day; but that, she seems to feel, was merely a standard box to be ticked in the average Frenchman’s bodily checklist.

For her part, Spurling comes to the task of Matisse’s advocacy with a feel for the balances of classical English prose. Her sentences are springy. They touch down on nice details and bound off in search of the broad view, and when faced with uninviting stretches of raw material, she is keen to switch the narrative’s direction and accent before boredom sets in. Like Matisse, who in his ‘Notes of a Painter’ claimed that he could ‘discover the essential qualities’ in ‘an Italian model who at first appearance suggests nothing but a purely animal existence’, Spurling proceeds from an enabling certitude about how life is and how people are. ‘The winning grace and sweetness of her childhood returned, together with an inner radiance that shone from her dark eyes.’ That’s to say, if Matisse’s touch can sometimes be categorical and ferocious, Spurling’s often verges on the fulsome. ‘In the spring of 1909, when nymphs were once more beckoning him to break through to another level of reality’: I think the editor should have intervened, there. But all this savoir-vivre and savoir-écrire ensures that Spurling is fully alert to the major problem her research material presents: that of being left with the mere clay mould rather than the gleaming cast it was made for.

In a sense she deals with it better in this volume than in the last, because she is able to draw on a few more first-hand reports from the studio, the closed-off but crucial arena where the life and the art interact. Father Couturier, the midwife of the Vence chapel project, gets as close as anyone can:

His incredible stress before starting his little pen sketches. Lydia told him: ‘Come on now, don’t let yourself get so upset.’ His violent response: ‘I’m not upset. It’s nerves.’ The atmosphere of an operating theatre. Lydia holding up one instrument after another – the bottle of India ink, the sheets of paper – and arranging the adjustable table. And Matisse drawing without a word, without the slightest sign of agitation, but within this immobility, an extreme tension.

Lydia herself offers some interesting testimonies of this surgical procedure, but one senses that the same proud guardedness that guaranteed her the respect of Matisse during his final years governed her dealings with Spurling. Marguerite, whose heroic role in the Resistance creates one of the book’s most moving episodes, must likewise have been a formidable protector of the flame. For that seems to be the position into which the painter’s self-belief and self-pity coerced the few women who got genuinely close to him – the most recent recruit being his biographer. Her first volume was dedicated, as a matter of almost sisterly rapport, to the memory of Amélie Matisse, who staunchly hoisted up Henri through early poverty and obscurity to the social plateau he somewhat uncomfortably occupies during the second volume. In this later phase, however, Amélie is literally out of the picture, marginal in her relation to Henri’s art. Instead, the nearest thing we get to an authorial spy, attempting to steal in on the site of creation, is Olga Meerson.

Olga is one of those walk-on characters who do wonders for a biography’s vivacity: an exceptionally talented Russian Jewish painter who more or less throws herself at Matisse’s feet after he opens a short-lived painting school in Paris in 1909. He instinctually rebuffs her – Spurling quotes Mondrian’s motto: ‘A drop of sperm spilled is a masterpiece lost’ – but she is insistent, beautiful, dot, dot, dot. Ellipses punctuate the evidence itself. Whatever exactly occurs, the consequences are spelled out as consignment to a drug rehab clinic for Meerson, for the Matisses an early but ominous rockfall in the slow erosion of their marriage – and for Spurling a chance for once to turn over the paint-brushes to female hands, handing the dust jacket image to Meerson’s uniquely tender portrait of ‘the master’ at ease. But all this is finished with a quarter of the way through the book.

The two succeeding contenders who attempt to divine the heart of Matisse are male intellectuals, an Oxonian Byzantinist named Matthew Prichard, who encourages the ‘hieratic’ direction of his work during the early 1910s and, during the 1920s, Prichard’s smart but unreliable pupil Georges Duthuit, pursuing a similar line of interpretation and also the hand of Marguerite Matisse. Duthuit’s quick betrayal of this marriage no doubt confirmed her father’s resolute suspicion of anyone who would seek too closely to unravel him.

So how does Spurling herself fare, as an unraveller of the art? You may, like me, have problems with the fulsomeness.

The charming, lively, funny girl captured so effortlessly in Matisse’s drawings disappeared behind masklike features with black voids for eyes and hornlike protuberances arching from her browbone. Her neck became a fluted column, her body a lacy carapace or shell in soft, steely greys and black enlivened by flickers of pink and turquoise against a delicately painted background of dark, feathery brushstrokes.

It’s not like that! I don’t want Mlle Yvonne Landsberg’s spine-tingling blast of alienation served up as if it were a spécialité du jour on a menu. I even want to object that while the mini-histories implicit in ‘disappeared’ and ‘became’ may be fair game when it comes to analysing a piece of prose, they push against the grain of an art that is so uncompromisingly confrontational, jolting the viewer into its own anti-time. The cussed painter in me yearns for a space that’s sacrosanct from paraphrases and narratives, and feels that Matisse’s major canvases of the 1900s and 1910s are the proof of it.

And yet it is like that. In publications such as ‘Notes of a Painter’, Matisse himself was repeatedly at pains to explain his chains of visual reasoning, and what Spurling writes here is essentially in line with that effort and indeed verifiably accurate. So are her interpretations in general: never too far from plausible, very often precise and informative. Even her larger jumps are probably worth attempting. When she describes the decorative canvases of 1912 as ‘powerfully absorbent, drawing the viewer into an enfolding element, like air or water, which seems to be the medium of Matisse’s mind’, she is in effect giving voice to the type of experience I want to hold out for. When she jangles ‘the demon that looked out of Yvonne Landsberg’s blank black eyes’ against the date of this canvas – the fatal summer of 1914 – only a fool would claim he could trace the exact historical wiring paths that connected A to B, but only the most pedantic reductionist would wish to deny there was any wiring system at all.

The relation, or lack of it, between the art and the times is inevitably one of the author’s and her subject’s recurring worries. Spurling is very sure-footed in her evocation of the historical context, and her book could be usefully plumbed for material not only on the summer of 1914 – the funnel through which every biography of the period has to squeeze – but on the subtle and inexorable shift of cultural power from France to America, or the strange, transnational demi-monde of Nice between the wars. Perhaps it was with Matisse’s decision to plunge into that fantastical, almost postmodern environment – ‘fake, absurd, amazing, delicious’, in his own words – that he staked out his territory of intransigent resistance to interpretation, rather than during the fiercely reasoned high Modernism of the 1910s. Little of what Spurling has to plead in defence of the easy on the eye, critically slighted ‘pretty girls in brightly coloured interiors with frilly curtains and sun pouring through the window’ really sticks, not that she is by any means alone in this regard – she reports the artist himself stumbling to produce a rationale for them. The transition from grand decorations to an equally fervent vapidity leaves everyone at a loss for words, though not necessarily uncomfortable. Perhaps certain mild pleasures really do remain immune to commentary. Critics and artistic followers alike are far more comfortable turning their heads towards the final, exultant return to abstract values demonstrated in the paper cut-outs and the project at Vence – ‘the conquest of colour’ indeed.

The less said, the better. That is hardly a tenable position for a book reviewer to end up with, let alone a professional biographer, and it goes against Matisse’s habit of believing himself misunderstood and in need of vindication. But what he said and thought that he wanted is not necessarily the same as the kind of space his art, with all its thumping radiance, requires for its strangeness to breathe. I’ll keep this volume half open, with a tube of cadmium red wedged and leaking between its pages.