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Henri Matisse: the hand that takes you for a ride

When he started “drawing with scissors”, Matisse found a whole new way to overthrow the habitual.

Matisse at home in Nice, 1948. Photo: Time & Life/Getty

 

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Tate Modern, London SE1

 

In April and May 1952, Matisse gave an interview to the French artist André Verdet in which he sank the reputation of Ambroise Vollard, Picasso’s dealer, with a series of lethal conversational strikes. One Exocet after another. “This Vollard was a cunning fellow, a gambler, and he had a flair . . . for business,” he said. “Cézanne, moreover, had judged him: ‘Vollard is a ‘slave-trader.’ ” He “ate like a pig”, Matisse adds, and tells how the chiselling Vollard cheated Gauguin and Valtat.

This character assassination sits oddly with the serene Matisse of the celebrated Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph in which the artist, in kaftan and oriental turban, holds a dove in one hand like an ice-cream cornet while he draws it with the other. He knew the power of gossip. In 1935, he publicly corrected the misrepresentations of himself in Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. He felt his reputation as an artist was undermined by the unchallenged, bitchy on dit that he might be a great artist but he was an even greater bore – a damaging caricature put about by the wife and daughter of his old painter friend Simon Bussy. (They were related to Lytton Strachey, which explains a lot.) His public verdicts on other artists were bland and politic, but in private, as the shocked, young André Masson discovered, his asperity was unsparing.

In the same Verdet interview, Matisse points to the afterlife of art, what survives of the artist even if his life was short, like Raphael’s, Gauguin’s, Seurat’s, Van Gogh’s: “These people expressed themselves completely . . . an artist must therefore express himself totally from the beginning.” Totally. Matisse was a complex figure, a touchy, irascible person, who swore under his breath as he worked. When his estranged wife, Amélie – they separated in 1939 after 42 years of marriage – was arrested by the Gestapo, the exasperated Matisse said: “That woman will do anything to stop me painting.” His personal affairs were tangled and messy: ten days after she was sacked by Madame Matisse, his model, assistant and companion, the beautiful and indispensable Lydia Delectorskaya, shot herself. The bullet lodged against her breastbone. She fired a further test shot out of the window but her courage failed when it came to turning the pistol on herself again.

None of this gets into his art. Its calm remains unruffled. Its interest in beautiful nude women remains steady and passionately dispassionate. And yet in 1940, Matisse contracted duodenal cancer, a colostomy was performed and his colon removed. His abdominal muscles were damaged and he was thereafter semi-bedridden or in a wheelchair. The work appears to be in the best, rudest health. Here is a parakeet – a slub of blue like a tadpole, or punctuation, a fat inverted comma. The parakeet is opposite a mermaid – her blue body one beautiful distortion like a Rorschach blot of Parker’s Quink created by refraction underwater.

His politics were peripheral in life and absent from his art. Picasso, on the other hand, joined the Communist Party after the war and painted the politically committed Guernica, tellingly a quasi-newsprint collage in black and white, whose mega-kitsch continues to take the art world by storm. We may not know much about art but we know what we like. We like to agree with our art.

But Matisse’s art, the argument runs, is merely agreeable. Clive Bell is an accurate representative of the consensus: “The painting of Matisse is a pure and simple delight”, whereas Picasso “requires intellectual effort”. During the First World War, T S Eliot was criticised for failing to confront the issues of the day. (The same insistence damaged Tennyson as a poet, whose lyric talent and gift for melancholy were skewed by the coercive Victorian requirement to address important issues, such as women’s education, in The Princess.) E M Forster in Abinger Harvest acquitted Eliot: “He who could turn aside to complain of ladies and drawing-rooms preserved a tiny drop of our self-respect, he carried on the human heritage.”

Moreover, the pictures are not always unmitigated sunshine. We feel we know these cut-outs from reproduction but the actual works can surprise us. There are four of the famous blue nudes here. (Not The Head of Hair, the most beautiful, with the uptilted breasts to the fore and a trail of hair and ribbons behind like a force field. Also missing are the frolicsome Swimming Pool; the huge Josephine Baker figure in the grass skirt, The Negress; and Polynesia: the Sky.) Of the four blue nudes on show, resembling linocuts more than drawings, number IV is the most interesting. The colour of the other three is solid and flat. Number IV varies in colour. It was actually the first of the sequence to be made and is shown first here. Which is wrong – though on the face of it a reasonable hanging decision. The white background is a mass of rubbed-out pencil or charcoal. Each limb shows overlap, repair, correction, patching. We can see folds in the paper. And then it dawns on us. This is a reconstruction from a broken body. Here it is being pieced together, beautiful and mortal. That is why Matisse makes it number IV, not the number one it actually was.

Quite often, Matisse reinterprets the shape after it is made. For example, he has a shape in Two Dancers (1937-38) which becomes a falling figure, falling on its backside, in The Toboggan (part of his book of cut-outs, Jazz). The title Jazz was his publisher’s idea, accepted readily by Matisse who liked the implication of improvisation. His art is one of improvisation, of invention and change. Blue Nude IV may have been the first, trial piece, but by placing it last, Matisse made it mean something else entirely – frailty, disintegration, his operation and survival, his bowel reconstruction, abstracted and viewed sub specie aeternitatis.

Small Dancer on a Red Background (1937-38)

Découpage. Cut-outs. A new, brilliant way of drawing. Matisse frequently quoted Toulouse-Lautrec’s exclamation “At last I don’t know how to draw”, by which he meant the escape from convention and conformity. Compare Cy Twombly: when he was a serving soldier in the US army code-breaking division, he practised drawing in the dark, to unlearn the techniques he had acquired in art school. Matisse, too, was committed to the overthrow of the habitual – and practised his own form of automatic drawing to counter a different form of automism.

Louis Aragon left his record of being drawn by Matisse – who never looked down at his hand but fixed on Aragon’s face as he dashed off dozens of drawings. Aragon was amazed to find that, in one drawing, Matisse had exactly reproduced Aragon’s mother’s mouth, quite unlike his own. (This, I suspect, is Aragon appropriating and adapting Matisse’s Picardy epiphany: Matisse was waiting for a telephone call in the post office, thinking about his mother, whom he drew on a telegraph form without thinking.)

Equally, when Matisse was working on Dessins: Thèmes et variations (1943), to a text by Aragon, he often only glanced at his subject from time to time. Either way, the intention is to be spontaneous, to escape the academic. As he said: “Je suis conduit, je ne conduit pas.” His hand took him for a ride. Which is why the drawings sometimes seem negligent, mistaken in their proportions, swollen, etiolated – convincing and fresh.

To discover a way of drawing so radically new as découpage is an end-stopped feat. It is as inimitable as Alexander Calder’s great, comic ink drawings, which crucially derive from his wire sculptures. These circus scenes and portraits (of himself, of Klaus Perls, of Sartre, of his wife, Louisa) are great labours of simplification. Both are essentially unrepeatable. Matisse and Calder share a fondness for the circus, but a glance at Matisse’s sword-swallower (three at a time) and Calder’s sword-swallower shows the originality of each artist’s invented technique – a technique so original it is impossible to follow without looking derivative. So the followers come much later: in Calder’s case, Louise Bourgeois, whose art is freed by Calder. In Matisse’s case, Alex Liberman’s torn, brilliantly careless design layouts for Vogue and Vladimir Sulyagin’s collage portraits (of Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, of the Russian literary pantheon), which are appealing but uninspired, workmanlike and, if not laboured, a little deliberate.

The downside of Matisse’s cut-outs is repetition. Three of the four blue nudes, for instance, are essentially the same pose, redrawn, re-scissored. Matisse said that artists would be judged by the number of fresh signs they invented. There are 14 rooms in this exhibition. Although you begin by applauding the invention, you end at once pleasured and sated. Take Matisse’s foliage. Each algae-like frond is necessarily individual, an unpatterned pattern, reproducing the effect of actual leaves – each identical, but differently hung, seen from different angles, altered by the breeze. Finally, though, they begin to feel like pieces in a jigsaw, varied but not that varied. As Georges Perec pointed out in Life: a User’s Manual, there are only three basic jigsaw shapes – little chaps, double crosses and crossbars.

The Bees (summer 1948)

On the other hand, there are Matisse miracles here, some of them surprising. The book designs (for Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, for Alfred Barr’s Matisse: His Art and His Public) are all super-competent, but his white-and-blue “Apollinaire”, using only letters and Matisse’s initials, is a design of genius. In his cut-out designs for the Chapel at Vence, we see The Bees, a composition that isn’t strictly speaking a cut-out at all, because it assembles squares. The bees – two continuous arcs, trajectories that suggest flight – are made up of two black squares for the body, and either three white squares for the wings, a pair and a single, or four white squares. The economy here is breathtaking – particularly as the bees are also nuns seen from above in their habits. The other squares of colour are flowers, yellow, red, blue and beige-pink, with the pollen yellow dominant. You only realise after a time that the fecundity forms a radiating fan shape.

Matisse’s Snail is another anomaly – not a cut-out but an arrangement of squares and torn squares. Like The Bees, the composition is essentially cubist, the blocks of colour correcting the curve of the shell. It is as far away from an actual snail as it is possible to be, so the great shock of its counterintuitive resemblance never loses its charge, that great voltage of recognition, as the spark leaps from the concept to the actual.

Venus (1952)

 

For me, the masterpiece of this show, first equal with Blue Nude IV, is Venus (1952). The blue background provides the outline of the white body, which alludes to the Venus de Milo. She is armless and archetypal and as brilliant as the Picasso bull constructed from the handle-bars and seat of a bicycle cast in bronze. Not constructed. Conjured. Venus is statuesque: out of the empty white space Matisse gives us marble and volume. And the exact breadth of the pelvis in its perfect white width.

T S Eliot, writing about scansion and metre, said that neither would explain “the inexplicable line with the music which can never be captured in other words”. Matisse’s Venus is asymmetric, its truncated arms also its breasts. It is almost awkward, yet a thing of great beauty. A single singing note. It is the inspiration behind Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant but it surpasses both the Quinn and the great antique icon it derives from itself.

Clive Bell was right – this Matisse requires no intellectual effort, any more than falling in love does. Which is what you do.

“Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs” is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until 7 September

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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