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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

ahisgett - Flickr
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis