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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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).