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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