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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: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

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West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

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West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

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Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)