The life of Henri Matisse is replete with pivotal moments: turning points so extraordinary, you scarcely believe they’re true. The artist didn’t even so much as pick up a brush until he was 21, when his mother gave him a paintbox as a distraction while he lay in bed with appendicitis and what was probably depression. Years later, in Collioure in south-west France, where he spent the summer of 1905, he and his young friend André Derain together turned art upside down. Boom! It was there that Matisse learned that colour was like dynamite: light its fuse, and 500 years of tradition could go up in smoke.
But one of these climacterics – the one that most appeals to me – was quieter, more domestic in nature. In 1898, Matisse met Amélie Parayre, a free-thinking young woman whom he loved intensely, and who would support him through the leanest years of his career (and God knows, there were plenty of those). Their marriage would not last – she ended it after 41 years, in 1939, when he became involved with his Russian assistant and model, Lydia Delectorskaya – but while it did, it was from her side passionately sympathetic. Others could laugh at her “childish smearer”, but she never would. Their wedding, then, was another crossroad for Matisse, and he seems to have known it. Soon afterwards, he wrote in his diary: “Vive la Liberté!” This is love, I think: freedom, not confinement.
Sophie Matisse is the artist’s great-granddaughter, and in her dextrous film about his early life, she put his family centre stage: Amélie and their three children, Marguerite (Matisse’s from an earlier relationship), Jean and Pierre. In 1903, when life was more than usually difficult for the Matisses (Amélie’s father had recently been imprisoned following the disappearance of his fraudster employers), it was Marguerite, as well as her mother, who scrubbed clean several of her father’s canvasses, erasing forever the conventional still-lifes he’d hoped to sell, the family being desperately in need of cash. Matisse later dated his “emancipation” as an artist from that day. “Let the stories of the wives be told!” said Sophie, at one point – or words to that effect. Unfortunately, her documentary concluded only in 1905, soon after Matisse exhibited at a Paris salon his famous portrait of Amélie in a hat, a painting that brought on a fresh bout of jeering from both the art world and the public (a turquoise nose? an orange neck?). We never got to find out how Amélie felt, ultimately, about the sustenance she provided for so long, whether it caused her to lose something of herself.
Nevertheless, Becoming Matisse (25 April, 9.15pm) was a tonic. Our galleries are closed; there is little possibility that we will be able to travel anywhere at all in the near future, let alone to the warm places on Matisse’s map (Corsica, St Tropez). Watching it, my nostrils seemed to fill with the scent of Ambre Solaire; at points, I closed my eyes as if against the sun. There are a thousand things you can say about Matisse: here, his biographer, Hilary Spurling, described him as “a man of ruthless purpose”; his first tutor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris had him down as “sournois” (sly, sneaky). He was certainly a revolutionary; he was always reinventing himself; he had great pluck. But in the end, as his great-grand-daughter showed by means of a series of animations – the best of these brought to life the birds his grain store-owning parents kept at their home in Bohain, in flat, grey northern France – and some well-chosen readings from his diaries and letters, Matisse’s work has mostly to do with joy, with ecstasy, with release. Here is art that transcends the darkness. Here, always, is colour.
These are difficult days. We’re anxious and full of longing; it’s as if we are absent from our own lives. When Sophie Matisse, an artist herself, began work on this project, she could never have known what lay ahead; in what kind of world it would eventually be seen. But still, what timing. I experienced Becoming Matisse as a balm, an unexpected blessing. The blue sea. The green trees. The yellow sun. A window was briefly flung open, and I was so happy to lean out of it and take in the air.
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave