- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005



By Hilary Spurling

Knopf, $40, 509 pages, illus.


Interactive gestures of the microcosmandthe macrocosm occur around the corner from direct observation. Still, there have been artists who brought those hidden contours within sight-range. Henri Matisse, for one, encapsulated the easy motions of the starry constellations in his sexily restful odalisques.

Matisse was either the very greatest or the second greatest artist of the entire 20th century. Unlike his only rival, Pablo Picasso, Matisse was no painterly prestidigitator. He didn’t make contours and colors appear or disappear. Instead, he allowed them to happen as it were, of their own accord in their own personally rippling, erotic rhythms, like garden blooms. His genius gave such ephemeral happenings relative permanence as works of art.

Upon his death in 1954, aged 85, a peculiar sort of sorcery died out of art itself. Looking back over his oeuvre, it’s a mountain range which reaches ecstatic, unassailable, snowy heights of voluptuary calm, purity and levity. But how? And at what personal cost? Tons of publications concerning Matisse have treated the art (which is in fact almost totally resistant to analysis) rather than the man himself. So I thought we might never know.

Now comes Hilary Spurling’s truly great biography to fill the gap in human knowledge of this magnificent, gift-bringing genius. She amply demonstrates that he proved to be an abject failure, time and time again, who never let failure defeat him. Also, he was a rock-stubborn person of intense conscience, subject to terribly debilitating storms of emotion. Matisse kept on tormenting himself and he brought down inadvertent misery upon others, all in the service of ideal art. I’ve never read a more detailed, convincing and profoundly moving account of personal self-sacrifice to a noble cause.

For the record, the book under review is actually volume two of Ms. Spurling’s masterpiece. “The Unknown Matisse: The Early Years 1869-1908” was published in 1998. Whoever cares for the subject should peruse that book as well. It’s even more thorough than the book at hand. Sadly, I must report that this one trails off towards the end, even failing to illustrate Matisse’s final and — from my viewpoint — supreme effort: the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence.

But Ms. Spurling’s personal research has been vast, heroic to say the least. On top of that, her sympathetic nature and sense of fair play never once falter. Some heavyweight biogaphers nowadays weary of, and may even grow to despise, their own subjects. Not Ms. Spurling. Her warm, womanly sensibility embraces Matisse’s family, friends, students, models and patrons, along with the artist himself.

This having been said, I personally cannot in good conscience accept her insistent contention that Matisse was invariably abstemious with regard to his models. I’m not saying that they were “sex slaves” and Matisse their imponderable pasha, merely that they were irresistibly attractive and he was only human. In the male, at least, biological pressures prevail. My own sense is that Matisse, the artist, constantly strove to evoke — not prurient excitement — but instead the healthy peaceful, post-orgasm state of love and joy, through his work.

What about the much-discussed rivalry between Matisse and Picasso? They actually became good friends toward the end. Picasso was brooding, gritty, witty, endlessly inventive and explicit, whereas Matisse worked pretty much by instinct and played his violin for relaxation. The two remind me of the New England poet Robert Frost and his rival Wallace Stevens. Their personalities differed broadly, but those seemingly opposed poets were equally proud and lonely people, whose works tremble with intuitions and ripple with inspirations. Witness these lines from Stevens: “I do not know which to prefer. / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes. / The Blackbird whistling, / Or just after.”

I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of Pablo Picasso’s inflections or the beauty of Henri Matisse’s innuendoes. But I am indeed aware of the blackbird’s call and the “just after” silence. If silence is the ground of musical sound; empty space is the ground of figurative art and dance. As for Matisse, his conscious effort was to generate what he himself called — “A soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

However, his mastery was no comfy leather armchair for himself; more like a bed of nails. Now, thanks to this nakedly revealing and yet superbly sympathetic biography, we know the human struggle and suffering involved in Matisse’s radiant lifetime achievement. As Ms. Spurling notes: “He told his daughter that any artist who managed to stay sane found himself blundering about in a maze, with a concealed exit in the ceiling that never opened except on moonless nights. ‘The little stump of a candle left by the memory of his predecessors casts no light on the way ahead, only on what lies behind. The artist is so made that he can’t go back without giving himself up for dead. He must go forward in whatever direction his efforts may carry him — for every generation the ground behind you is quicksand.’”

At Nice, way back in 1949, I phoned Matisse’s number and asked if he were willing to be interviewed for Time magazine. The old and ailing genius responded cordially. “Mais oui,” he said at once. “My son Pierre has sent me some of your reviews. Come right over. I have an urgent message to make public.” Matisse got right to the point. Thanks to an unaccountable increase in human laziness, he said, the whole future of painting hung in the balance. Young artists ought to work much harder — and learn to draw.”

Matisse had recently capped his career by creating a portfolio of colored-paper cutouts called “Jazz.” My favorite among them was an intently concise coda to Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century “The Fall of Icarus.” He did more than one of these. The version to which I refer is far superior to the one illustrated in this book. It frames starkly in upon a burnt-out cinder person — a black, red-hearted, birdlike man in free-fall. The image suggests one’s own shadow careening floppily down upon oneself through sunstruck cobalt sky. Or might this actually constitute a self-portrait by the terminally ill artist?

Reaching to the bedside table, Matisse held up his small scissors and colored papers: “Michelangelo carved stone; I carve color… . One’s best work ought rightly to come last. I’ll soon surpass myself in the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, which I’m designing for my friends, the dear nuns there.” I said nothing, and Matisse instantly read my bewildered look: “You’re struck dumb, astonished, and rightly so. Why do I, of all people, yearn to create a convent chapel? Why should a pagan wild beast like me dream of doing something so religious?” He watched me cast about for an evasive reply. Then he said: “Never mind. You’ll come to understand the matter very well, but only in your own good time.”

A year after Matisse died, I returned to test what he had prophesied regarding the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary at Vence. Would I “understand the matter very well,” as he’d promised? In truth I was overwhelmed. The whole Chapel had called for tremendous effort of a heartfelt sort. There were many false starts over the years. Financing came from the artist’s own pocket and he made a full-out sacrifice of whatever strength remained in his invalid frame.

When the nuns in charge of this final, purest, masterpiece asked Matisse if he’d allow them to inter his body there, he felt utterly devastated. He’d never dreamed of anything so prosaic as building his own mausoleum. The Chapel is spirit, space and colors, not death and stones. Matisse’s simple grave rests on a hillside donated by the city of Nice. It’s a stone slab carved by his son Jean, under three trees. Namely, an olive, a fig and a wild bay which grew up out of the ground all by itself — half a century after his burial.

Alexander Eliot is a former art editor of Time magazine who has written widely on classical subjects, travel and cultural affairs.

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