21 October 2021

Marguerite Matisse and bombs pour le dîner


Here is a marvellous portrait by Matisse which I have always loved. Painted in 1951 it was one of the very last portraits he made before his transition to scissors. It looks like it could have been painted quickly, maybe in one or two sessions at most. 

Despite lacking any facial features, it feels expressive in a complete way, similar perhaps to how we can experience antique Greek statues which have lost many of their features. Where there is unity, there is timelessness. But for just that reason, and because it is a painting, it may not be a favourite of the public. Was he aware that he was saying goodbye to a whole way of life, one full of worldly activity and recognition? Could he know that he would soon become infirm and henceforth confined to his small but sunny bedroom in Nice? He died in 1954, just a few years after painting this portrait but only after a prolific love affair with a pair of scissors while trapped in his home.

A few years ago I read the wonderful biography of Henri Matisse by Hillary Spurling. It is comprised  of two volumes; Matisse the Unknown, and Matisse the Master, I highly recommend them both. In these generous books she opens up the stately doors of a conservative 19th century France allowing us to meander freely throughout its transition into a modern age where art played a pivotal role. 

People forget how mocked and disparaged Matisse was for much of his early career. Another great painter suffered the same fate; Paul Cézanne. So when I wanted to throw a bomb into a boring dinner party in France I would accuse:

"France really hates painters." "Vous detestez les peintres!"

The table would go silent, then I would invariably need to develop my argument by proving it with examples. Essentially, the French love ideas way too much to appreciate Painting! Ha Ha.. They are intellectuals after all, and logic, verbal and literary communication are paramount for its cultural prestige. If it weren't for the Americans (I point out) who came over after the first World War with buckets of cash, along with their quaint curiosity, nobody would have looked at Matisse or Picasso. Thus went some of my argument etc, etc... 

The British love Painting (I do go on), as do the Dutch and the Danes, the Belgians, and the Germans too, though both latter nations are equally mad about Contemporary Conceptual Art. The French, on the other hand, are mad for literature and poetry. They adore contemporary architecture and cool opera. But more than anything, they use wordplay to convey an emotional state through an idea. And conversation skills are a must in France, especially so in Paris!! Their passion is really for ideas which is why they are more at home with Conceptual Art, far more than with paintings which cut through ideas. They love Robert Wilson not Robert Johnson. But I won't try to convince anyone here of all this, not now anyway.

These bombs were always fun for me, and it was often done in French which naturally added its own drama. My success was usually dependant upon just how much or little wine I had consumed during the meal.  

But this is an idea I still believe more than ever, even today, so many years later. Unlike Americans, the French, though they are eloquent speakers, are just never comfortable expressing feelings about themselves, except in French cinema and books of course. Their passion hides behind their reserve. La pudeur is a fine and sophisticated quality which the French possess in boatloads unlike us Americans. Their passions are for ideas, ideals! And we all love and cherish them for this.

My favourite Matisse portrait is one he painted of his daughter Marguerite among many he made. This one is in Paris at the Musée Picasso though I could swear that I have seen it at the Musée de Grenoble too. It was painted between 1906-7. It is so simply done that it takes my breath away. Its colour harmony is simple, just like the drawing. For me, it is just the feeling of it which keeps me looking with astonishment. It has an almost primitive kind of expression as if it were done on a farm somewhere in rural France by an amateur painter. This is perhaps why I like it so much; its complete lack of pretension. In fact, Matisse, unlike so many painters, was without pretence.  

Marguerite was in the Resistance during the war when she was tortured by the Gestapo. She was very lucky to live through it. She was always painted with a ribbon or scarf around her neck to hide a scar from the tracheotomy she had endured early in childhood. This portrait was done almost fifty years before the one above.

Matisse made a remarkable voyage of his life. 

1 comment: