18 April 2010


"Aragon set to work at once on an essay which he secretly hoped would grow into a book, delivering his text as he wrote it a few pages at a time and discussing each fresh batch with Matisse, who returned his visitor's scrutiny with interest ("He, whose portraits I thought I was drawing, had started to draw mine"). Matisse made nearly three dozen  portrait sketches of Aragon: "The pencil flies over the great sheet of paper fast, as fast as possible, as if it were trying to beat a record..... Matisse does not for one moment glance down at his hand". The sitter did not care for the results at first, claiming they looked nothing like him. Matisse had drawn an invincibly confident interrogator -- debonair, fresh-faced, unmistakably boyish -- when his subject was in fact fort-four year old, then to the point of malnutrition like practically everyone in wartime France, permanently anxious about friends missing or murdered by the Gastopo, and harrowed by thoughts of his own mother, who lay dying far away in the Lot. It took time for Aragon to recognize anything of himself in these drawings, longer still to realize that they captured not one "but thirty of my different selves," and longest of all to acknowledge that Matisse's humorous, glancing, gliding, inimitably casual line had penetrated him to the core.

"Painter and poet were haunted that spring by phantoms neither mentioned and both pretended not to see. Aragon, whose mother died on 2 March, returned to Nice after the funeral to find her ghostly presence looking back at him from Matisse's latest drawing, wearing precisely the expression she had worn on her deathbed. ("I have exactly my mother's mouth, not my own, the mouth of my mother Matisse had never seen"). His own heightened sensitivity made him aware of another spectral comparison, unseen but palpable, a sinister "character called Pain" who lurked in the painter's shadow, goading and jabbing, sometimes retreating to the doorway with a sardonic yawn but always ready to pounce and reclaim his victim. Matisse was often white and withdrawn, wincing from something worse than routine discomfort (which he complained about only occasionally in letters to his daughter). A crisis at the end of march -- fever, dizziness, palpitations -- left him too weak to hold a pencil. He caught pleurisy, and had trouble with his ears. Aragon said he never looked well again. The Preface was completed in late April, a month before Aragon was forced to flee Nice with Elsa, taking a portrait drawing as a present ("I made off with it like a thief", he wrote, "I had the feeling I was dismantling the Louvre") Matisse, who had almost completed the thirty lithographs he planned to accompany Ronsard's poems, was looking forward to two months in Geneva in the summer, overseeing the printing with Skira. "But I felt uneasy," wrote Aragon. "The stranger sneering in the shadows"

Matisse, the Master, Hilary Spurling

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