Monday, June 4, 2012


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Galleries In Paris, the superb new Matisse show astonishes Richard Cork with its revelatory scope.

(The Times. February 6, 1)

Dour, driven and professorial in bearing, Matisse peers out sternly from the darkness at the start of his great Paris exhibition. Impeccably displayed at the Pompidou Centre, this revelatory show differs from its acclaimed New York predecessor by focusing on his exceptional achievement between 104 and 117. They were his finest years, the period when he irradiated modern painting with a revolutionary vision of colour at its most blazing and sensuous. But in this early self-portrait he looks earnest, almost puritanical � a man encircled by shadows and beset with anxiety.

Part of the strain conveyed by Matisses frowning features may have stemmed from a suspicion that time was against him. At the beginning of 104 he was little-known, already approaching his 5th birthday and short of money. The allowance from his father had ended three years before, forcing his wife to open a millinery shop. But Vollard, one of the most respected avant-garde dealers in Paris, was about to give Matisse his first one-man show. He probably hoped that success was at last within reach, and the paintings produced at St Tropez in the summer sound a new note of unalloyed rapture.

Outstanding among them is Luxe, calrne et volupt�, an idyllic canvas entitled after a line from Baudelaire.. Female nudes recline and dry themselves on a seashore speckled with dabs of high-keyed colour. The debt to the optical dazzle of Pointillism is clear. And Signac, who had a villa at St Tropez, liked the painting sufficiently to buy it for 500 francs. All the same, the particles of pigment in Luxe, calrne et volupt� were larger and more outspoken than anything Signac himself would have dared to produce.

By 105, Matisse had become notorious. Along with younger friends like Vlaminck and Derain, he provoked a furore at the Salon dAutomne with canvases so vehement in feeling that the group was nicknamed les fauves. Nobody less like a wild beast than the meditative Matisse could be imagined. But the paintings he produced in the summer, at the Mediterranean port of Collioure, were certainly unbridled. The quay-side becomes blood-red, and even inside his studio the doors opening out of the boat-bristling harbour burn with impetuously applied strokes of orange and scarlet.

Although Matisses mood was ecstatic, he remained judicious enough to ensure that his art never became merely strident. Walking through the cool white rooms of the Pompidous spaciously hung survey, I soon began to realise that he had achieved an astonishing fusion of the headlong and the sparing, the rapturous and the analytical. Derain, whose moustachioed face he painted with the aid of violent blue and green shadows, was brash compared with Matisse. At once discerning and hot-headed, he arrived during these years at a marvellously sustained union of the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. His 106 masterpiece Joy of Life remains at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, unavailable for loan, but other key canvases have been borrowed from major collections in St Petersburg, Moscow, New York and Copenhagen to show Matisses flowering at full strength.

Picasso, with whom he exchanged paintings in 107, must have acted as an additional spur. For the Spaniard was working on Les Demoiselles dAvignon at the time. These were the years when 0th-century art defined its most radical identity. And as if in response to Picassos challenge, Matisse embarked in 108 on an annus mirabilis of his own.

The year commenced with a burnished Nude in Black and Gold, as darkly sensual as Gauguin but bounded by thick contours handled with a new roughness. Making sculpture helped him to give this figure greater solidity, and in a strange painting of naked bathers staring at a turtle Matisse gave their forms a statuesque presence. But he was equally bent on pursuing flatness of surface, in order to emancipate colour still more fully.

The prodigious Harmony in Red marks the moment when he took the risk of uniting the dinner-table and the wall behind in a single field of warm red pigment. Its richness saturates the canvas. But Matisse animates the image by flaunting the patterns on table-cloth and wallpaper alike, allowing their deep blue arabesques to arch and wave across the composition like fantastic underwater plant-life. The redness also acts as a wonderful foil for the lemons scattered over the table-top.

They are echoed, outside the window, by yellow flowers in the burgeoning, blossom-heavy garden. The bands of blue and green evoking sky and grass ought, by rights, to conflict with the exuberant orchestration within. But they introduce a necessary tension instead, preventing Matisse from flooding the entire picture-surface with an all-over redness which might finally have become cloying and oppressive.

This ability to toughen his instinctive hedonism with pictorial rigour becomes more and more formidable as the exhibition proceeds. The two versions of Matisses dithyrambic decoration, Dance, are brought together to disclose exactly how he revised, criticised and transformed the whole image. Having been commissioned to paint this immense tour de force by his most generous and enlightened patron, the Moscow merchant Sergei Shchukin, he executed a full-size first version which looks vivacious enough when seen on its own. Here, however, Dance I appears surprisingly feeble pitched against the overwhelming finality of the second version. The pale pink figures seem tentative and slack as they prance in a circle on a blue-green ground which might have been inspired by the garden in Harmony in Red. Matisse was surely right to regard it as a study rather than a fully convincing achievement.

Almost a year later, at the end of 10, he started again. And this time, the dancers really do persuade us that they are caught up in a wild, intoxicating ritual. Suffused now with a raw yet incandescent vermilion, the five figures are far more crisply articulated than their forerunners. Athletic as well as orgiastic, they grasp each others hands with greater forcefulness. Even the two dancers whose fingers fail to meet nearly succeed in doing so, giving this area a tantalising tension. And Matisse has charged all the bodies with a coiled vigour.

But if Dance II demonstrated his mastery of dynamic figure painting, Matisse could command stillness with equal potency. The man and woman in Conversation seem spellbound as they confront one another across a deep blue divide. He is bull-necked, upright and menacing, she leans back in her chair, blanched and questioning. The tense, melancholy air shows that Matisses emotional range extended far beyond the expression of well-being.

Matisses Moroccan visits only intensified his preoccupation with blueness, uniting the interior of Window in Tangier with the hallucinatory colour washing the landscape beyond. By the time war broke out, blue had turned to black. In the uncompromising Open Window, Collioure, half the picture is given over to impenetrable darkness. This severity may surprise those who think of him as a lyrical, celebratory artist. He was capable of formidable discipline, and his understanding of restraint helped him to arrive at the magisterial gravitas of great wartime canvases like The Piano Lesson and The Moroccans. Lessons learnt from Cubism permit him to attain near-abstract austerity.

All the same, sensuous allure keeps breaking in even now. Nothing in the survey is more captivating than a little study of his Italian model Laurette seated in a green robe. Matisse savoured the pleasure principle too eagerly to banish it for ever, and after the war he would pursue Mediterranean fulfilment with the ardour of a man who had been starved of southern light and heat for too long.

This outstanding show proves, however, that he had already reached the peak of his complex abilities while based in northern France. During that period, no finer painter was at work anywhere in the world, and no exhibition could do more enthralling justice to the art he produced during this fertile, audacious and above all heroic period.

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