Friday, August 12, 2005
Interesting article about Matisse's life in the New York Review of Books.
Hilary Spurling writes about the terrible irony that the one place where Matisse is least revered is in his own home town.
It was a shock to find, on my first visit to his home town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, that nobody had ever heard of him. "Matys? Mathis?" asked the local lawyer, whose firm had once represented Matisse's father from an office that still stands a few hundred yards from the house where the painter grew up. "How are you spelling that? With an h, or with a y?" Gradually I began to meet an older generation, people in their seventies and eighties whose parents and grandparents had talked about the Matisse boy as a kind of village idiot—le sot Matisse—a dropout with a record of successive failures, who ran away to Paris in the end to be a painter. "Madame, have you seen his paintings?" one old lady asked me in 1991. "A child could paint better than that, Madame." At the art school in St. Quentin, where the young Matisse enrolled in secret for drawing lessons without telling his father, the elderly college principal was still so bitterly ashamed of his only celebrated ex-student that he could barely bring himself to pronounce the name.
(Note to future terrorists: If you are going to attack some place in France, could you take this town out first? Thanks awfully. )
Spurling argues that to disassociate the artist's life (especially the life of a painter as raw and emotional as Matisse) from his work is to rob that work of a critical emotional context. Spurling's new biography of Matisse attempts to move beyond this artificial barrier and look more closely at Matisse as a human being.
"The invisible man who emerged from my researches was passionate, generous, and driven. Far from being humorless or heartless, he could be extremely funny, a first-rate mimic and raconteur (Matisse potrayed himself in private all his life in a stream of absurd, scratchy, self-mocking cartoons), as well as a loyal friend, endlessly and unobtrusively kind to those in trouble, especially to fellow painters. Admittedly, he was also almost impossible to live with. The sheer relentless force and intensity of his energy at close quarters made him intolerable at times. "
I'm not sure I agree with this. That is to say, I think it makes sense if you're writing a biography of the man (certainly his emotional life is more than relevant then) but I'm not sure why you would do so in the first place. The point about Matisse is not whether he was humiliated by scandal or made miserable by war, the point about Matisse is his art. Matisse's paintings don't need to be provided with emotional context, they make their own. The raw energy bursting out of his canvasses is a context enough, if you open your heart to it.
I guess I've always been sceptical about the whole genre of artist's biographies. I think they're an interesting form of writing in themselves, but I'm chary of claims that say they enhance or inform your appreciation of the artist's work. I see them as a sort of sophisticated voyeurism. Art, I feel, should be evaluated on its own terms and not in terms of what was happening to the artist at the time. What was happening to the artist may be interesting in itself, but it has nothing to do with his art.