A half century later, a full look at Matisse

Fifty years after his death, the first biography of Matisse is complete - and revelatory.

Those two rival giants of 20th century avant-garde art, Picasso and Matisse - whose work was so publicly antithetical - privately "drew closer than ever before" in the last decade of Matisse's life. "They swapped notes and compared problems," writes Hilary Spurling in her mammoth and compelling, revelatory Matisse the Master.

This is the second and final volume of her biography of this extraordinary French artist, covering the years 1909 to 1954. Half a century after his death, the first biography of Matisse is complete. Matisse will never seem quite the same again.

"Picasso complained," she goes on, "about the effortless, inborn sense of beauty, balance and proportion against which he had fought savagely all his life, Matisse lamented the lack of natural facility that had made his entire career a relentless uphill struggle."

And yet facility, not to mention frivolity, superficiality, decorativeness, childish incompetence, and irrelevance were too often the accusations Matisse suffered from contemporaries, particularly in the 1920s and 30's.

Other writers have certainly recognized his "uphill struggle," the exhaustive complexities that assailed him as he aimed at purity, serenity, and simplicity in his luminous art. But the very scale and detail of this biography really conveys the relentlessness of this struggle. Even in his crowning achievement, the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence in southern France, his habitual practice of abandoning work when it did not measure up and of starting over again until it did, had not left him. The Dominican brother who had first stimulated the project "was astonished, even appalled by the way Matisse worked, especially by how calmly he accepted setbacks." Spurling is clear that it is a simplistic mistake to be fooled by the apparent ease or spontaneity of his paintings, drawings, and paper cut-outs into thinking them facile or shallow.

In fact, her biography repeatedly emphasizes the wide discrepancies between Matisse's reputation and the actuality as revealed in the wealth of letters and documentary evidence available to her through the cooperation of Matisse's heirs. Again and again his new work, when first seen in public, sparked outrage. This, he believed, was the result of being a truly questing artist inventing a "new language," an artist always "fifty years ahead of his time."

The "fauve" phase of his work, and then the great paintings "Dance" and "Music" painted for the remarkable Russian collector Shchukin, shocked and dismayed; yet shock was hardly his prime motivation.

Matisse was never a "half-measure" artist. There was, by his own admission, particularly at the outset of a new work, a kind of violence that called for sublimation. Yet his distress was extreme when work that was for him the height of ecstasy or extravagant joy, work that had liberated brilliant color and expressed light as never before, caused furious and humiliating dismissal.

In another respect, his personal appearance often resembled that of an insurance salesman - bespectacled and sober-suited - and was so different from his art that some unperceptive people (notably in the English "Bloomsbury" literary set) failed to see beyond the mask and thought him bourgeois and pompous. Spurling's testimony frequently shows him to have been neither.

This biography presents much more than a glimpse behind the scenes. It discloses a ruthlessly dedicated career, a massive determination, and, by giving flesh to the hidden shadows of the man, it provokes a stimulatingly fresh look at his art. The vagaries and traumas of his life and times, however idealistic and protective might be the hermetic nature of his working practice, are nevertheless shown to have had a surprisingly direct bearing on its mood and character. Paintings made during World War I in particular can now be seen to have a stringent, grim stature somehow not evident before.

In his lifetime, France was invaded three times by the Germans. War horrified Matisse and he was deeply tortured by his incapacity to fight. Sometimes he managed to pull up his drawbridge and contribute to the war effort by simply continuing to work. Spurling settles not a few myths about him, one of which was that in World War II he indulged himself in the fleshpots of Nice. This absolute myth is not unconnected with another - that he sexually exploited his many models. Spurling presents evidence that suggests that instead he was scrupulous in observing the propriety of the artist-model relationship. His models often expressed appreciation.

This book is not only about Matisse, but also looks penetratingly into the lives of his family, friends, and assistants - notably his wife, his daughter, and his last assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya. These three women, whose lives were overwhelmed in their fierce dedication to the artist, were heroic. After many years, the first two apparently needed to distance themselves from the domination; Matisse was no exception to the tendency of "great" artists to be overweeningly egocentric - making the most impossible demands on others because they also never hesitate to make impossible demands on themselves.

Yet Matisse also had a counterbalancing generosity and sensitivity toward others. Spurling, writing about the exactions he imposed on his assistants as the Vence chapel exhaustingly took shape, observes: "Even those who most bitterly resented his exactions at the time agreed afterwards that Matisse took much but gave more." And the reader never doubts that what he gave to posterity in his art was incalculably rich.

Christopher Andreae has been writing for the Monitor since the 1960s. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

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