Beguiling bloom

I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the anemone was Matisse's favourite flower. Bunches of them appear quite frequently in his paintings - as a small detail in his ''Interior at Nice,'' for example, of 1921: half a dozen of them, some purple-grey, some scarlet, in a tall vase on a table. They appear in his picture ''Meditation'' of 1920, and in ''The Artist and His Model'' of 1919. They are there again, more freely arranged in a glass, in one of his latest paintings, ''Large Red Interior'' of 1948.

Not that the artist didn't paint a whole range of different flowers - flowers are an integral feature in the richness of his art, inevitably appealing to an artist who was (as he put it) ''seduced by the brilliance of pure colour.'' They are ideal inhabitants, and fresh accents, in an art Matisse once described as ''an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.. . .'' His pictures often come, in atmosphere, close to the feeling that pervades a cared-for family house, its welcome, and its comfortableness and calm. Flowers are as much an item in his paintings as they would be in such a home.

The particular anemone Matisse favored - given prominence in this fine picture belonging to the Kunstmuseum, Bern - is the member of the tribe most popular with florists, Anemone coronaria. An open, robust kind of flower, it manages to be both simple and at the same time full, in form. The hues and tone values of its blooms are as distinctive as their shape (they are unmistakable in the Matisse even when it is reproduced in monochrome.) They are creamy white or a vivid red or a harmonious variety of mauves and purples and soft pinks. Anemone coronaria does not have such daisylike petals as do many anemones - narrow and radiating from the centre like a star in a child's drawing: they are wider and rounder in shape, and fewer in number. Its leaves are a little like parsley. The stem is sturdy, not slender and wiry like grass: it suits the boldness of the flower.

I have never (that is, until a couple of years ago) thought of this anemone as a wildflower. This is because of its usual role as a cut flower, and also because I had only seen it actually growing in gardens. In Britain, when not raised in a nursery under glass, it tends to flourish for a summer, but the next year becomes sporadic, and then, bar a few leaves and an occasional flower, disappears. I have never found it showing much inclination to spread and colonize.

But two winters ago, at Christmastime, we were visiting the site of Phaestos, one of Crete's Minoan palaces. And there we saw it - Matisse's flower - growing in the wild. My feeling for it was transformed. I could see now why the Greeks called it a ''mountain windflower.'' It was no longer a reluctant garden plant or a tightly bunched birthday greeting in tissue paper. It was a free native of a Greek island. ''In early spring (William Robinson once wrote), when the valleys of southern Europe and sunny sheltered spots all round the great rocky basin of the Mediterranean are beginning to glow with colour, we see the earliest windflowers in all their liveliness. Those arid mountains that look so barren have on their sunny sides carpets of anemones in countless variety.'' We didn't see carpets of them that Christmas, but the few we spotted were thrilling enough.

I wonder if those art nouveau maidens - that Sir Arthur Evans so evocatively imagined were a common sight in Minoan times - used to gather flowering anemones on these stony banks, high up, open to the breezes, purple and white and pink in the grass.

What was it about them that was so appealing to Matisse? Their singleness of colour, perhaps. The cupping of their wide petals. The possibility of painting them with simple directness - in unfussed colour like a lemon or a goldfish - with a ''purity of means'' as though, like a child, he was seeing them for the first time. Or the fact that they are so instantly recognizable.

All these things, I suspect; but most of all I believe he was beguiled by the flower's black centre. Matisse was fascinated by black, which he definitely considered a colour, not merely a negative. To find a black in nature was to confirm its positive role and to justify, perhaps, his use of it in painting.

He described it as having an increasingly important part in the ''colour orchestration'' of painting since Impressionism, ''comparable to that of the double-bass as a solo instrument.'' In his own works it often acts in contrast and counterpoint to the free and pure colours that fill his canvas.

How essential to the character of the anemone flower is its black centre: the colours of its petals are given their special quality, their timbre, in immediate relation to it. It is a natural black, velvety but hairy, not too hard or cold. It is just the kind of black - the quality of black - that Matisse admired in paintings by Manet - a black that is ''luminous,'' which is ''blunt and lucid.'' In short, it is a black that is alive.

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