My ongoing conversation with Matisse

Is there any such thing as a one-sided conversation? I don't mean those encounters with acquaintances where you never quite manage to get a word in edgewise. I mean more the sort of thing where you converse even though the other party has no idea that you are doing so. A bit like talking back to recorded messages, I suppose:

"Please wait, and we will be with you shortly."

"Define 'shortly,' please. You have been repeating that for a good 20 minutes...."

"You now have 16 options. Press 1 if..."

"Oh, come off it! I'd rather listen to the Vivaldi."

Actually, listening to Vivaldi is closer to what I mean.

Lately I'm delving into the first volume of what claims, reasonably, to be the only full biography of French painter Henri Matisse ("The Unknown Matisse," by Hilary Spurling). His art has been exhibited, catalogued (still not completely), and written about prodigiously. But his life? Until this 1998 study, it's been scarcely covered at all.

Yet I can hardly be the only one who's carried out a long conversation with Henri's art. Artists themselves do this "conversation" thing with other artists all the time. The history of art is full of examples of artists challenging, arguing, and exchanging ideas with other artists they could never have met.

Matisse died in 1954. My silent conversations with his art began a few years later at school when I saw my first reproduction of a Matisse in a book. Basically it was of trees. The comment in the book described Matisse as something like "the greatest living landscape painter." This and the painting puzzled me utterly. Matisse's trees seemed like soft blocks of green, and the tree trunks had sporadic and uncertain verticals. The image seemed vague and unspecific. This was at odds with what I was learning about landscapes from the art teacher. Above all, realistically depicted details of leaves, grass, clouds - none of the elements that I took to be essential - seemed to interest "the greatest living landscape painter."

It made me uneasy.

The next snatch of conversation I had with Henri was about three years later. I was finding my attempts at painting were being influenced by the unknown master. The year before, I had achieved a high mark in my advanced-level art exam. Now, I was to try to do even better by taking a scholarship-level exam. But things didn't work out, and it was Henri's fault. I had latched onto the idea of economy of statement.

I recall consciously painting a fried egg à la Matisse. Not that I had seen such a depiction by my friend, but I had realized how Matissean a fried egg could be: a round yellow shape with a simple white surrounding. I had started to grasp the notion that a painting isn't made of its subject matter, but of paint and color. These have a life of their own. The examiner didn't agree. I received a lower mark than the year before. Yet I knew I had grown.

I'd just had my first encounter with the problem of judgment being ruled by taste. Here was an artist, my pal Henri, following his lights regardless of tradition, and here was I, an English schoolboy, taken with the carefree boldness of such an idea and finding that those in authority didn't approve.

The stories of great artists are also littered with this kind of challenge. Matisse had been dubbed a "wild beast" in the early years of the century while, in fact, all he was aiming at was an art of harmony. That an obscure and callow follower in the 1950s should have a similar, though minor, experience with rejection seems interesting now.

I find in this biography something Matisse said about his teacher, Gustave Moreau: "He didn't set his pupils on the right road, he took them off it. He made them uneasy."

Matisse had, so far as the absurd possibility of examination standards in art are concerned, taken me off the "right (conventional) road." It was the first hint for me that artists should challenge the status quo. Matisse himself had started out with the most traditional aims. His radical "simplicity" was hard won.

My ongoing conversation with Henri might be seen as a series of snapshots. Click: Seeing his large cutout work "The Snail" at London's Tate Gallery and realizing something fresh about abstraction, sign language, and color.

Click: In an exhibition in Geneva, holding up the catalogue reproductions to Matisse's originals and discovering how startlingly inaccurate color reproduction can be - blues that were greens, reds that were oranges - and how precise and subtle Matisse's bright, fresh color is.

Click: Seeing some of the dazzling Matisses in Moscow that had been collected by his Russian patron Sergei Shchukin, particularly the goldfish in a glass container with its reflections on the water surface.

Click: Coming across a large book, published by Verve magazine just after Matisse's passing, full of superb lithographic reproductions (supervised by the painter and printed by master printmaker Mourlot). I persuaded the bookseller to let me buy it in installments. It now stands among my extra-special books. And when I need to have another conversation, I take out this marvellous, orange-covered book and leaf through its fantastic array of nearly original Matisses. Then, I promise, the talk is prolific.

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