‘It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else’. As the 150th anniversary of Henri Matisse’s birth fast approaches, it’s worth reflecting on what makes the French painter different.
Matisse’s work is pervaded by an atmosphere of bright yet relaxed contentment utterly at odds with the times in which he lived. That atmosphere owes much to the leisurely, radiant rhythms and textures of life on the French Riviera, home to Matisse from 1917 until his death in 1954. It’s as if happy Mediterranean life freed Matisse from belief in art’s necessity, releasing him as a painter from seriousness into frivolity. Matisse masterworks like Swimming Pool (1952) and The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952) do not make us gaze and think and wonder the way contemporary works by Picasso and Hopper do; they are nothing more or less than beautiful decorations, demanding only an idle glance as the viewer goes about the pleasant business of life. Much like a well-told joke, they’re not improved by any effort at explanation or interrogation.
The refusal of Matisse’s works to mean anything, their springy satisfaction with the surface of life, is what makes them more lovely to look at then just about anything else in twentieth-century art.
It is also what makes them troubling for the historically informed viewer. When coming before The Piano Lesson (1916), a tranquil domestic scene painted at the height of the Battle of Verdun, or pretty much anything Matisse made after his daughter Marguerite was tortured almost to the point of death by the Gestapo, we ask ourselves a question posed explicitly nowhere in his work: is invincible happiness a heroic state or a callous one, the spiritual equivalent of giggling at a funeral?
Matisse came to mastery relatively late in life, and much of the work he did in the first half of his career has a sludgy, flat quality. He was trying too hard to be like Cézanne, inimitable master of intense, you-can-almost-touch-it still life. The frustration arising from that failure to find his own style or to accurately impersonate his idol’s is what enlivens the most arresting of his early paintings: Nude Study in Blue (1899-1900), which offers us an unillusioned, self-aware glimpse into the male artist’s conversion of female flesh into paint; and Studio Interior (1899-1900), in which Matisse’s workplace has a hollow, thrown-together aura reminiscent of a theatre set. Approaching middle age, Matisse seems to be asking himself if art in the end amounts to anything more than a pretext for falsity and perversion.
Upon his arrival in Nice in 1917, such anxieties about art’s necessity were transposed into a major key. Art for him was simply one of life’s little luxuries, embellishing the fabric of human existence without being an integral part of it. This conception of art as a decorative, public-spirited activity informed some of his most unusual work, including his designs for Ascher ladies’ scarves and the modest, light-filled Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence. His hero Cézanne had been a conjurer of sensation, the magical interplay of mind and matter; Matisse had now uncovered a realm of sensation not in art itself but in the lived environment of the viewer. In their immensity and their indications of artistic labour, late Matisse works like Two Dancers (1910) and Large Composition with Masks (1953) awaken us to the existence of artworks as physical objects in space and, by extension, our own sensations as embodied viewers. Not for nothing did the Surrealist poet Luis Aragon call Matisse’s style ‘a palette of objects’.
Press-ganged into a grand narrative of artistic innovation, Matisse might be lauded as a bridge between Cézanne’s experiments in sensation and Andy Warhol’s superabundant superficiality, with the sculptors Anthony Gormley and Richard Serra’s monuments of maximalist minimalism one more link down the chain. But it’s only when we take him as his own man that we can really appreciate him.
Matisse was effectively crippled from 1941 until his death, following a grim dust-up with cancer. His physical infirmity left him unable to paint competently, and so he was forced to adopt collage as his medium of work and consequently subject his artistic instincts to radical simplification. Consider his most absorbing work, his huge 1953 collage The Snail. The first mistake you can make is to think that Matisse is depicting, however abstractly, any kind of garden mollusc. In fact, the exuberant array of shapes and colours is far more obviously evocative of an artist’s palette: what we face is not a rendition of life in gouache and paper but a distillation of the essence of artistic endeavour. The crudeness and the brightness of the piece seem to imply that the human urge to create, whether expressed through a toddler’s cut-and-paste or an artist’s manic quest after sensation, is the common thread of our lives. And knowing what we do about Matisse – the closeness to death, the Shakespearean unmaking of the man by old age – we find ourselves astonished that this urge remains undimmed and unconcealed. Alone among his works it breaks our hearts.