The Great Ragman ; New Light Is about to Be Cast on One of the Giants of Modern Art. It Is His Fascination with Clothes and Textiles That Is the Key to Matisse's Work, Says TOM LUBBOCK

By Lubbock, Tom | The Independent (London, England), March 4, 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Great Ragman ; New Light Is about to Be Cast on One of the Giants of Modern Art. It Is His Fascination with Clothes and Textiles That Is the Key to Matisse's Work, Says TOM LUBBOCK


Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


What shall we call him, Henri Matisse? His world is full of flowers and floral patterns. He paints carpets and hangings and frocks and shawls, all things decorative and ornamental and brightly coloured and dreamily beautiful. He said he wanted art to be like a nice armchair for the viewer to sink into. What shall we call him - Henri Matisse, the big girl's blouse of modern art?

There's no doubt that Matisse has been and still is an uncomfortable figure in 20th-century painting. Not because he is shocking, but for the opposite reason: because he's too damn comfy. Modern art, we expect to be on the attack. It messes up the world. It confronts its audience. It offers intellectual and sensory aggression, baffling us, revolting us. It challenges and disturbs - and that's absolutely what it ought to do, because the modern world is awful, and nobody can be happy in it, and we viewers need to be kicked in the face. We know that perfectly well and indeed demand it; it's the only way art can do us good and be worthwhile, and anything else is entertainment and relaxation and complacency.

And Matisse? He painted those lovely pictures and he said that terrible, treacherous, fatuously, gloatingly complacent thing. How did it go again? "What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter... like a comforting influence, a mental balm - something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue." The sell-out's charter! Pat the bourgeois! Soothe him, stroke him!

As for that armchair, it is hardly a metaphor. Look at the paintings. They look like upholstery, covered all over with the patterns of printed and embroidered fabrics. They are explicitly decorative, and the artist himself was a self-confessed decorator. He was well aware of the negative connotations, and simply rejected them: "It's a big mistake to use the word `decorative' as a term of abuse." Art, he felt, should primarily be decorative. In fact, it was where he began.

Matisse was born in 1869 in north-east France, in Le Cateau- Cambresis, a textile town. His childhood was spent in Bohain-en- Vermandois, another one, which specialised in producing decorated silks for Paris. Matisse did not grow up like that rival star of modern painting, Pablo Picasso, as the precocious son of a painter father. He may not have seen a painting before he was 20. What he had seen were fabric designs of great boldness. That experience, that model, was the staying-power behind all his art.

That is the case made in Matisse, His Art and His Textiles, which opens at the Royal Academy tomorrow. Works from throughout Matisse's career are shown alongside the decorative fabrics that are pictured in them and inspired them. Matisse himself collected swatches and samples, Persian carpets, Moroccan tunics, Central African hangings. He used them to dress his models and to dress his scenes.

The usual emphasis is on Matisse the colourist. The emphasis here is specifically on Matisse the clothist. His painting, with its unprecedented liberation of colour, is derived fundamentally from another kind of art, where colour had always been free. This rings true. If you look at the books of samples from Bohain exhibited here, with their small squares of blazing pattern, what you see are these amazing abstracts. It's a misrecognition, of course. The swatches aren't abstract pictures. They aren't made as images to be contemplated in their own right. They aren't a means of expression. But the potential is there. And then it took only an act of genius to see that it could become an art of enormous intensity.

Now this story has one point strongly in its favour. Matisse has always lacked a myth. His biography doesn't supply one. It's all pretty low key. He had to struggle against parental pressure on him to become a lawyer. He had a wife and children and some adultery.

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The Great Ragman ; New Light Is about to Be Cast on One of the Giants of Modern Art. It Is His Fascination with Clothes and Textiles That Is the Key to Matisse's Work, Says TOM LUBBOCK
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