Henri Matisse after ‘the Fall of Icarus’

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The current Sackler Wing exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts invites us into the studio of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Reflecting on the glimpse of the  artist’s inner life afforded by the exhibition, Charles Josefson recounts the story of Matisse’s latter years and the innovation of his ‘cut-out’ technique.

Henri Matisse, The Moorish Screen, 1921
Oil on canvas, 91 x 74 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950
Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY
© Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

A green, blown-glass vase from Andalusia, Spain; a Kuba Kingdom Muyombo mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo; an Haitian patterned fabric or else a fancy silver chocolate pot: the exhibition explores how Matisse’s compositions incorporated the collection of varied objects and furniture, which surrounded and inspired him wherever he set up studio: assorted paraphernalia, seldom of material value, their forms, so instrumental to him, immortalised in his priceless art.

In 1951 Matisse explained: “The object is an actor; a good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.” The surrealist poet Louis Aragon, a close acquaintance of the artist, recognised the significance of this ‘vocabulary of objects’. The exhibition finale features a lacquered wood Chinese calligraphic panel, which Matisse’s wife, Amélie, gifted in celebration of his sixtieth birthday.

This visual language is exemplified, literally by the large Chinese calligraphic panel, hung high, transmuted into an artistic vocabulary of teeming forms in Matisse’s mind: all of the recurring figures, flowers, fronds, and nudes, which inhabit the exuberantly colourful canvasses of cut-outs exhibited below — flows of energy controlled, so alike the sleek, sinuous strokes of Chinese script. I attended the 2014 exhibition of Matisse’s gouache cut-outs at Tate Modern, but with the panel absent I never made the illuminating connection.

It is this late, most prolific period of Matisse’s long career, defined by his cut-outs (some of which, as aforesaid, are included in the Royal Academy exhibition), which I wish to focus on. After it was discovered he had an abdominal cancer, Matisse underwent surgery in 1941 and ’42, which left him a wheelchair-user. In his early seventies, no longer able to paint he developed new techniques for artistic expression, either drawing from his taxi bed using an improvised staff or else cutting his gouaches découpées — with the help of assistants, painting, positioning, pinning, and sticking.

Matisse used cut-outs during the 1930s, most notably in preparing the composition for The Dance, the mural tryptic he painted for the American businessman and art collector Dr Albert C. Barnes, and also while designing the scenery and costumes for a ballet choreographed by Leonide Massine to Dimitri Shostakovich’s symphony #1. But it was only after his becoming a disabled person, with The Fall of Icarus in 1943, that the technique became his mainstay.

Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century 
Cotton plainweave cut and appliquéd to bast fiber cloth, 217 x 212 cm 
Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection, on loan to Musée Matisse, Nice
Photo © François Fernandez, Nice

The Fall of Icarus is one of the best known Greek myths: the son of Daedalus neglecting to heed his father’s warning, flying too close to the sun on wings of feathers and wax. Matisse portrays the flailing boy tumbling down a black tube of darkness through a royal blue sky lit with jagged stars. His heart, a ruby-red flash, symbolising both his giddy panic and rapturous passion.

In many ways the image of Icarus encapsulated the menacing, uncertain present. Does Icarus not look like a falling soldier? The angular burst of vivid red a wound? The bright stars like detonating shells? A young pilot full of potential and hope dropping as if from a fighter jet? With Fascism ascendant does Icarus not represent the hubris of a world falling into an abyss?

For Matisse the political had become personal in 1943. War had reached his own neighbourhood in the South of France, with German soldiers billeted in the very building in which he resided. More than this, one can see why Matisse identified personally with Icarus: the once great painter immobilised, given a prognosis of three years to live, hurtling toward artistic and perhaps final oblivion. His wife of 41 years had walked out due to his relationship with his Siberian model and assistant Lydia Delectorskaya. His daughter, working for the resistance, would soon be arrested and tortured by the Nazis.

In 1947 Matisse returned to the theme creating his limited-edition book Jazz, a 20-plate compilation of flowing calligraphic text with cut-outs, in which Icarus is similarly represented. Albeit, rather than ghostly white, he is a silhouette, the night-time sky purely royal blue, and the gaping red wound is now a neat, round bullet hole. Matisse’s cut-out reflects the outrage of war, hubris and devastation, but it also offers hope, since the preceding poetic text provides contrast with the startling image.

Henri Matisse, Paris, May 13th, 1913. In: Men of mark. (published 1913) Medium: PhotogravuresAlvin Langdon Coburn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Matisse wrote: “A simple journey by plane from Paris to London offers us a revelation of the world that our imagination could not foresee. And while we are delighted by the feelings inspired by our new situation, they trouble us, too, when we remember the cares and difficulties we have allowed vex us on the earth below, visible through holes in the plain of clouds beneath us, when our present, enchanting surroundings existed all the while. Should not all young people be made to take a long plane flight once they have finished their studies?”

So beside the image of a youth hurtling to his death, a casualty of war, the calligraphic text speaks of carefree youths learning and traveling during “our new situation” of peace. The book Jazz, the title emphasising the improvisational nature of his scissoring, was a pivotal moment in Matisse’s career when he perceived his preparatory cut-outs were fully artworks in their own right.

Contemporary critics condemned the collages, as being luridly frivolous; of Matisse having himself taken an Icarian tumble into his second childhood; and some still remain unconvinced today; but for me, together with their aesthetic impact, they carry profound meaning and a sharp emotional punch.

Matisse regarded his recovery from illness as “une second vie”, a gift, and, I think, the technicolor cut-outs show a grateful man, albeit much weakened, cherishing the beauty of the world, absorbing all he can, intensely aware of time ticking.

In interesting ways, his colourful, bold, images were pioneering. They could be seen as unwitting predecessors to pop-art. The footage of his focused, rhythmic snipping an unwitting portent of performance art. Often the cut-outs make for an immersive experience, so it’s not much of a stretch to see them as foreshadowing modern installation work. “Only what I created after the illness contributes my real self,” Matisse explained. “Free, liberated”.

Nifty scissoring ran in Matisse’s blood: the son of a draper and grandson of a linen weaver, his childhood was spent in a textile town within the industrial heartland of north-eastern France.

In fact, illness sparked Matisse’s artistic career altogether. His first thought was to be a lawyer. After secondary school he studied law in Paris for a year, before returning to Saint-Quentin to gain experience as a clerk in a Law Office. (Though he clearly had a keen interest in art as he attended a local morning drawing class.) The art obsession really took hold when he suffered a severe attack of appendicitis in 1890. His mother bought him a box of oils to help ease the boredom of convalescence.

Reflecting later, he said: “From the moment I held the box of colours on my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges toward the thing it loves.”

The following year, having decorated the home of his grandparents, he returned to Paris determined to succeed as an artist. Matisse copied paintings in the Louvre and took classes with Adolphe-William Bouguereau and the symbolist Gustave Moreau. After travels to London and Corsica, he married Amélie Parayre in 1898, with whom he would have three more children. (Aged 24 he had had his first child, Marguerite, with his then mistress Camille Joblaud.)

Matisse first showed in Paris aged 31, his first solo exhibition opening at the gallery of the dealer Amboise Vollard in 1904. A year later Matisse was working alongside André Derain in the South of France, at Collioure, using the emotive, brilliant colours and loose, dabbed brushstrokes characteristic of their new Fauvist style — the name, les Fauves (“the wild beasts”) having been coined by the critic Louis Vauxcelles.

In 1906, at the salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, Matisse met Pablo Picasso, eleven years his junior, a prodigy with far more natural and accomplished technical ability. He drew further inspiration from travels to Italy, Germany, Spain and North Africa; he was signed by the prestigious Parisian dealers of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune; his work was collected by Gertrude Stein and the Russian textile magnate Sergei I. Shchukin. A shrewd judge, the Russian wrote to Matisse in 1910, “The public is against you, but the future is yours.”

The new cut-out method Matisse developed, would come to glorious fruition in arguably his greatest masterpiece, his Chapel of the Rosary, near the ancient hill town of Vence. One can be certain that without his illness, and impairment, Matisse would never have commenced such a quirky project.

Beautiful, serene, harmonious, the chapel is a certifiable Gesamtkunstwerk: the campanile, three black-and-white murals, three primarily abstract stained glass windows, the brown stone altar (a nod, both in colour and texture, to the Eucharist bread), the bronze cross, the carved doors, and even the bright vestments, all conceived solely by Matisse — each uniquely brilliant.

In many ways this tour de force sits within an old, venerable tradition. One thinks of Giotto working with his assistants in the Arena Chapel, Padua, during the Quattrocento. The Vence Chapel is modest, just 15 by 6 metres, yet with white walls, polished Carrara marble floors, and ceilings, there is a sense of airiness and spaciousness; the luminous blank canvas coloured by dappled southern French sunlight gushing from fifteen painted glass windows — hues of green (nature), yellow (the sun) and blue (sea) evoking the Mediterranean setting. And behind the masterwork there lies a compelling story.

Matisse agreed to undertake the project of the Dominican Chapel in 1947, the cornerstone was laid by the Bishop of Nice on December 12 1949, and it was consecrated almost four years later. Due to his ailing health Matisse was unable to attend, but he supplied a text which was read on his behalf by Father Couturier: “this work required me 4 years of an exclusive and enduring effort and it is the fruit of my whole working life. In spite of all its imperfections I consider it as my masterpiece.”

The commission was not one Matisse sought out. “This is not a work I chose,” he wrote later, “but rather a work for which I was chosen by fate.” Aged 21, Monique Bourgeois had responded to Matisse’s advertisement seeking a “young and pretty night nurse”. In addition to performing her duties with tenderness, she became his friend and muse. In time she would swap her vocation as a nurse for another. She entered a Covent of Dominican nuns as a novice in 1944, and was ordained Sister Jaques-Marie in 1946. Though going on to qualify as a nurse’s aide, she continued to minister care to the artist.

In 1947 she confided to Matisse her spiritual desire to decorate the oratory fitted out by the nuns in one of the rooms of their convent. At first Matisse had offered to design the windows, but soon he conceived loftier plans: his full involvement in designing and building a chapel.

The chapel was an odd assignment for a nonreligious artist. The avowed atheist, Picasso, could not comprehend why Matisse was eager to accomplish such a work, though he recommended his own ceramicists and visited Nice to see his old rival. Perhaps Matisse simply saw the work as a heartfelt gift that would reward his friend for her compassion in helping him through his difficult convalescence. But doubtless, not believing in an afterlife like sister Jaques-Marie, knowing he would become the first artist to conceive all the separate elements of such a Chapel, he likely relished this creative challenge as a means of obtaining artistic immortality.

As well, a chapel of peace, a beautiful place for contemplation, sits well with Matisse’s general artistic ethos of creating art which makes one feel one is sat in a comfy armchair. “I don’t know whether I believe in God or not,” he said. “But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.”

While it’s difficult to decide, my favourite element of the Chapel may be the mural, which shows the Passion of Christ: Jesus carrying the cross to his place of execution. Ailing with appalling ill-health, making use of a two-metre-long bamboo wand with a stick of charcoal affixed to draw, Matisse may have specially related to this image of suffering and pain, leading to rebirth. Christ’s features upon the veil of St Veronica is the only face within the Chapel.

While he made studies of religious art by old masters, such as Rubens, Dürer, and Mantegna, sedulously practicing his designs on paper, enduring sleepless nights, the accessible iconography of the chapel is inimitably Matisse: deceptively simple, abstracted, and inspired by the natural world — in which the pious and non-religious alike may gain a sense of restorative wonderment.

The nun whom Matisse called “the true initiator of the Chapel” died in 2004, aged 84. Fittingly, her funeral at Vence chapel was attended by Matisse family members, and her coffin was surrounded by anemones, the artist’s favourite flower and the inspiration for the chapel’s candelabra.

Still, having touched upon the sacred, Matisse would continue with his profane pursuit of the voluptuous feminine form with his cut-outs. He had painted his first blue nude in 1907. He had been sculpting a nude, but having damaged the piece, he sketchily painted it — blue against a background of palm fronds; the work, clearly influenced by Gauguin, angular like Cezanne or else “primitive” sculpture such as he had seen in Algeria. Her athletic form outlined with strong dark blue and black lines, The Blue Nude was a muscular, modernist riposte to the soft, smooth, academic nudes displayed in the Paris Salon.

Returning much later to the theme in 1952, Matisse attained a strikingly different effect with Blue Nude II. Beautifully precise, an abstraction of pure, intense colour, each of the four blue nudes comprising the series are characteristically posed odalisques with a raised arm and entwined legs. Languidness twinned with tension. Like a spring held by a thumb each reclines, serpentine curves hemmed by the edges of the page.

In eleven years prior to Blue Nude II Matisse had scarce portrayed the human form with his cut-outs, but now, having scribbled his way though many notebooks, revisiting and revising, paring down, he found his ideal. Symbolising the feminine form with an elemental, monumental, yet elegant silhouette: Matisse distilled: an icon for the ages.

In the same year, 1952, Matisse also turned his studio blue producing The Swimming Pool. One balmy summer morning, so the tale runs, he went to the public pool at Cannes to observe the tumbling divers. Of course, he could not himself gain respite from the summer heat with a refreshing plunge, but he could nonetheless create a big splash with aqueous blue coloured paper. “I will make my own pool” he declared emphatically to his assistant, Lydia. Soon the walls of his dining room at the Hotel Regina, Nice, pulsed with life: ultramarine divers, swimmers and sea creatures.

One of Matisse’s final masterpieces would be The Snail. With semi-abstract exuberance, using torn squares of multi-coloured paper, he captures the essence of the spiralling shell. One would not necessarily think of snails as a compelling subject for art. But perhaps it was their commonplaceness, their persevering slowness, weighed down beneath their shells, which attracted him.

Innovating till the end, artistically steady and assured, Matisse boldly slid out into new ground unperturbed by any sharp-clawed critics cawing overhead. One of Tate’s most enduringly popular pieces, the mural, roughly three metres tall, makes for an ideal postlude to the instructive exhibition of the Royal Academy.

‘Matisse In The Studio’ is on exhibition at The Royal Academy until 12 November 2017