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Matisse’s Pajamas

1.

Ever since I finished writing a life of Henri Matisse,1 I have been haunted by an image from H.G. Wells’s novel The Invisible Man. The hero of that book invents a scientific process to make himself invisible with no means of reversing the effect so that he finds himself trapped, unable to establish his identity, or prevent the public from picturing him as an almost mythical fiend stalking the streets. He ends up on the run, hunted, cornered, and finally bludgeoned to death, at which point the horrified crowd watches the invisible monster created by panic and mass hysteria slowly take shape in the gutter in front of their eyes as, in reality, an emaciated, bruised, and battered naked body.

This image—of a defenseless human being hounded and brought down by ruthless pursuers—corresponds fairly closely to the French view of biography, a view forcibly expressed by Louis Aragon in his infuriating Matisse: A Novel. This is an elaborate firsthand account in two volumes, published seventeen years after its subject’s death in 1954, and described by its author as a work of imagination, “not mine but the painter’s.” Aragon saw it as the duty of people like himself, who knew Matisse, to conceal or destroy anything that might cast light on the painter’s private life. “We, the last of his contemporaries, we didn’t force him to rip off his shirt and bare his heart…,” Aragon explained, emphasizing in a postscript his invincible contempt for the role of biographer: “We didn’t challenge him to say the unsayable, we didn’t subject him to the sort of crude blackmail common to every sort of investigative inquiry today.”

In what the French call the Anglo-Saxon world, the great foundation stone on which all subsequent serious study has been built is Matisse: His Art and His Public, a uniquely rich and comprehensive survey of documentary evidence compiled for the Museum of Modern Art by Alfred Barr in 1951. Barr’s book (never, incidentally, translated into French) became my guide, mentor, and road map. But the general consensus, freely expressed by experts in public and private, saw Matisse as drab, tame, and stuffily conventional, with a shrewd grasp of business but little intellectual or emotional depth. There had never been a biography, I was told by a leading scholar, because—in case I wondered why—“Matisse’s life would be too dull to write about.”

Failing any more specific directions, I turned to Matisse himself. His instructions on how to produce a portrait—as applicable in literary as in pictorial terms—were lucid, pertinent, and precise. He insisted on meticulous accuracy while maintaining that close study of external detail can never supply more than the starting point for a portrait. Success or failure at a deeper level was a matter of contemplation, concentration, the force and quality of attention focused on any given subject. Subtlety of observation counted for more than anything else. Matisse said that nothing should be distorted or suppressed. Approximations did not interest him. Anyone setting out to make a portrait must above all approach his or her subject without preconceptions.

Anglo-Saxon pragmatism dismissed the life as banal, if not actually discreditable. On balance I preferred the French Cartesian approach, which unequivocally ruled out consideration of anything except the work. Aragon pictured Matisse’s canvases as a great wall erected between him and us. Nothing more could—or should—be found out. (“We shall never know anything more about him. Or, if anyone pretends to, I deny it”: it would be impossible to count the number of times people have repeated variations on that formula to me over the past decade and more in France.)

This is an admirable theory. The problem, in practice, was that the pure, undefiled, blank page of Matisse’s life had filled up over the years with inaccuracy, distortion, and myth, all continually repeated in versions that grew steadily blander and more blurred. My plan was to apply the painter’s methods to his life, discarding the kind of prejudice which Matisse said was to the mind what visual cliché is to the eye. I was trying to follow his own rule of thumb:

To sum up, I work without a theory. I am conscious above all of the forces involved, and find myself driven forward by an idea that I can really only grasp bit by bit as it grows with the picture.

Starting out with no clear sense of what you are looking for can bring unexpected results. Wells’s invisible man had to put on a suit if he wanted other people to know he was there. Matisse seems to have done the same for the opposite reason. His most ambitious early self-portrait, painted in 1906, is painfully exposed, full of raw emotions (anxiety, rage, frustration) that make him instantly recognizable as the crackpot whose canvases looked to contemporaries like the work of a wild beast. The public image he conveyed in interviews and photographs was more guarded. He looks ponderous and buttoned-up in publicity handouts, nearly always tightly encased in the sort of suit that made strangers take him for a businessman or somebody selling insurance.

After a while I began to suspect that this last was, metaphorically speaking, exactly what he was doing. Matisse disliked being photographed or questioned by people he didn’t know, many of whom thought he was mad. In later years, young admirers, who put him on a pedestal, made him feel even more uncomfortable. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, he kept an elderly best suit of reddish tweed which he put on, even in the stifling heat of August in Paris or Nice, for encounters with unknown, intimidating, possibly overbearing visitors (especially upper-class English or American women whose language he didn’t speak). In order to understand why, we have to go back to the moment when he first deliberately disguised himself in a suit.

By the start of the twentieth century Matisse was well on the way to inventing a new, disturbing, and at that stage virtually incomprehensible visual language. He was a familiar figure, loping about the streets of Montparnasse in a black sheepskin coat turned wrong side out—some said it looked more like a wolfskin—clutching a roll of crazy paintings no other artist could make head or tail of. But almost from one day to the next Matisse drew back from the brink of modernity and started turning out relatively conventional figure and flower pieces. This regression took place in 1902–1903, a phase often referred to by art historians following Barr as Matisse’s Dark Period. His behavior suggested on its face a character of bourgeois timidity: someone who, having stumbled on a potentially disruptive discovery, failed to follow it up because he lacked the courage of his convictions.

In fact, Matisse turned out to have been caught up without warning in a major political and financial fraud, the Humbert Affair, a scheme carried out by one of the Third Republic’s best-known power couples, Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert. The affair rocked France in 1902–1903, causing a trail of bankruptcies, suicides, and bank failures, even threatening at its height to bring down the government. By the time the scandal broke in May 1902, the villains had fled, leaving as scapegoats their housekeeper and her husband, an unsuspecting couple who had for years provided the Humberts with an innocent front. Their name was Parayre, and Matisse had married their daughter. Their public exposure, followed by the arrest and trial of his father-in-law, left Matisse as the sole breadwinner for an extended family of seven. This is why he switched to painting canvases that were at least potentially saleable.

In order to organize some sort of defense for his father-in-law, Matisse spent much of the next eight months dealing with lawyers as well as prison staff, journalists, the detectives who searched his studio, and the huge vengeful crowds—at times more like lynch mobs—who pursued his wife’s family. To conceal his identity as a penniless painter, widely regarded as a lunatic even by fellow artists, he was forced to abandon his black sheepskin and his workman’s corduroys. The strategy worked, but that first borrowed suit has much to answer for.

The impact of the Humbert affair was devastating for the Matisses and their children. Friends and family closed ranks. The episode imposed an iron reserve together with an indelible suspicion of press intrusion in the painter’s lifetime, and it goes far to explain the famously preemptive discretion practiced ever since by the family archive in Paris.

My first inkling of the crushing weight of humiliation that bore down on Matisse ever afterward came when I started spending time in his native north, where more businesses had been ruined in the wake of the Humbert scandal than in any other part of France. It was a shock to find, on my first visit to his home town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, that nobody had ever heard of him. “Matys? Mathis?” asked the local lawyer, whose firm had once represented Matisse’s father from an office that still stands a few hundred yards from the house where the painter grew up. “How are you spelling that? With an h, or with a y?” Gradually I began to meet an older generation, people in their seventies and eighties whose parents and grandparents had talked about the Matisse boy as a kind of village idiot—le sot Matisse—a dropout with a record of successive failures, who ran away to Paris in the end to be a painter. “Madame, have you seen his paintings?” one old lady asked me in 1991. “A child could paint better than that, Madame.” At the art school in St. Quentin, where the young Matisse enrolled in secret for drawing lessons without telling his father, the elderly college principal was still so bitterly ashamed of his only celebrated ex-student that he could barely bring himself to pronounce the name.

This was French Flanders, a textile region that had been in the grip of convulsive industrialization just over a century before, when Matisse grew up there. He seldom spoke afterward—and then only in terms of darkness and coercion—about the narrow, conformist, and aggressively philistine society that was all he had known for the first twenty-one years of his life. What puzzled me was how someone so starved of cultural contact—someone who had almost certainly never seen an oil painting until he was nineteen or twenty—could have developed such a powerful visual imagination. Where did it come from? What fed it?

The answer lies in the exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum, Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams—His Art and His Textiles, which contains an album of silks produced by the weavers of Bohain, famous throughout France in those years for the richness of their color, the boldness of their design, and their insatiable appetite for innovation.2 Their work looked to compatriots like a fireworks display. This is the vision of light and color Matisse said he dreamed of as a boy, and finally managed to recapture as an artist in the great stained-glass windows based on semi-abstract designs of cut-and-painted paper which he produced at the end of his life.

  1. 1

    In two volumes: The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, Volume 1: The Early Years, 1869–1908 (Knopf, 1998) and Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, Volume 2: The Conquest of Colour, 1909–1954 (to be published by Knopf, September 2005).

  2. 2

    See the exhibition catalog, Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams (Royal Academy of Arts, London, in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004). The main essay is by the author.

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