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Richard Eder

Matisse: The Man and His Art, 1869-1918 by Jack Flam (Cornell University: $75; 528 pp., 102 color and 395 black-and-white illustrations)

December 14, 1986|Richard Eder

According to the French writer, Max Jacob, Picasso once told him that if he had to paint like anyone other than himself, it would be Matisse. And Matisse once told him that if he had to paint like anyone other than himself, it would be Picasso.

It sounds too symmetrical to be true, but Jacob was famous for saintliness as well as gossip, and perhaps truth-telling went with the territory.

The two were rivals; at least in the sense that others thought of them that way. Reflecting her employer's preference for Picasso, Gertrude Stein's cook refused to make omelets for Matisse and kept him to fried eggs, on the ground that it showed "less respect."

Each man clearly regarded the other as his personal pace-maker. They were the giants of 20th-Century art; both wore their big boots a long, long time; neither one relaxed into them; both went on changing.

Protean, the pair, but in vastly different ways. Our image of Picasso is of the prestidigitator; the prodigious child inexhaustibly devising new games. And we think of Matisse as the rotund and reposeful old gentleman, artificer more than magician, whose brush and, eventually scissors were touched, Midas-like, with gold.

It is the demolition of this Olympian image that provides the spark for Jack Flam's detailed, penetrating and beautifully assembled study of Matisse's development up to the time when, nearly 50, he moved permanently to the south of France.

I say "spark" rather than "theme." The book's main purpose is to put together the technical, artistic and spiritual aspects of the years when Matisse was going through his most active and changeable period of experiment and development. But offering a troubled image to replace the serene one constitutes both an essential part of Flam's study and that whiff of gunpowder that helps a major work of scholarship come to life.

In his preface, Flam sprinkles a little of the gunpowder on Alfred Barr's classic study of Matisse, dating from the 1950s. He calls it the most complete and reliable account "until now." (He doesn't discuss Pierre Schneider's even more massive "Matisse," which came out two years ago; although he quotes from it now and then.)

"Because Matisse was still alive while Barr was writing and because Barr was dependent on Matisse's estranged wife and daughter for much of his information, the book strongly emphasizes Matisse's bourgeois respectability," Flam writes. "Early indiscretions, passions, struggles, and darknesses of spirit--even a whole decade of his life--are kept discreetly in shadow."

Flam, for his part, mentions that Matisse slept with quite a few of his models, and speaks in some detail about the tide of sensuality that he believes overtook him in his later 40s. But the detail goes into an analysis of the painting, not the life. And, although the book gives essential biographical data, its emphasis and its value lie in Flam's ardent and often inspired writing about Matisse's work.

Flam vividly depicts Matisse's struggle to reconcile within himself the disciplined, assiduous worker--he insisted that his students draw from plaster casts and use a plumb line--and the instinctive visionary. After painting an image from life with a colorful realism akin to Cezanne's, he would frequently do a second version, in the flat, bright-hued style that we now think of as characteristic.

These pairings are amply illustrated throughout the book. Cornell University Press has done a splendid job, in fact. The colored plates--amounting to about one-fifth of the 500 illustrations--are not simply lavish but instructive. They follow the text with remarkable precision and hardly ever more than a page or two away from their reference--an impressive editorial feat for a book of this scale. It allows Flam not simply to argue his points but to demonstrate them.

The author makes it clear that nothing came easy. Matisse was sometimes taken aback by his own work, to the point of refusing to put it up on his studio wall. After doing a flat and simplified portrait of a sailor--a second version--he told people that it had been done by the postman.

It was in 1905, after years of experimenting and casting about, that Matisse's painting exploded into vividness and stylization. He took portraits, still lifes and landscapes out to the point where pattern, color and the act of painting became the real subject of the work. Using "The Open Window, Collioure" (1905) as an example, Flam writes:

"The physical surface of the canvas takes primacy over the image that is applied to the painted surface. The work offers itself as what it is, as a physical object, as material--paint that has been worked by the hand."

And in a phrase that magnificently sums up Matisse's long oscillation between the need to draw vitality from the real world and the need to depart and transform it, Flam writes:

"When he did depart, he did so with such absolute conviction that he seemed to be reinventing nature as much as extending the art of painting."

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