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A Portrait of Madness and Color

THE UNKNOWN MATISSE, A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908, by Hilary Spurling, Alfred A. Knopf, $40, 480 pages

November 02, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1905, while living in the Mediterranean fishing village of Collioure on the frontier of Spain and France, Henri Matisse completed a painting titled "Luxe, calme et volupte." Taking his title from the refrain of the Baudelaire poem "Invitation to a Voyage," Matisse was painting on a personal frontier. After 15 years of penniless experimentation, he was set to jettison the pointillist theories of Paul Signac and the Divisionists for a leap into a world where color, in the words of his comrade-in-paint Andre Derain, "became stacks of dynamite."

Yet at the same time Matisse was struggling with color and form in a way many could describe only as madness, he was insisting that all he was seeking was clarity and calm. "Nothing is stranger," wrote one friend, "in an artist so impassioned, so vehement and so tormented, than this longing for tranquillity."

"The Unknown Matisse," Hilary Spurling's biography of Matisse's first 40 years, from the birth of the artist to the division of Paris, in the words of Gertrude Stein, into Matisseites and Picassoites, takes the unraveling of this conundrum as its principal task. "Matisse's fierce, unrelenting interrogation of his own darkest moods and instincts felt at times like madness. It took all his resources of nerve and imagination to impose a previously unimagined equilibrium on what seemed the fevered images of a disordered brain."

It also took an understanding wife and family. Spurling does an excellent job of setting Matisse within a complex family plan--the son and son-in-law of confusedly supportive bourgeois--a man with enough of a family conscience to return to his Flemish hometown and its subdued tones when his in-laws were caught up in a massive banking scandal.

Within this plan, the leap from the earth to the rainbow that Matisse's palette took in the short time between 1903 and 1905--illustrated by two sets of color photographs of the work of Matisse and several of his contemporaries--is all the more stunning. "Although the dream first came within his grasp under a Mediterranean sun, he remained to the day he died a man of the North . . . [with an] obstinacy, perseverance and, on the other, the austere, concentrated feeling he shared with the great Flemish masters: a spiritual intensity released again and again at crucial points in his development as a painter by the light and color of the south."

If Spurling's reminders of Matisse's Flemish origins as the grandson and great-grandson of weavers occasionally produce the narcotic effect of a textile pattern, the psychological portrait she sketches of Matisse, caught between the burghers of Calais and the bathers of Collioure, vibrates in a way that explains much of the seeming contradiction in the life of the artist. Matisse's embrace of an ordered family life, through his wife, Amelie, and the financial support of his parents and in-laws, is precisely what enabled him to drive himself to the edge of his nerves in his search for his own artistic truth. Order and beauty, as Baudelaire dreamed in his ideal world, are the perfect companions to voluptuousness and luxury.

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