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Upending the notion of a bourgeois Matisse

Doubting such a talent could be at all dull, Hilary Spurling shows the artist as innovator in the second volume of an acclaimed biography.

October 26, 2005|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Call them brothers separated at birth.

One, raised in a secure part of Europe, was a fair-haired boy praised as a genius from the moment he drew his first picture. Success followed success, the world's horrors rarely touched him, and he was celebrated in death, as in life, as a visionary.

The other, weaned in his nation's armpit, was dismissed from childhood as a fool or a madman -- even by his friends. When he began to paint, he was charged by critics and peers with being obscene, and later by the avant-garde with being reactionary. He was tangled in scandal in which he played no part; wars ravaged his hometown and his family. Yet he innovated almost continuously until his death, smashing barriers at each step and summoning courage even as tragedy struck those around him.

And here's the shocking part: This second brother would come to be viewed as a complacent burgher who crafted pretty pictures for country houses.

"It always amazes me that Picasso is the one with the reputation for being the revolutionary," says Hilary Spurling, author of the new, much-hailed "Matisse the Master," the second volume of her life of the Spanish artist's aesthetic sibling, French artist Henri Matisse. "When you think of Picasso, what problems did he have? They were all of his own making, and mostly had to do with women.

"Whereas Matisse was born on the front lines and was always up to his neck in it. He was the first man into his town after [World War I]. Try to imagine it: the dead bodies everywhere, every tree burnt, every town razed to the ground. Matisse, then, had a tremendous, insatiable need for stability and peace. But to say that Matisse was the comfortable one, or the one who lived like a bourgeois!"

If Spurling, speaking by phone from North London, sounds a little defensive when discussing Matisse's reputation, she's come about that defensiveness honestly. A longtime biographer and journalist, she's devoted the last 15 years of her life, and more than 1,000 pages over two volumes, to tracing the life of a man born in 1869 who she was originally told was too dull to write about.

Though she knew little about that life -- there had been little written about it, in any language -- she followed a hunch:

"I could not believe that paintings of such power and energy and mystery could have been painted by a man too dull to write about. I'm not sure the man in the street had any image of Matisse. But if he did, it was the one accepted by the experts -- that he was tame and stuffy and heartless and grasping and a male chauvinist pig. And frankly, he was actually pretty much the opposite of this."

Her hunch, it turned out, wasn't far off: The new book, subtitled "A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954," has been almost universally acclaimed. Richard Eder in the Times Book Review called it "monumental ... written with unfailing grace, clarity and darting insight."

"Hilary Spurling has dug among the archives and looked very exactly at the pictures," the Scotsman's Michael Pye wrote, "but she doesn't read backwards from them as though they were somehow inevitable; she sees the risk and drama in each."

Spurling, 64, distinguishes the second volume from the first -- "The Unknown Matisse," which looked at the artist's life from his birth in grimily industrialized Picardy through his leadership of the Fauvist painters in Paris -- by describing a shift in her subject's self-image.

"By the time where I start, 1909, he really knows who he is. Of course, he's tormented -- 'Have I?' 'Am I?' 'Can I?' -- but he has discovered what he wants to do, which is to invent a new language for painting."

Enormous barriers still faced him, but he was on his way and receiving reassurance, for the first time in his life, from the support of his wife, Amelie. "A lot of the first half of his life," Spurling says, "he was casting around in a dark fog."

Besides chronicling a life more eventful than expected, Spurling also considers the artist's host of maladies, some probably brought on by his many misfortunes: townsfolk who treated him as a village idiot, a financial scandal called the Humbert Affair that tarred his name and nearly brought down the Third Republic, an elderly mother who disappeared behind enemy lines in World War I, a daughter tortured by the Gestapo.

Still, he kept working through bouts of anxiety and depression and, later, cancer -- creating not only expressive nudes and vibrant paintings such as "Dance" and "Bathers by a River" but the bold, abstract paper cutouts with which he ended his career. He flattened forms, shifted perspectives and erased shadows, favoring luminous colors and Islamic patterns.

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