Friday, 10 October 2014

The year of Matisse

Matisse – and friend
It was in early September last year, as a chill returned to the air and the shadow of longer nights crept across the light. Just a short while after our return from the Roussillon, I found a book that promised to include a reference to Collioure.

In which case, Hilary Spurling’s Matisse the Life seemed to offer a welcome way of holding on to the light and the warmth and the colour a little longer.

Collioure merited quite a lot of mentions – enough that I learned new things – but beyond that, the book succeeded in drawing me into the work of an artist whose creative explosion in the village in 1905 had proved a seminal moment in modern art.

And from there it was but a short step to wondering where I might be able to find some of his work in London.

At which point, it’s apt to explain that Matisse and I actually go back a long way.

As a teenager studying art for A’ level, part of the course covered the history of art.

Unfortunately, in those days, I could never ‘get’ modern art – and that included Fauvism, the name given sarcastically to Matisse and his fellow artists after critics viewed the artistic result of their stay in Collioure that year.

Red Beach (1905)
Indeed, it was only within the last couple of years that I even remembered that we’d been taught about Fauvism – although beyond remembering the name of both the school and Matisse himself, I recall no other detail, which rather illustrates my point.

Picasso I ‘got’ – at least in terms of comprehending that, when you can do what he could do at 16, you’re going to have to move somewhere very different or stand still and stagnate.

At around about the same time, a school-organised visit to the National Gallery produced my first experience of some van Gogh in the ‘flesh’, blowing me away with the colour and his use of impasto to such an extent that he became an instant favourite – in spite of not being even remotely photographic.

Philosophically, my tastes were all over the place: I loved the likes of van Eyck and, in terms of more recent art, the Impressionists – but Renoir far more than Monet, the latter being too ‘modern’ in his abstraction – and that was as far as I was prepared to entertain the ‘modern’, apart from Picasso, Lowry and photo- and hyper-realism.

Portrait of Greta Moll (1908)
Indeed, it’s possible that that liking for van Eyck – specifically, a love of the Arnolfini Wedding – was essentially because I could view it as a form of early photo-realism.

There were, I suspect, many reasons for all this, but suffice it to say that, in ways I had no comprehension of at the time, it seems likely that a very traditional unbringing contributed to a mental blockage when it came to anything ‘modern’ – particularly when it was ‘experimental’ and abstract (I had the same sweeping attitude toward modern serious music too).

Anyway, fast forward again to last autumn and the search for works by Matisse in London.

Initially, that took me to the National Gallery, which claimed online to possess Portrait of Greta Moll from 1908.

But on visiting, it was nowhere to be found and nobody knew anything about it.

A week or so later, with time to spend in the Aldwych area of London late one afternoon, I decided to make a first visit to the Courtauld Gallery.

The Viaduct at Arcueil (1898-1900)
I was fully prepared to see that institution’s Impressionist works, its Cézannes, its van Goghs and its Gauguins: I was not prepared to walk into a room and suddenly see, when turning around, Matisse’s Red Beach, from 1905 – and to see it just a few short weeks after sitting on precisely that spot at Port d’Avall.

In an instant, the colours made sense – perhaps mostly because my unprepared response was an emotional one, and an emotional response to a subject was precisely what Matisse and his fellow Fauves were attempting to convey on their canvases.

After all, with cameras able to make a photographic record, why try to do the same thing in paint?

There were a couple of other Matisse works in the same room, but that first sighting was, I think, the moment at which I fell in love with his work.

In late November, visiting the Walker Gallery while in Liverpool for work, produced another unexpected spot – this time, a very early Matisse, The Viaduct at Arcueil (1898-1900), which is an excellent illustration of the subsequent impact of the light and colour of the south on this northern artist.

Luxe, Calme et Volupté, (1904)
And right at the end of the year, the mystery of the missing Portrait of Greta Moll was finally solved when we walked into a room at the Tate Modern to see it hanging there, on loan from the National, presumably.

As for 2014, it brought with it the news that the spring and summer Tate Modern blockbuster was due to be Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, covering the late works.

It  seemed to be an astonishing piece of good fortune to have such a major exhibition close at hand so very soon after starting to really appreciate the artist, and it proved to be close to a spiritual experience and one that had its own arty ramification, of which more later.

In the meantime, July’s trip to Paris afforded further Matisse moments.

Port d'Avall (1905)
First, the long-awaited visit to the Orsay saw another of those occasions of walking into a room to find an unexpected pleasure – this time, Luxe, Calme et Volupté from the year before Collioure.

Matisse, having moved from Fauvism to what was known as Divisionism, was already moving on again. But in a small side gallery, with few people around, the opportunity existed to really take in this beautiful canvas, both from distance and then up close to examine the brush work.

Like so much art, reproductions – no matter how good – don’t do justice to the actual work.

The Snail (1953)
The week also produced a number of gems in the Pompidou, and then further works – albeit it from the ‘difficult’ Nice period – at the Orangerie.

But when you’re really getting to grips with the lifelong work of a particular artist, it’s as valuable to see some of the less-successful works as it is to see the iconic pieces.

It was after Paris, though, that I decided to take out a Tate membership – with the initial intention simply being to revisit the cut-outs. Indeed, I returned for a third visit in late August.

And for all that each visit gave me something new – and I felt something like pain knowing that it would not be in London for much longer – it is with forehead-slapping irritation that I only now realise that, in standing so far back from this vast piece, I’d failed to spot the detail, in the top left corner, of the tiny snail cut into the paper.

Then September arrived and it was back once more to Collioure, where the reproductions hung around the village made more sense than before.

Taking a look around the new headquarters of the Fauvism Trail, with its welter of prints of the relevant works by Derain, I suddenly spotted something on the wall behind the desk and, completely ignoring the issue of whether that was out of bounds or not, dashed to see.

It was a print of a long, narrow painting from 1905: Le Port d’Avall, and for some reason, it’s not well known.

Matisse, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson
It’s important – and this is what saw me hasten past the woman at the desk – because it’s as much a getting-past-Divisionism piece as Luxe, Calme et Volupté.

The Collioure paintings of Matisse that are regularly see are, like Red Beach and View of Collioure, along with the famous views through open windows.

But this was different: this was a link to the previous stage in the artist’s development: the great leap forward was just around the corner.

It was the perfect way to mark the end of a year when I finally got to know Matisse and really appreciate his work.

In her book, Spurling writes: “Discussing luminosity long afterwards with his son-in-law, he [Matisse] said that a picture should have the power to generate light.”

There’s more than one work I’ve seen this past 12 months of which that is most obviously true.

And when you finally ‘get’ that, you understand just why Matisse was so good – and so important in terms of the history of art.

It has been a remarkable year of learning and understanding – and sheer joy.

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