Issue 213
May/June 2020

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Aug 13, 2020

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Time to look at Matisse again…

Nick Jones revisits in his memories the Collioure of his youth and refl ects on the work of the master and his Fauviste compatriots

I FIRST VISITED the beautiful Mediterranean coastal town of Collioure, close to the Spanish Border, more than forty years ago. Seventy five years ahead of me, in spring 1905, aged thirty six, Matisse headed there with his wife and young family.

Back then it was a poor fishing village Originally part of Catalonia, fiercely independent, Collioure fishermen were wary of off-comers. Arty types from Paris were an unknown species. They were bemused, but Monsieur Matisse was well-mannered, and hard working. They respected him.

That summer he and his partner-in-art André Derain produced a frenzy of work that earned them the nickname 'Fauves', wild beasts, that challenged and questioned accepted norms about form, colour and content. It changed how people thought about painting, and the way artists see the world.

The Scottish poet and film-maker Margaret Tait writes about this state of mind in Seeing's Believing and Believing's Seeing: I don't have to know what it's all about. That's not what I'm trying to know. It's the looking that matters, The being prepared to see what there is to see. Staring has to be done: That I must do. I don't want to know why I do it But I know I have to look and look And see what I can see And the people I like are the people who look. No matter what they see I like them looking. The question is why?

What drove Matisse? The paintings show someone in a state of high stress, agitated, energised, as if he'd had too many coffees, and then some. Today we see beauty, freedom, and an exuberant love of nature. In much of his work. So surely he was having a good time?

Not so. This was time of high anxiety for a man driven to reveal a way of seeing that could change what had previously been unseen, hard to see, or covered up. What was it? A revelation of the pure energy of matter, the timelessness of the eternal now, the interconnection of all things, where individuality and ego dissolve.

Before Einstein had defined relativity, before wave-particle duality was fully understood in quantum physics. Nowhere is this more apparent than in 'Woman Beside the Sea', painted on the rocky shore at Collioure in the summer of 1905. At first sight it's hard to make much out at all – just a swirl of broken brush strokes – horizontals, verticals, some curves, lots of white spaces, and bright colours, applied with a thick, stabbing brush to create a restless energy, matter merging and dissolving into itself, fooling the eye into thinking that the scene is shimmering,vibrating.

Keep looking! Slowly Mrs Matisse reveals herself, sitting on a rock, reading, dressed in a kimono, with her hair tied up in a bun, Japanese style. No wonder Henri's in a state of high tension, struggling against the very nature of painting, which is to capture a moment in time, for ever.

Surprisingly it's precisely this impression of movement makes it easier to feel the fleeting moment. Look away and, surely, it will have gone. Shortly after came 'Le Bonheur de Vivre', a colourful, energetic vision of the pure joy and innocence of naked people dancing, singing, loving, just being.

A complete contrast to a long classical and western tradition of manipulative, sexist and voyeuristic nudes for the indulgence of a patriarchal elite; and to the buttoned up dress-code of the time.

These works did not go down well when shown in Paris. Only a very few off the wall types like Gertrude and Leo Stein, seemed to get them. It must have been agonising for Matisse, revealing and sharing his vision of a new better world, to witness the slide into the catastrophe of war over the next few years.

'The Open Window', of 1905, a joyous vision through open French windows onto a balcony of flowers blooming and out onto beached fishing boats, was replaced with the black abyss of 'French Window at Collioure' in 1914.

Now, over a century later, it feels like humanity has been duped again, seduced into thinking that global capitalism can deliver all that we could ever wish for.

It's becoming clear that the price is too high. To move forward to a better future, it's time to look at Matisse again. The past may be a foreign country, where they do things differently, but we ignore it at our peril.

The Unknown Matisse. Hilary Spurling. Hamish Hamilton. Margaret Tait - Poems, Stories and Writings. Fyfield Books


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