Where to Start with Matisse“You just get blown away first and foremast by the vibrancy of the colour.”

As heard on arena

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Posters of the work of a certain cohort of auteur and artist are perennially found plastered on the walls of rental accommodation or student digs, but on Tuesday night’s Arena, Conor O’Callaghan was on hand to help contextualise the work of one of these ubiquitous artists – Henri Matisse.

“If you go and see a Matisse in the original you just get blown away first and foremast by the vibrancy of the colour.”

It was this vibrancy and expressiveness that associated Matisse with the Fauves movement but later he, along with Duchamp and Picasso, were lauded as being key innovators in 20th centry Modern Art. In fact, his rivalry with Picasso informed many of his works, but while Picasso’s influences included his suitably debauched and hedonistic lifestyle, one of the only threads that carried through Matisse’s work was textiles. Not quite so rock’n’roll.

Henri Matisse was born in a weaver’s cottage just outside Picardie in North-eastern France. He came from generations of weavers of linen and other traditional textiles. As Conor O’Callaghan says:

“He always kept as a sort of visual reference for himself, he kept little scraps of textiles wherever he went and had them pinned above his desk.”

And while much of his work is marked by bold use of line and colour, his own lifestyle belied this vibrancy:

“Matisse […] lived a humdrum little life and the most significant aspects of his life, the most significant moments of his life, happened alone in a room in front of a canvas.”

Conor continued by recounting legendary art historian Quentin Bell’s disappointing first impression of the artist, upon meeting him in London in the 1930s. He was surprised by the plain little man and underwhelmed by his lack of vivacity.

“Bell says, ‘No trace of greatness could I find – Matisse might well be eminent in the world of insurance or real-estate.’”

Plain he may be, but his life was devoted to slaking an unquenchable thirst for colour.

Another reoccurring theme in Matisse’s life was his ongoing rivalry with Pablo Picasso – a relationship that Picasso’s muse and partner Françoise Gilot likened to that of siblings:

“Matisse was the older, more sober sibling who painted in a suit and tie; Picasso was the embodiment of the modernist artist, and he was like the kind of wild young brother.”

One of the pieces discussed on the programme was The Piano Lesson from 1916, read by many as Matisse engaging with the cubist tradition and the dialogue between the straight lines and the undulating curves could be read as a dialogue between both artists. After his death in 1954, Picasso was the first to acknowledge the impact of Matisse on his later work.

“There is one famous account that they spent a night together sitting up and basically Matisse lectured Picasso on the rights and wrongs of his work.”

But back to the Matisse that we see so often reproduced on postcards and posters – ‘his second life’ and the papier découpés. Holed-up in his house after a debilitating illness left him unable to work as he had previously, he turned to a new medium and the large collages with which he’s now synonymous. It’s with his blue nudes and dancing figures he came closest to absolute abstraction.

The Henri Matisse paintings discussed were The Red Studio (1911), The Piano Lesson (1916), Zorah sur la terrasse (1912) and Matisse’s Blue Nudes. You can hear the full conversation between Seán and Conor by going here and the above-mentioned paintings can be seen on the @rtearena Twitter timeline.

Gemma Craddock

  • Image URL:http://joel.gaillard.free.fr/steph/atelier_rouge_matisse_1.jpg, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21478316

© The Listener 2021

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