Matisse: mud and air

Towards the end of his life Matisse complained gloomily to his daughter, Marguerite, that artists were victims of random circumstance: 


'Artists are like plants whose growth in the thicket of the jungle depends on the air they breathe, or the mud or stones among which they grow by chance and without choice.' (449)


The denizens of an outpost of the Bloomsbury set made great and merciless play of the nearby 'gloomy' and 'boring' Matisse.  One of the strengths of Spurling's account is her reluctance to label Matisse - unlike Elderfield who is happy to call him narcissistic - and let the narrative speak for itself.   And she is good at locating the narrative within its broader political, social, artistic and familial context.


Matisse's fateful groan about the artist's helplessness and dependence on chance is belied by his own life.  He was an obsessively active protagonist in his own fate and in this he was backed by the absolute commitment of his wife, Amelie.



Amelie and Henri Matisse
Amelie and Henri Matisse

Matisse may have had some bad luck: most of his work was locked away in Stalinist Russia, or in Nazi Germany or behind the locked doors of an American collector but he had some luck too: he had access to the educational, economic and emotional resources to get himself to Paris with enough drive and self-belief to sustain and develop his art practice in the incredibly dynamic milieu of early 20th century Montmartre.


This was the 'air' that he breathed in the fecund jungle of early Modernity as it squared up (cf Cubism ha ha) to the stultifying academic art systems of the late 19th century.  


His 'mud' was the solid agricultural and industrial tradition of Northern France, of the small-time merchant success of his parents, and a resilience, belief and enterprise ('aspiration', we'd call it now) that seemed to spring from this.


Perhaps less explicitly commented on in Spurling's work were the gender relations of Matisse's time that enabled him to enlist a string of devoted women into his artistic project and organisation.  It was they who put the food on the table, organised the household and artistic business, and protected and buoyed him up in the face of the derision of both the art academy and many of his contemporaries.  


Lydia Delectorskaya at work in the studio of Matisse.
Lydia Delectorskaya at work in the studio of Matisse.

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