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April 05, 2005

Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams - Christie Davies finds pleasing paintings and tedious textiles

Posted by Christie Davies

Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams
Royal Academy, London
5th March - 30th May 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (Friday until 10pm)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
23rd June - 25th September 2005
Tuesday to Sunday 9.30am - 5.30pm (Fridays and Saturdays until 9.30pm)

The Matisse exhibition at the Royal Academy confirms two truths: that Matisse was a talented painter from the very start of his career and that textiles are boring.

The exhibition begins with Matisse's early still lifes notably Still Life with Bottle of Schiedam, 1896. There are no defiant bright pure colours here but it is a masterpiece. A sombre square blackish bottle of Schiedam gin is flanked by a pewter jug and fronted by dark red apples. A very ordinary table knife and half a lemon complete what is perhaps a mere copy of an earlier Dutch picture. Nonetheless, it exudes a combination of dark, frugal Calvinism and alcohol, one step up from the Western Isles. Outside it is, no doubt, raining. Who needs the bright light of Nice? Woman Reading, 1895 is set in a late Victorian interior with patterned wallpaper, cluttered surfaces and too many family photographs on the wall. Nothing wild here but then why should there be? Matisse's home town of Le Cateau in the North East of France was about as exciting as Rochdale or Burslem. Only Smith-Dorrien ever livened it up and he got sacked, eventually, for doing so.

Scattered around nearby are the sample books of local textiles which first taught Matisse how to live in Flatland. They look like sample books. They are about as entrancing as the fabric and carpet shop belonging to the cousin of a Middle-Eastern tour guide. Here too is Matisse's favourite dish cloth, his 'Toile de Jouy', a piece of down at heel blue and white cloth, toile de Jouay en Rosas linen, that he acquired in 1903 from a junkshop. Matisse clung to it all his life like the comfort blanket of Charlie Brown's friend Linus. This schmutter looks like the dresses worn by women with steel teeth from small town Soviet Russia, all of whom had been clad from the same roll of decorated cloth. It sits in and spoils many of Matisse's paintings, even dominating what could have been a fine still life. Only once does it appear to advantage, in his Portrait of Greta Moll 1908. She is splendidly trapped between the enlarged blown up pattern of the 'Toile de Jouy' and her own green and white spattered blouse. Her blue slightly divergent Northern eyes match exactly the colour and the pattern of the 'Toile de Jouy' to her right. Her eyes and the basic pattern of the toile look like the Arabic and Persian version of the number five.

The organisers insist you look at Seville Still Life 1910-11 described as "a riotous assembly of Spanish textiles". It is about as exciting as Mrs Lucretia Bourgeois of Lille showing off the covers on her new three piece suite.

It is a relief to move on to Matisse's luxurious Frenchwomen of the 1920s pretending to be slaves and concubines, 'odalisques' of the Sultan, and lolling in the harem waiting for him. After World War I Matisse began to paint the dancer Henriette Darricarrière in Turkish trousers and flimsy blouses. Sometimes the blouse is missing. In Odalisque with Screen 1923 this athletic dancer poses tautly in front of a large, sharp, multi-rayed plant, her tambourine beside her, like a Pompeian mural. The odalisques would be fine pictures but for his obsession with patterned backgrounds which tends to spoil them. A splendid exception is Seated Odalisque 1926 whose massive limbs of bright green trousered legs ending in long white feet are offset by a blue wall-hanging like an arch with its diamond shaped interstices filled in with red. Between them is the brown and yellow striped, comfortable arm-chair on which she sits with her legs drawn up to the side. Her large knees contrast with the small breasts that poke out of her transparent blouse. Other odalisques are blouseless and posed stretched so that their breasts are forced upwards. Particularly fine is his Large odalisque with a Bayadère costume (Odalisque à la Culotte Bayadère) 1925.

No doubt Matisse will be criticised for his decadence and 'orientalism'. He is hardly decadent by the standards of his French predecessors such as Boucher and Watteau and anyway Nice is like that. Also, what is there to object to in orientalism? These female objects look little different from those painted on the walls of the women's quarters in the princely states; no doubt they offended the good ladies of the Vicerine's Zenana Mission but why should they offend us? The reality of the burqua where even the eyes are hidden behind a grid is so hideous that nothing conjured up in a lubricious orientalist fantasy could be worse. Chuck it, Said.

Also it is not unrealistic for Matisse to use European women as his models. The old Turkish ruling class were particularly fond of buying Polish slave girls, which is why members of the Turkish elite today are so much fairer than the Anatolian masses. Likewise women engineers from Pakistan who have lived in Saudi Arabia and visited the sunless inner recesses of wealthy homes and seen the local women in a state of undress have told me enviously of how very white(gora) they were. My female English chaperone, Fardos Khan and I said nothing. I had forgotten their observation until I saw Matisse's odalisques.

The paintings of the odalisques enable one better to understand Matisse's nudes. His nudes are not so much sans culottes as déculottée. There are only a few of his nudes in this exhibition but his nudes are what Matisse is remembered for.

Next in the exhibition comes the opposite to Matisse's nudes, an entire tedious room full of clothes collected by Matisse. Women without clothes are succeeded by clothes without women. The massed traditional skirts and blouses of the exhibition feel like an East European folklore museum. No, I am not interested in knowing how the dress traditions of Plovdiv differ from those of Veliko Tarnovo. Here too is Matisse's war-time collection of haute-couture. A woman behind me said, 'gorgeous'. She was not speaking to me.

Another who bore a remarkable resemblance to Miss Marple pointed at a dull brown dress and said to her companion 'very naughty'. I realised to my horror that she was referring to the fact that it buttoned, and presumably unbuttoned, all the way down the front. I did not think that women of that generation and social class thought like that and even voiced these thoughts among themselves. I felt as embarrassed as if I had being eavesdropping on a private scandal.

Matisse, however, transcends this nonsense in his Themes and Variations Series P, Woman Seated in an Armchair 1942. The clear line, the blank, (i.e. missing) oval white face framed by a hint of hair, the strained bodice, the arms of the dress merely outlined in black and white reveal the art of the master. Here in pen and ink and without any distracting pattern of curtains or tablecloths is a memorable dress, a dress without a woman.

In later life severe illness meant that Matisse had to give up many of his more physically demanding artistic pursuits. He cut out drawing, he cut out painting and eventually he cut out paper shapes. Many of them are here. In the end it really was curtains for Matisse.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction 2004.

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Fascinating to have read two quite such different reviews of the same show - must say that I thought Prof. Davies review was on the money. Can't see how anyone can find frocks in an exhibition exciting.

Posted by: Jane at April 7, 2005 02:38 PM

Why should Le Cateau be compared to towns in Lancashire or Staffordshire? Matisse sounds more like the stereotypical Yorkshireman who says "Ee, that's a nice bit o' material".

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 11, 2005 06:51 PM
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