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April 05, 2005

Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams - Richard D. North finds spirituality and sensuality

Posted by Richard D. North

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 show at the Royal Academy punches lots of buttons. It has about it the exotic and the erotic. It has hints of souks, couture houses, brothels, harems and jumble sales. There are notes of an almost pervy obsessiveness. It is drenched in colour and light, but is also quietly religious: it is about almost painfully private dreams and fantasies.

We'll come to the sexiness in a minute, but it's important to note that Matisse's work is even more obviously sacerdotal than most. His dancing cut-outs are pagan and pantheistic in the manner of cave-painting. His religious robes, done for that extraordinary Roman Catholic chapel at Vence, would have been as happily at home in a Festival of Britain celebration of modernity. (In the early Fifties my father brought home colour cards from the paint firm he worked for: Gaymel was proud – and he was proud – to have provided a good deal of the sheer brightness by which the Festival showed the country to be on the move, in a new mood, and it was one of an uplifted cheerfulness which our less innocent time can't ever quite match.)

Matisse's work seems more purely celebratory than almost any other. But his work is not at all unusual in the way that we can make it serve as a focus for whatever our spiritual purposes are. All painting is more or less like that, irrespective of whether the painter or the painter's subject are religious.

And then there is the quality of pilgrimage which those Riviera painters bring to our lives. Northerners fall in love with the French Riviera. It's a story repeated in every generation, and the power of the thing in part hangs on the quality of the people who had the same epiphany, and recorded it. Dufy, Picasso, Cocteau and – of course – Matisse: these people (Northerners or not) weren't required to make the Riviera a resort, it had been that for years, but it was their work which made it into a particular Eden. The Riviera became more exotically cosmopolitan in their eyes: Greek myths, Islamic orientalism, African moorishness: these were all flowing through the painters' minds.

The coast between St Tropez and Monte Carlo remains perfect for a modern pilgrimage. It is vulgar and affluent, which makes it nicely edgy for those of us who have trekked there for the Cistercian monasteries of Le Thoronet or Les Isles de Lerins (a short boat ride from Cannes). And then there are the scatter of museums, and various once-private houses including, best of all, Matisse's Villa La Rêve at Vence. Its slight scruffiness allows one a certain (not very well-deserved) sense of exploration. So one has the big Matisse museum at Nice, his own home, and the chapel with which he signed off: no-one else, not even Picasso, has left so much that we can pick amongst.

I can't say how well-worn is the Royal Academy's story about Matisse as a man steeped for all his days in fabrics, but it was news to me. Even if they had read the Hilary Spurling biography, or knew the story from somewhere else, I am pretty sure that until this show very few people would previously have seen the sheer extent and depth of Matisse's pre-occupation with fabric. He was born to a family of weavers in an area of wool mills in north-eastern France. It is easy to imagine the charge of pleasure which he got from swatch-books, with their almost furtive glimpses of brightness and glamour, speaking of the luxury of bright lights and city nights.

And we have the story of Sergei Shchukin, a Russian textile manufacturer, who became Matisse's patron and was also uniquely empathetic with the painter's preoccupations. Presumably, this is also the route by which so many of the show's paintings have come from the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Several others are in private collections. That leaves the rest of the show to come from a ragbag of museums from all over. Few of us will have put the story together properly, before this show did it for us.

So here we have an extraordinary revelation. It's a large body of work which is also wide in range: from vestments for priests to gauzy stuff for odalisques is a fair stretch. The passion for colour and shape is consistent across the work, of course. But it is the power of the central contention which is so beautifully brought to us: the fabrics really are the stars. The swatch books at the beginning of the show matter: they are like an installation in their own right (indeed the whole show has the feel of a piece of theatrical art).

The sensuality in Matisse's work is obvious: he didn't paint semi-naked girls for nothing. Better, he didn't paint fully-clothed girls sexily for nothing. This is a show for people who like girls in big frocks. Recently, we've been well served with offerings which allow the power of the erotic and the fashionable in art. Fabric of Vision at the National Gallery in 2002, and – even more overtly – the Boucher show at the Wallace in 2004 were both orgies of the soft and luminous, the fluid and luxurious. They were a fetishist's delight, and especially if his or her taste extends toward the mostly-concealed rather than the mostly-exposed.

It's of no great importance, but of some curiosity, to wonder the degree to which Matisse was a fetishist, a little pervy round the edges. Probably he was. He had, it seems, a properly Nabokovian interest in accumulation. He seems to have enjoyed intellectualising about his subject. He is described as having a "library" of fabrics, and if that meant that he was into classification and categorisation, then that's another dead give-away of the person who is hooked. He was an antiquarian of textures, a bibliophile of folds, and perhaps a pornographer of pattern.

Another sign is, if I read the reviews of Spurling's new biography right, that he was not an altogether resolved person. He was not, perhaps, a J M Barrie or a Hans Christian Andersen or a Lewis Carroll, but he wasn't without his quirks and kinks either. Good for him. If the amazing joyfulness of his art – its apparent but entirely adult simplicity – is a matter of sublimation for him, so much the better can it be the same for us. This is the world of Vogue and Victoria's Secret, a world where refinement and atavism meet: a world, in short, very like ours.

It isn't simple, childlike people who go round Matisse's cut-outs, for all that they have some resemblance to primary school scissor work. Even less is it schoolchildren who lose themselves in the dressing-up box at the Royal Academy. This stuff is wonderfully "adult", though it isn't remotely "X-rated". It's fabulous to have a fully grown-up, complicated Matisse shown to us full-on.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published this month by the Social Affairs Unit.

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