More luminous than an electric light bulb

Peter Conrad on Matisse: The Master by Hilary Spurling, in The Guardian:

MatisseAll painters stare at the sun, which for them, as the dying Turner said, is God. Matisse, however, seemed to monopolise its light; as Picasso said, he had the sun in his belly. He devoutly practised this heliocentric religion, abandoning northern gloom for Provence or Morocco or Tahiti.

He equated creativity with incandescence: a palm leaf he painted in Tangier spread itself spontaneously across the canvas, leaping into being ‘like a flame’. In the grim winter of 1917, he was sent a box of mandarins by an admirer. To him, the globes were a solar system: ‘It’s the only sun we’ve seen,’ he told the donor.

The colours Matisse concocted rivalled those of nature, and even outshone the artificial light ignited by science. Designing Stravinsky’s ballet Le Rossignol, he gave the dancers Chinese lanterns that were vermilion on the outside and yellow within, so they’d look more luminous ‘than an electric light bulb’. Who but he, sailing into New York at night, would see the city as a ‘block of black and gold mirrored on the water’?

He believed those seething, sparking colours had an almost biological charge; they were the expressions of what Henri Bergson called the ‘elan vital’ of fertile nature. He found the same athletic energy in line. Cubism was too obtuse and abstract, he said, to appeal to his sensual temperament; he was ‘a lover of line and of the arabesque, those two life-givers’.

More here.  Also at The Guardian, John Elderfield salutes the scholarship of Hilary Spurling’s new biography:

MatissegoldfishSpurling has done better than anyone else at uncovering intimate information about Matisse. She has interviewed more people than anyone else; has combed the public archives more thoroughly; and, most important of all, has had greater access than any previous researcher to Matisse’s correspondence. Because this volume covers the period of Matisse’s great fame – from 1909, when he was 40, until his death in 1954 – it cannot pretend to the revelations that occasioned the title The Unknown Matisse for her preceding volume on his early life. However, it is full of previously unknown incidents and details that correct mistakes and misapprehensions and that clarify or expand the known record to complete what is, astonishingly, the very first serious biography of the artist – and destined to remain the standard biography for a long time.

More here.