Near the end of his life, Henri Matisse remarked that “I am made up of everything that I have seen.” A new exhibition at the Royal Academy, “Matisse: His Art and His Textiles”, explores just one part of the spectrum of his visual experiences. Modest in scale, if not in ambition, the show examines Matisse’s lifelong fascination for coloured fabrics – for the fabrics of French haute couture and interior decoration, for rugs and throws and carpets from the East, for Rumanian blouses and Byzantine prayer mats, for Kufa fabrics from the Congo, and much more besides – and seeks to prove that it is the unbroken thread running through all his oeuvre, like Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth.
The exhibition displays some eighty works by Matisse’s own hand, including paintings, drawings, lithographs and collages, all of which give great prominence to brightly coloured, densely patterned fabrics of one sort or another. In many cases, these works are displayed alongside the original textiles from the vast “working library” of carpets, curtains, coverlets, drapes, costumes, Arab embroideries and pierced screens that Matisse accumulated, from his youth in Paris to his maturity and old age in the South of France. The raw materials on which his eye, his imagination and his hand worked, are thus present, together with their transmutations in painting.
The show opens with some cases filled with books of late nineteenth-century silk-samples, testifying to the inventiveness of the textile designers among whom the young Matisse grew up in Picardy. The painter was born in French Flanders in 1869 and brought up in the textile town of Bohain-en-Vermandois. He came from a family of weavers, and his upbringing coincided with a boom in the market for luxury silk goods, fuelled by the hedonistic determination of Parisian high society, in the later 1870s and 1880s, to put the misery and privations of the Franco-Prussian War firmly in the past. His home town was famous for producing spectacular coloured silks for the Paris fashion industry, and these creations – startling arabesques of silver, sparkling on seas of azure; abstracted flowers on fields of blood red; radiant geometries of pure colour – would have formed some of Matisse’s earliest experiences of art. Later in life, he even spoke of the painters of the past as if they were fabric designers. “You can say of any particular artist that his texture is like velvet, or satin, or taffeta. The way they do it … you can’t tell where it comes from. It’s like magic – it can’t be taught.”
The extent to which the young Matisse used textiles as a kind of liberating device, to set himself free from the mimetic conventions of Western painting, is demonstrated with admirable concision in the first of the exhibition’s four galleries. As a student in Paris, working to the strict Beaux-Arts regime of copying from plaster casts of ancient greek and Roman statuary, he was only allowed to draw. He compensated for this denial of colour and all its seductions by collecting and surrounding himself with fragments of brightly coloured fabrics: “I built up my own little museum of swatches,” as he later recalled.
One of those swatches, in particular, seems to have played a catalytic role in Matisse’s art during his early career – as he metamorphosed, in less than a decade, from hesitant student to leading Fauve and pioneering master of the Parisian avant-garde. The fragment of textile in question is an unassuming length of blue cotton toile de Jouy that the painter spotted one day in 1903, according to his biographer Louis Aragon, “from the upper deck of an old-fashioned bus somewhere on the Left Bank, near the Carrefour de Buci … Matisse painted with that piece of stuff for years.” At first, this piece of off-white fabric, embellished with a repeating pattern of blue arabesques and baskets overflowing with schematic flowers, appears in his paintings as an atmospheric studio prop. It hangs on a wall behind the figure of The Guitarist, in a canvas of 1903, but in so abstracted a form that it bears less resemblance to an item of décor than to a vastly enlarged piece of sheet music – a transformation perhaps intended, by Matisse, to convey the way in which a room can be transfigured to the point where it seems to shimmer or vibrate in response to a musician’s skills. It appears again, in another picture of 1904, this time of Matisse’s second son, Pierre. Pierre Matisse with Bidouille shows the little boy as a wan ghost clutching a doll, stranded in an interior painted with such summary freedom that it resembles the memory of a memory of one of the Intimist interiors painted by Bonnard and Vuillard in Paris just a few years before. This time, the scrap of blue toile de jouy serves the role of tablecloth, creating a great expanse of pattern from which rises a columnar white pot containing a pair of purple geraniums. The whey-faced boy is dwarfed by the still life beside which he stands. Pierre Matisse, four years old at the time, had just been ill with bronchial pneumonia. His father may have wished to suggest the dream-like state of extreme illness, and a child’s sense of sheer vulnerability and smallness, through the distortions of his art.
Matisse treats the fabric swatch as a malleable abstract pattern which can be reconfigured at will to suggest different moods or ideas. He alters it as an earlier, Romantic painter might have altered the tones and cloud forms in the sky, in order to establish the emotional tenor of his work. But he also uses it, increasingly, to disrupt the conventions governing the representation of space in painting. In Still-Life with Blue Tablecloth of 1905-6 the swatch assumes the characteristics of a mist or emanation of colour, spreading beyond the physical confines of a single object to suffuse the entire canvas and collapse all distinctions between far and near. A second work entitled Still-Life with a Blue Tablecloth, painted in 1909, marks an even more daring departure than its earlier namesake. Three still-life elements, a Cezannesque bowl of fruit, a coffeepot and a bottle-green decanter, are whirled around by the patterns of the talismanic toile de Jouy fragment as if by the swirling currents of a sea. Matisse has not even bothered with the fiction of placing them on a table.
The Cubists were inspired to reinvent pictorial space, at around the same time, by an intellectual discontent with the conventions of monocular perspective. Static images produced according to such conventions, they argued, could never hope to be true to the actual texture of life as experienced by a human being in motion through space and time. Matisse comes to a similar conclusion but by a very different route. He finds a new form of picture-making by thinking of space, in relation to time, as if it were indeed a piece of fabric that can be folded back on itself. This gives him an immense freedom – more freedom, in many respects, than the Cubists, whose approach always remains somewhat beetle-browed, a doppelganger of the very classicism it seeks to repudiate. From what he sees, Matisse distils what is most vivid to him. His pictures are no longer mirrors of the visible world, but capsules containing myriad memories, each irradiated with the power of images seen in dreams.
A weakness of the Royal Academy’s exhibition is that it pursues its theme rather too literally. Many of the most brilliant and adventurous of Matisse’s pre-Great War pictures, such as his various canvases of The Dance, or the paintings of his own studio, or his Interior with Aubergines of 1912, blur the boundaries between picture-making and pattern-making to a degree that would have been almost unimaginable to artists of a previous generation. These works, are not present in the show, presumably for the reason that they do not actually contain images of specific textiles, or because the textiles which formed the artist’s particular sources remain unidentifiable. This is a pity, because they are in fact the very works in which Matisse pushes his interest in the properties of textiles to one kind of extreme.
So it is that from his work of the first decade of the century the exhibition accelerates fairly rapidly to the art that he created in his studio in Nice in the 1920s. It was then that the theme of the Odalisque, placed in circumstances somewhat stagily reminiscent of an eastern harem, much preoccupied his imagination. There are some masterpieces here, including the great Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground, of 1926, and plenty of works that demonstrate the ever-increasing eclecticism of his taste – to incorporate Spanish decorative motifs as well as those from Morocco and elsewhere in northern Africa – but not much to deepen or further an argument about the uses to which he put his source material. As the show winds further through time, engineering comparisons between the actual Romanian blouses or Parisian couture taffeta dresses in which Matisse clothed his models, and the pictures which resulted, it acquires the slightly arid feel of an art historical game. Only at the very end, in a gallery given over to the collages of Matisse’s last years – the “cut-outs”, as they have become known – is a true sense of the urgency of the artist’s preoccupation with textile-like pattern-making fully restored.
The cut-outs are both among the most abstract and the most idealised of all Matisse’s creations, as well as those that aspire most clearly to the nature of textile designs (they are even cut, with scissors, as fabric is by a tailor). Matisse referred to them, sometimes, as “signs”, and they are perhaps the most extreme examples of his desire to create the forms that he had described, in his 1908 “Observations of a Painter” – forms that would transcend “the superficial existence of beings and things”, that would express their “more essential character” and thus “give to reality a more lasting interpretation”. The cut-outs, which resembles trees or leaves or hands or butterflies or human figures, but at a far remove from reality, effectively elide painting and pattern-making. But as Matisse’s words suggest they are driven by a more than merely aesthetic determination on his part. They explain what he meant when he said that the word “decorative” should never be applied to art as a term of insult – “a work of art should be decorative above all”.
The word had a moral and even spiritual force for the painter. “Decoration”, for Matisse, was where art came closest to evoking the sacred, or at least a world more perfect than this one. He respected the greatest works of textile art, such as Byzantine fabrics, or Safavid embroideries, not just as material to be pillaged, because he recognised in its mystical intricacies of pattern another expression of his own metaphysical ambitions. In some respects he resembles the great Sienese trecento painter Agostino Duccio, who was also from a town deeply involved in the cloth trade and who also, when called upon to imagine heaven, pictured it as a great bazaar of pattern – a textile emporium in the sky.