THE UNKNOWN MATISSE by Hilary Spurling

THE UNKNOWN MATISSE

A Life of Henri Matisse, Vol. I: 1869-1908

KIRKUS REVIEW

A masterfully written biography of Matisse, whose dedication to an art of “balance, purity, and tranquility” was his primary defense against a life of hardship, disruption, and loss. Few who know Matisse’s work would equate the dynamism of his palette—full of saturated, singing colors—with the fierce emotional intensity of the man himself, but Spurling, a British theater critic and literary editor of the Spectator, makes the connection. With tremendous sensitivity to her subject, she casts the story of Matisse’s early life as “a flight toward the brilliant light” from the dark and dour northern landscape of his birthplace, Bohain-en-Vermandois, near the Belgian border. It was, she points out, the same cultural and geographic area that had given rise to van Gogh some 16 years earlier, and while Matisse’s own artistic fever was never quite as incapacitating as his predecessor’s, it was still intense. Matisse suffered from unrelenting insomnia for much of his life and sometimes —feared that the blazing colors he had let loose would end by making him go blind.— Fortunately, he escaped that fate, although he did not escape being maligned and ridiculed. When Matisse submitted Le Bonheur de vivre to the Salon des IndÇpendents in 1906, for example, practical jokers defaced handbills posted outside the local urinals so that they read: —Matisse has caused more harm in a year than an epidemic!— and —Matisse drives you mad!— Spurling delves into Matisse’s past with a historian’s eye for detail and a fervor that gives her narrative compelling force. She maintains that, from the start of his career, Matisse undertook nothing less than a groundbreaking exploration of color, form, and emotionality in painting. “Matisse was not simply discarding perspective, abolishing shadows, repudiating the academic distinction between line and color,— she writes, —he was attempting to overturn a way of seeing evolved and accepted by the Western world for centuries.” Matisse’s genius was to make conscious subjectivity the defining force of his painting; Spurling, in this first volume of his biography, excels by revealing the forces that shaped both the man and his aesthetic. (24 pages color and 152 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-43428-3
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1998




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