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Book of the Week: 'Matisse' by Lawrence Gowing

'Matisse', Lawrence Gowing,
Thames & Hudson, 1979
If you’ve ever seen paintings by Lawrence Gowing (1918-1991), you would recognize the style of the Euston Road School: portraits, interiors, some street scenes, some landscape, still lives; muted colours, covering the full spectrum between brown and dark brown; very moody and quiet in tone; a certain looseness in the paint application, drawing a little from the work of Cezanne, but based on observation; in the context of the time, traditional and quite conservative. In many ways Gowing would be the last person you would expect to write a great book on Matisse. Yet in my opinion this is the best book not just on Matisse’s art, but one of the best books every written on the process of painting itself.

In a biography of an artist, such as Hilary Spurling’s excellent two-volume life of Matisse, you don’t expect profound art historical analysis or complex theories about the artistic process. It’s usually enough if the biographer tells a good story, gets the facts right and puts in lots of detail, makes the artist come alive as a person, and does a competent and not too outrageous job when talking about the art. In a monograph such as Gowing’s, the opposite temptation presents itself: to write nothing but philosophy, or to bog the reader down in repetitive descriptions of painting after painting. Gowing’s book moves judiciously between the main events of Matisse’s life and the work he made at each stage. Gowing gives the reader a sense of the importance of Matisse’s discoveries, and more importantly, when he talks about Matisse’s work it’s as if he is not merely describing what he sees, but is recreating the very process of Matisse’s visual perceptions. Here is Gowing on Matisse’s early (1899) painting ‘Le compotier et la cruche de verre’:

'Le compotier et la cruche de verre', Henri Matisse, 1899

“The completeness of the picture has little to do with descriptive consistency. It depends rather on correspondences between colours whose descriptive reference is barely indicated. The fruits are no more than orange discs or flat yellow crescents, extraordinarily elementary and direct by the standards of the conventional styles that Matisse has been using up to this point. Looking closely one can follow the whole story, as one often can in Matisse’s pictures afterwards. A golden yellow makes both the crescent of direct light on the fruit and the reflected light on the panel under the window behind. This colour has a family relationship with the yellowish white of the curtain that falls between them. We can see that the magically clear pale colour, which stands for the translucent linen, was arrived at almost by chance in the preliminary scumble  on the patch that shows below the bowl of the compotier. The tapering strip of curtain above was originally a blue-grey, which related it the shadow on the compotier. It was reworked in thick jabs of yellowish white to match the transparent paint below, and so discovered a subtler agreement with the patch of reflected light inside the bowl, which has hardly any colour; the priming is barely washed over by the paint.” (p.26)
This is clearly written by someone who understands the techniques of oil painting on canvas, but which also tries to tell a story about how Matisse might have created the picture, brush-stroke by brush-stroke, and how that process, in the last year of the 1800s, had already brought Matisse to the point of pushing colour beyond the need merely to represent the position of things in space, and their actual colour relationships.
Of course, there are many ways of looking at Matisse’s art, but as you read this book Gowing presents a powerful case for his own lens. Looking through my own copy, I see that I underlined many passages, which bear repeated reading and reflection:
“Matisse studied everything and he worked from morning to night all his life to ensure that the apparent spontaneity of the result should be thoroughly rehearsed.” (p. 32)
“(Matisse's Fauve paintings) defined an extravagant interplay of colours with a naturalness that made any other context or purpose in painting seem, for the moment, irrelevant.” (p. 53)
“He was instinctively reserving for painting an element more specifically and purely visual that anyone else could detect.” (p. 62)
A propos Matisse’s return to painting from the model: “Making a fantasy almost incongruously real, Matisse was systematically reinforcing his faith in painting as a source of undisturbed pleasure.” (p. 143)
On the final decoupages pictures: “…the equations are so simple and self-evident that they confront one irresistibly with the element in painting which is not equated with anything. The realities are the ideal states of energy and of rest which colour creates on the picture surface.” (p. 183)
Gowing’s writing, with its combination of plainness and eloquence, is capable of accommodating the intellectual implications of Matisse’s art, without wandering too far into the thickets of discourse. Every page has something original and refreshing to say about Matisse and about painting. Above all, Gowing reminds us that the purpose of criticism is to confirm the sense of delight that great art instills in us.

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