Thursday, July 28, 2011

John Russell's "Matisse: Father & Son"

What was it like to be the son of Henri Matisse? It depended on whether you were the first or second son. Jean, the first son, only appears in the periphery of John Russell's biography Matisse: Father & Son, but he hovers just at the corner of the eye like a fiery ball of resentment. Pierre, the younger, the son of the book's title, escaped from his father's shadow by moving to New York City, and opening his own art gallery. From the Pierre Matisse Gallery Archives comes this fascinating tale about a young man finding his own place in the world, and becoming the respected confidant of a powerful artist-pater.

As an artist, Henri Matisse described himself as passionate and egoistic. The passion smoldered within, for, as the letters between him and Pierre reveal, he was much more comfortable writing about his feelings than talking about them. In fact, Matisse ascribed the troubles in the family to their inability to talk frankly with one another. His egoism meant that painting for him took priority over everything else, much as he loved his family. The family arranged itself around his commitment to his art. This was a source of much happiness, but also, predictably, of great unhappiness. Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse's model and amanuensis, divided the family, and even led to his separation from his wife, but Matisse must have her, and he did.

About such divisions, Pierre, as emerges from this book, tried not to take sides. Cautious, circumspect, and sensitive, he brought these qualities not only to his relationship with his father, but also to his art-dealing. The bulk of the book is taken up with tracing his relationships with the artists whose works he bought and sold, and whose careers he promoted in his understated way. The artists were names to be conjured with: Joan Miró, Balthus, Georges Rouault, Alberto Giacometti, Yves Tanguy, Jean Dubuffet, among others. Pierre Matisse played a significant, if not decisive, part in putting their works in major American museum across the country. Much of the correspondence had to do with the day-to-day business of running a gallery, but Russell highlights the artists who revealed themselves as personalities in their letters. In between individual running chapters on Miró, Balthus, Giacometti and Dubuffet, he weaves chapters on Henri Matisse writing to Pierre about his paintings and the family.

Like his subject, John Russell is very fair-minded in his dealings with others. He always strives to give both points of view in a family or business quarrel. He manages this adroitly so one does not feel that he is sitting on the fence or sugarcoating any unpleasantness. Still, his warm feelings towards his longtime friend Pierre Matisse are unmistakable. If he sympathizes sincerely with the artists' complaints of delayed payments for their work, he excuses too readily, I think, Matisse's tardiness on the grounds that running a gallery was stressful and busy. Matisse should have given up his cherished notion of dealing with his artists personally, and hired office help, so that his artists could pay their bills, and not live in terrible insecurity. Matisse also sat on too much of his artists' work because, as Russell explains, he wanted to place the right work in the right hands. But that strategy meant that a lot of work was not shown and known. As a poet, I would be outraged if an editor accepted my poems but does not publish them for years.

Matisse, however, did have the best of intentions for his artists. When Miró desperately needed money, Matisse even foolishly tried to enter Spain illegally in order to bring money to him. The fact that many of his important artists stayed with him, despite tempting offers from rival galleries, was evidence of their trust in the man so vital to developing their American audience. The exhibition catalogues designed by Matisse were praised again and again by Russell for their subtle artistry. It is a pity then that there are no pictures of them in the book. Neither are there photographs of the gallery shows, which Matisse would hang himself, often on Sundays, before the exhibition openings. Russell has written an admirable portrait of an exemplary art dealer. Since the rise of mega corporate galleries and the international art market, it is, alas, a portrait of the past.

No comments: