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LONDON — If there was ever an artist in need of a spin doctor, it was Henri Matisse, who was maligned and misunderstood during his lifetime and for decades after his death.
Then his biographer Hilary Spurling came along and helped shift many of the perceptions of Matisse, especially in Europe. Spurling won rave reviews for her first volume of Matisse’s biography, “The Unknown Matisse: The Early Years 1869-1908.” The second volume, “Matisse The Master: The Conquest of Colour 1909-1954″ (Alfred A. Knopf), has won equally fulsome praise in England, and is set for its U.S. debut this fall.
Her latest work tracks Matisse’s career and examines his close friendship with Pablo Picasso, his dramatic family dynamics and the relationships with his Russian models Olga Meerson and Lydia Delectorskaya. Spurling, Matisse’s only biographer, relied heavily on her exclusive and unrestricted access to decades of correspondence between Matisse and his friends and family.
“He was always miles ahead of his time, and his only contemporary who understood that was Picasso,” says Spurling, who describes the two artists’ relationship as “very strong and fraternal.” Indeed, Spurling says Matisse acted like an older brother to Picasso, and argues the latter’s move into Cubism was a response to Matisse’s earlier paintings. “They were deeply fond of one another, and raised each other’s consciousness,” she says.
Sadly, with regard to his friend Matisse, Picasso was a voice in the wilderness.
Spurling readily admits that Matisse could have done with a very good publicist. The art world of the time just didn’t get him and quickly dismissed his work — especially the now-world-famous colorful cutouts — as superficial and decorative.
“His entire life he suffered abuse from the art establishment,” says Spurling. “They couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was doing. Picasso was seen as the revolutionary and Matisse was viewed as the opposite — dull.”
Those preconceptions lasted for decades after his death in 1954, and even affected the author herself. One prominent European art historian initially pooh-poohed Spurling’s idea for a biography of the painter, arguing Matisse would be “too dull” to write about. “But I was convinced that someone whose paintings had such power, force and energy was certainly not boring,” says Spurling. “It was a terrifying process, but I had to back my hunch as a biographer.”
Other Matisse legends that Spurling set out to debunk in the book include talk that he was oversexed and automatically slept with his models, and that he had dealings with the Nazi regime in France. And in addition to dispelling popular myths, she also made some interesting discoveries.
After poring over the stacks of letters the Matisse family allowed her to read, she came to an unexpected conclusion. “He should have a second reputation as one of the great letter writers of the 20th century. The cache of letters is astounding, and I could have written 10 books based on them,” she says. “They are so vivid, rich, powerful and moving.”
The author also underlines the major role that women played in Matisse’s life. “They were all extraordinary — his wife, his daughter, Lydia. Unlike Picasso, who saw his women either as goddesses or doormats, Matisse liked women who could box back,” she says.
Spurling, who has also written biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Paul Scott, is clearly passionate about her subject, but after 15 years of research — and two hefty volumes of prose — she says she’s more than ready to move on.
“When I finished writing, I felt like I’d been crushed by a tank,” she says with a laugh. “This biography completely occupied my life — it was like a marriage that finally ended. Now, my life is my own again. I’m in recovery.”