Reading Matisse’s ‘Jazz’ (1): the Sword Swallower

At long last, I’ve been to see the Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern. After two hours, I was still in room 1, where the pages of Matisse’s book Jazz are displayed, frieze-like in glass-topped cases around all four walls, with the artist’s original cut-paper collages mounted above. A rare opportunity (unless you own one of the original editions, or a recent facsimile) to enjoy the text pages and pictures in sequence, as Matisse intended.

Two hours of reading and looking prove what I’ve long suspected – that Matisse’s refutal of any connection between the dazzling cut-outs and  his scrolling lines of script is utterly disingenuous. Twice in the text, up front and again at the end, he insists that the flowing calligraphy serves as neutral wallpaper:  resting the eye between the vivid colours of the pictures. Move along, he insists, nothing to see (or read)  here… But there is, and how.

Yet many (even most) art historians overlook the close interaction of Jazz’s words and imagery. Writing just a few years  after the book’s publication, the great American museum director (and Matisse’s personal friend) Alfred H. Barr is categorical:

‘Though five or six pages of text come before every stencil there is little obvious relation between them. They were intended more as a kind of interstitial padding to rest the eye between bouts with the dazzling plates. Matisse explains [this] in a preface to the text […]. Besides the first and last paragraphs […] there is only one line referring to the specific subject matter of the prints, and that concerns lagoons.’ [1]

This may go some way to explaining why (frustratingly for many visitors I overheard) the Tate has not included small translated text panels, enabling non-French speakers to experience the words and pictures together. We are perhaps too eager to take Matisse at his word and overlook his text: afraid to by-pass the master’s opening pronouncement. But Matisse’s book offers rich rewards for anyone prepared to ignore him and read on. And with supreme, classical apophasis, it seems to me that’s precisely what he is inviting us to do – provided we can read French, of course. For while the text of Jazz has often been translated, the resulting English versions have never been published ’in situ’, interleaved with the pictures  in the original order, so that the precise interaction between the two may be fully appreciated by art lovers with no command of the book’s original language.

Alastair Sooke’s excellent, short study of the cut-outs, Henri Matisse, A Second Life (piled high in the Tate bookshop and well worth a read) quotes American art critic Jack Flam: [‘Jazz’ is] the closest thing to an autobiography Matisse has left us.’ Jazz is indeed an intimate, autobiographical narrative, charting the progress of Matisse’s art  and soul, from horror at the slingshots and arrows of criticism levelled at him from time to time (and especially just before and during the Second World War) to the joy and serenity of his final years, so vividly expressed in the later cut-outs. Alastair Sooke gets to the heart of the pain, violence and catharsis that are the essence of Jazz: ‘For me,’ he says ’the juxtaposition of the overt brightness of the illustrations and the darkness of some aspects of their subject matter is what makes Jazz such a powerful and moving work of art.’  Sooke also acknowledges some connection between the words and pictures: ‘This undertow of violence and melancholy is reinforced by the text, which refers to the “violence” of the colour plates and begins with an image of bodily mutilation: “He who wants to devote himself to painting must begin by cutting out his tongue.”’ But Sooke gives little evidence of the detailed interaction between words and pictures throughout Jazz. I would take his statement a step further. For me, the precise interweaving of Matisse’s remarkable, often underestimated text with the in-your-face brightness and inherent, dark pain of the pictures, is what makes Jazz such a powerful and moving work of art.

Take the opening reference to the artist cutting out his tongue: Matisse is quoting one of his own, earlier statements on art, before pondering why he has now chosen to express himself with ‘means other than those which are inherently [the artist’s]’ – namely words, rather than colour and form. The big, scrolling words in Jazz are ‘PURELY VISUAL’ he says (spectaculaire in French, meaning ‘there to be looked at rather than read’). The script is interrupted here with block capitals for the only time in the book: Matisse is protesting too much, bien sûr. He goes on to state his intention to do just what we might expect:  since the neutral, black-and-white script is a visual necessity, breaking up the vivid colour, he will use the text pages to ‘set down some remarks and notes taken over the course of my existence as a painter’, and begs ‘the indulgence generally accorded to the writings of painters.’ We have permission to read his words after all, but must accept them as random jottings of no special merit. I beg to differ. Matisse knows full well what he is about – remember, he has just emerged from the agony of war and life in a society split asunder by occupation and rival loyalties. A place where everyone, collaborators and resistants alike, learned to dissemble and communicate under cover.

Some commentators have linked the opening reference to the severed tongue with the picture interleaved with pages 93 and 94 of Jazz – the Sword Swallower.

A white-faced, bald head is shown in profile, flung uncomfortably far back, the throat swelling and the jaws forced painfully wide to receive three elongated rectangles containing pointed, undulating black blades. A small, three-petalled, floral cut-out stands for the eye. Certainly, this image of oral pain has some connection to the cutting out of tongues. But there’s more. The text immediately preceding the picture (on p.  93) reads:

A new picture should be something unique, a birth bringing a new figure into the corpus of the representation of the world through the mind of man. The artist must bring all his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest modesty to bear as he works, discarding the old clichés which come so readily to hand and may choke the little flower  which, for its part, never comes as we expect.

Here, then, is the artist choked by visual cliché, struggling to nurture ‘the little flower’ of fresh creativity: a clear link to the Sword Swallower’s pose, and the sprouting form of the small black cut-out in the middle of the white globe of his head – the artist’s eye and/or a budding type for the ‘new figure’ which Matisse’s cut-outs engender in the corpus of representational art.

The text immediately following the Sword Swallower reads:

A musician said: In art, truth and reality begin when the artist no longer has any understanding of what he does, or what he knows, and there remains an energy that is all the more forceful for being thwarted, compressed, constricted. And so we must present ourselves with the greatest humility, all white, all pure, with complete candour, the brain seemingly empty, in a state of mind analogous to that of the communicant approaching the Holy Table…’

This after an image of a pure white, blank, profile head, thrown back in the manner of a communicant ready to the receive the Host, but receiving instead a trinity of swords thrust painfully down the throat. Without the text, our understanding of the picture may be quite different. ‘See the man singing?’ said a woman to her small son as I moved slowly around the room at Tate Modern. ‘See all the singing coming out of his mouth?’ Perhaps the Sword Swallower is the embodiment of the often painful process of artistic inspiration (in every sense of the term), and the agony and ecstasy of the creative outpouring that results?

Clearly, these are not merely (as Matisse states on p.141 at the end of his text) ‘crystallisations of memories of the circus, popular fairy tales or travels’ interspersed with pages of a painter’s musings and jottings. There is more afoot:  the words and pictures in Jazz are working together in detail, page by page, to generate much deeper, subliminal meanings, inexpressible by either medium in isolation. Matisse is wrestling with the intimate matter of his ‘artist’s existence’ and more besides, expressing himself not merely through ‘those means which are inherently his’, but through words and pictures combined.

More of this anon…

flower

[1] Alfred H. Barr, Matisse, his art and his public, 1951.

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