Reading Matisse’s ‘Jazz’ (3): The Cowboy and the Knife-thrower

‘What does believing in God have to do with cowboys?’ asked a visitor to her friend as I pored over the pages of Matisse’s book Jazz at the Tate Modern Cut-outs show in London this summer (catch it now, Stateside – Cowboy included – at MoMA). What indeed?

Jazz Cowboy

The Cowboy shows two bulbous, anthropomorphic black shapes, one wielding a lasso or whip, the other caught off balance by the lashing cord. In Jazz, it’s placed immediately opposite a passage of text entitled Si je crois en Dieu? (‘Do I believe in God?’), on pp. 98-102:

Do I believe in God ? Yes, when I’m working. When I am downtrodden and humbled, I experience such a feeling of being helped by someone who makes me do things that are beyond me. And yet I feel no gratitude towards him because it’s as if I find myself in the presence of a conjuror whose tricks I cannot understand. And so I feel frustrated by the benefit of the experience which ought to be the reward for my efforts. I am thankless without guilt.

The passage is inserted between the Cowboy and another picture evoking a circus double-act – the Knife Thrower. A tall, pale blue silhouette of a woman (like an amphora at the bottom of a lagoon) raises her arms while a vivid magenta form seems to leap and dance on the spot, directing a sharp, pointed blade at a cut-away black frond covering her heart: a second image of one passive figure confronted by the mysterious skill and showmanship of another.

Matisse Jazz Knife thrower

And so, perhaps, a connection between these two images and the text they frame begins to emerge. Remember, too, that the passage of text immediately before the Cowboy (see Reading Matisse’s ‘Jazz’: 1) describes the humility of the act of taking Communion, and that the picture before that is the Sword Swallower, his head thrown back in the gesture of a communicant at the altar rail, gulping down a throatful of jagged knives. There is progress of a kind from the utterly subject, choking sword swallower, to the cowboy’s adversary, not quite bound by the lasso, and finally the tall, pale figure of the knife thrower’s target, quietly self-sufficient, poised, untouched, even victorious, at the end of the sequence. Progress, too, from the sword swallower’s invisible but infinitely more powerful tormenter, to the lasso-wielding cowboy, depicted on more or less equal visual terms with his counterpart, and the knife-thrower, who might almost be dancing in impotent frustration. Matisse has cogitated his relationship with his foes (God, his critics, his innermost demons?) and having written and pictured it, moves on.

The next passage is a glorious hymn to the power of love and happiness. ‘Love wants to rise above, unrestrained by anything here below’ – a phrase surely anticipated in the image of the woman seemingly unperturbed by the knife-thrower. God is no longer a frustrating conjuror, but a sublimated presence ‘above all living things’ (p.118). Not an invisible tormentor, but the fount of all love. The artist must keep travelling and never arrive, says Matisse, because

‘arrival = Prison and the artist must never be a prisoner. A prisoner? An artist must never be: a prisoner of his own self, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, his success etc… Didn’t the Goncourt brothers write that Japanese artists of the golden age changed their name several times over the course of their lives. I like that: they wanted to vouchsafe their freedom.’

Matisse is preparing the way for a change of artistic identity, a change of medium, and a new sense of personal and artistic freedom. From here, Jazz dives delightedly into the Lagoons that are the book’s clearest pointer to the joyous forms and colours of the later, post-war cut-outs. The artist’s spiritual journey – his personal progress from the lassos and knives hurled by his critics (and darker, more nameless forces), from war, from his own past – is plain to see and read, inexpressible in words or pictures alone, but communicated here by the interaction of both.

The great American art historian Alfred Barr took Matisse at his word (in the opening and closing lines of Jazz), seeing no connection between the book’s text and images, except (most obviously) in the Lagoons towards the end. Like many others, Barr accepted the scrolling text pages as visual ‘background noise’ allowing the eye to rest between the vivid, dancing colours of the plates. But Matisse’s disavowal is disingenuous indeed, as I hope these articles make clear.

Translation is part of the problem. The visitor quoted at the beginning of this piece had the advantage of understanding French (the Tate Modern provided no translation), but she had not engaged in the close reading of the composite visual and literary text that the book requires. For readers with no French, the task is still more difficult. Jazz has been translated several times, but always with the English text as a separate appendix and never ‘in facsimile’, with the English written out in the same, scrolling script, interleaved with the pictures in their original sequence. This is a tall order, of course, but one that might help us to better understand Matisse’s path to the glorious, inspirational cut-outs of his final years.

 matissejazzlagon2

 

 

Reading Matisse’s ‘Jazz’ (2): Icarus

Icarus, interleaved between text pages 54 and 57, is probably the best-known image in Matisse’s book Jazz (still on show at Tate Modern, though time is running short).

Icarus

Similarly, the passage known as ‘The aeroplane’ (pp. 40 to 54 in Jazz) is one of the best-known and most quoted texts in the book:

A simple journey by plane from Paris to London offers us a revelation of the world that our imagination could not foresee. And while we are delighted by the feelings inspired by our new situation, they trouble us, too, when we remember the cares and difficulties we have allowed to vex us on the earth below, visible through holes in the plain of clouds beneath us, when our present, enchanting surroundings existed all the while. Should not all young people be made to take a long plane flight once they have finished their studies?

But what hardly any commentators (since Matisse’s friend and chronicler Louis Aragon) seem to notice is that the two are placed together: first the text, then the picture. Aragon describes the black silhouette falling to earth amid ‘exploding shells’ – a clear reference to the realities of World War II, when Matisse worked on the pictures for Jazz (from 1943 to 1946) – but its impact is all the greater if we come upon it immediately after reading Matisse’s suggestion that all young people should take an extended plane journey at the end of their studies. The account of a plane ride from Paris to London (written in 1946, according to Matisse’s assistant Lydia Delektorskaya) describes something unthinkable just a couple of years before. The experience of rising to a place of eternal sunshine, far above our worldly woes, crystallises the heady relief of peacetime and the (wilfully distanced) memory of war. In this context, Icarus functions as a startling, intrusive flashback: a horrific image of an ambitious, courageous, skilled young person tumbling to earth, struck down, like so many young fighter pilots over the Channel, just when they hoped their wildest dreams might be realised. Text and picture together enact something akin to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

This extraordinary juxtaposition occurs at the heart of an extended sequence in Jazz, opening with the first lines of ‘The aeroplane’ alongside Matisse’s famous Wolf, an image often associated with the Gestapo. The ferocious profile is a savage intrusion into an otherwise delightful sheet of vivid blue and pink space, bordered by sea-green and sunny orange, and dotted with curly fronds.

jazz-le-loup

Immediately after the picture, Matisse continues:

And while we are delighted by the feelings inspired by our new situation, they trouble us, too, when we remember the cares and difficulties we have allowed to vex us on the earth below.

The image of the Wolf – jagged, threatening, red-eyed and sharp-fanged – in the sea of deep azure blue and magenta, dotted with free-floating leafy forms, embodies the twin sensations described in Matisse’s text. He continues:

And when we have returned to our modest, pedestrian condition, we no longer feel the weight of the grey sky pressing down upon us, because we remember that behind that wall, so easily crossed, there is the splendour of the sun, and the perception of limitless space in which we felt, for a moment, so free.

These lines appear either side of a page completely filled with a sheet of pale French grey punctuated by two large holes, one showing a rectangle of grassy green overlaid with black, the other a black field overlaid with pink and white, framing a vivid red heart. The holes in the grey wall of cloud, perhaps?  A suggestion of fields glimpsed from the plane? And that memory of the splendour of the sun, warming our hearts as we go about our pedestrian daily lives back on earth?

matissejazzcoeur

The suggestion of plane flights for young graduates, and the picture of Icarus, come next. Icarus’s own heart is a round bullet-hole of precisely the same red as the motif in the preceding picture. His face is an empty silhouette. The following piece of text reads:

The character of a drawn face  does not depend on its various proportions, but on the spiritual light it reflects. To the extent that two drawings of the same face may represent the same character, while the facial proportions of the two drawings may be different.

Icarus’s face is not a drawing, but a subtracted void: a featureless, characterless black hole reflecting no spiritual light whatsoever…

We celebrate, reproduce and translate, even frame and sell passages of text and individual pictures from Jazz, but we should never overlook the astonishing, sometimes appalling impact of the sequence as a whole.

 

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.