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.

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