Madame Wanda de Guébriant a confirmé l'authenticité de cette oeuvre.
Born in a textile region, surrounded from birth by weavers' and designers' workshops, Matisse collected fabrics from his earliest beginnings as a poor art student, scouring Parisian junk-stalls for scraps of threadbare tapestry, to the last years of his life when his studio became a treasure-house stocked with screens and hangings, curtains, coverlets, costumes, Arab embroideries, oriental carpets and African raffia mats. His collection was strictly practical. He called it his "working library"1, and packed samples from it to take with him when he travelled. Textiles fired Matisse's imagination, and never more so than in the decade leading up to World War I when for the first time he constructed his canvases directly from pure colour. He said that the medium itself - "fresco, gouache, watercolour, coloured stuff" - was not important2. What mattered was the texture of the colour, and the emotion it discharged.
Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose, painted in the spring of 1911, belongs to a long experimental sequence based in these years on flowers or fruit and textiles. This particular sub-series was inspired by the Nature morte au géranium of 1910 (fig. 1), a canvas which aroused such passionate enthusiasm in Wassily Kandinsky that he persuaded the Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin, to commission two more still-lifes of the same size on the same theme that winter3. What impressed Kandinsky, Shchukin and the painting's owner, Baron Tschudi, the director of Germany's imperial museums, was the boldness of Matisse's colour, and the unequivocal modernity of his abstract construction. He built his picture round a length of printed cotton known as the toile de Jouy, a favourite and much-painted textile, what Matisse called 'a key volume from my painter's library'4. In Nature morte au géranium the toile de Jouy plunges diagonally across the canvas with the momentum of a waterfall or whirlwind, sweeping the real flower-heads into the careering rhythms of its floral print, assimilating the painted bowl or cushion at the centre of the composition, simultaneously aerating and flattening out the entire picture plane while absorbing the white walls of Matisse's studio within its own chromatic scheme of turquoise, blue and pink.
Les Coucous, based on another key volume from Matisse's textile library, is by comparison a model of lucidity and balance. It was painted exactly a year later, at the same time as the great Atelier rose (fig. 2), another cool, light-filled, linear canvas whose overall design centres on the "coloured stuffs" laid out across it like a palette: pale ochre rug, turquoise fabric screen with pink flower blobs, and at the centre what seems to be the same fabric that occupies the lower part of Les Coucous. This was a blue-and-white, hand-woven, woollen rug with a pattern of foliage, flowers, pomegranates and little animals, motifs that would change shape and colour on Matisse's canvases, shifting to pink or creamy yellow and back again to white. He said that the carpet had caught his eye in an antique shop in Madrid on a trip to Spain in the winter of 1910. "It's not in a very good state, but I'll be able to work a lot with it, I think," he told his wife5. He paid a revelatory visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada before painting his new textile for the first time, combining it with a patterned sofa, a batch of Spanish shawls and the pot of geraniums specially purchased to fulfill Shchukin's order for a pair of still lifes6 (fig. 3): Canvases which transpose the standard still-life components of flowers, fruit and fabric into a riotous oriental frieze of swirling line and rich hot colour. The blue carpet regained stability and composure in the Atelier rose, which Matisse started as soon as he got back to France at the end of January, 1911. This was the first of four huge symphonic wall panels (also commissioned by Shchukin)7, whose influence would seep slowly and powerfully into Western painting over the next half century and more.
Les Coucous, with its flat, hard-edged expanses of pure colour, is a companion to Atelier rose8, perhaps even a kind of blueprint designed to clarify the chaotic process of creation. At this crucial juncture when Matisse turned away definitively from the old laws of perspective and three-dimensional illusion to the new, internalised, purely pictorial spaces of the future, he painted instinctively, struggling to extract clarity and order from a seething turmoil of conflicting urges. He said he realised only in retrospect that he had unconsciously varied the pressure of his brushstrokes and the thickness of the paint so that the surface underneath "shone through more or less transparently, giving the impression of a precious moir silk"9. In Les Coucous gleams of underlying pink animate the turquoise wall filling the upper part of the canvas, while the pink motifs on the dark blue textile in the lower part are edged in turn by turquoise. At some point Matisse seems to have reversed his entire colour scheme, switching pink and turquoise, a procedure borrowed initially from the weavers of his childhood which he employed at intervals throughout his life to the bewilderment of fellow painters10. "It's not a different picture," he explained, when asked his reason for repainting the vast colour-saturated ground of Harmonie en rouge (1908), which had originally been deep blue. "I'm seeking forces, and a balance of forces"11.
These formal tensions are effortlessly balanced in Les Coucous. The ostensible subject may be a vase of cowslips but in effect the stiff florist's bouquet jammed into its tall pot functions primarily as a stabilising device, a solid column that pins down and holds in check the agitated motifs of the textile on which it stands. Energy radiates from these vigorous, vaguely anthropomorphic shapes with their protuberant curves and flippers that might be identified as a dancer's limbs, breasts, hips and whirling draperies, or as a pomegranate's spiky crown. The sense of incipient flux is forcibly restrained by the vase so firmly planted on its rounded plinth, by the vertical strips of pink and orangey-red on the left side of the canvas and by the horizontal grid running along its upper edge, where a small early landscape hanging against the moulded plaster cornice appears to be propelled forward from the wall by its own pink shadow.
Matisse reversed the same two colours a year later in the majestic Corbeille aux oranges (Musée Picasso, Paris), where once again a radiant orchestration of purple, orange, plum-pink and deep blue revolves around a more or less transparent textile - pink this time with turquoise underlay, and a pattern of floppy flower bouquets - so full of vibrant life that it seems almost to float upwards, bearing with it the fruit bowl that holds it down12. In La famille du peintre (fig. 4), a second huge wall panel painted immmediately after the Atelier rose, the central textile is an Afghan rug pinned in place by the figure of the painter's daughter, reduced to an elegant impersonal black silhouette whose long narrow waist and slender arms echo the two-handled vase in Les Coucous. In these extraordinary paintings the separate components - textiles, flowers, fruit, ceramics, even the human figure - submerge their individual identities in semi-abstract compositions whose implications would not be systematically explored until the 1950s and 60s, when a whole generation of American Abstract Expressionists, led by Jackson Pollock, found itself galvanised by the arrival in New York of Matisse's Atelier rouge, painted as a counterpart to his Atelier rose in 1911.
"Expression and decoration are one and the same thing," said Matisse13, who infuriated his contemporaries by refusing to acknowledge the supposedly impassable barriers separating a moribund Beaux-Arts tradition from the freebooting experimental energy of the decorative arts. It was no accident that the greatest collectors of the radical canvases he produced before the First World War were two textile merchants from Moscow, Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, both as familiar as Matisse himself with the vocabulary and syntax of decoration. It was a language that held no secrets from couturiers like Paul Poiret (who loaned his workshop and a team of assistants to Matisse in 1919 to work on costumes for Diaghilev's ballet, Le Rossignol), and his sister Germaine Bongard (who designed clothes for Matisse to paint in the early 1920s). In 1923 Jacques Doucet bought Matisse's seminal Poisson rouge to pair with Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon in what might have become France's first great pioneering collection of modern art if Doucet had lived longer. "Painting has always been a passion with me," said Yves Saint Laurent14, citing Matisse among the half dozen painters whose work reverberated down the years in his own creations. On the only occasion when he showed his collection in his lifetime, Saint Laurent was photographed beneath Les Coucous, one of the canvases in which the fabrics Matisse painted became themselves the actual fabric of his painting.
Hilary Spurling, November 2008.
1 Lettre de Henri Matisse à Marguerite Duthuit, 29.11.43, Archives Matisse, Paris.
2 Lettre de Henri Matisse à Alexandre Romm, 17.3.34, D. Fourcade, Henri Matisse. Ecrits et propos sur l'art, Paris, 1972, p.149.
3 A. Kostenevich et N. Semyonova, Collecting Matisse, New York, 1993, p.168.
4 Lettre de Henri Matisse à Marguerite Duthuit, 10.8.42, Archives Matisse, Paris.
5 Henri Matisse à Amélie Matisse, 11.12.10, Archives Matisse, Paris.
6 Nature morte (Espagne) et Nature morte, Séville, Musée de l'Ermitage, St Petersbourg.
7 Les autres étant La famille du peintre, l'Atelier rouge (Musée de l'Ermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg) et Nature morte aux aubergines (Musée des Beaux Arts, Grenoble).
8 Matisse rentra à Paris fin janvier 1911, Shchukin lui ayant passé commande en Espagne de L'atelier rose, qu'il présenta au Salon des Indépendants le 26 avril (voir H. Spurling, Matisse the Master. A Life of Henri Matisse, Londres, 2005, vol. II, pp. 72-73. 9 D. Fourcade, p. 149.
10 J'exprime ma reconnaissance à M. Thomas Seydoux qui a attiré mon attention sur cette inversion dont on trouve d'autres illustrations dans, par exemple, La Rêverie, 1911, La Table de marbre rose, 1916 et Intérieur au chien, 1934.
11 D. Fourcade, op. cit., p. 129, no. 96.
12 Pablo Picasso acheta ensuite ce tableau.
13 D. Fourcade, op. cit., p. 308.
14 Yves Saint Laurent, dialogue avec l'art, catalogue d'exposition, Paris, Fondation Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, Paris, 2004, p. 8.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Naure morte au géranium, 1910.
Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, L'atelier rose, 1911.
The Pouchkine Museum, Moscou.
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Nature morte (Espagne), 1910.
Musée de L'Hermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg.
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, La famille du peintre, 1911.
Musée de L'Hermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg.