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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Textiles in his Blood

They never heard of him. If you gained their confidence they might admit remembering his name being whispered by their parents or his family being pitied. He was a triple failure. He failed to take over the family shop, he failed at the law his family made him study, and he failed in his own quest - to paint.

Growing up in a region without galleries or museums he most likely never saw an oil painting until he was nineteen or older even. He enrolled secretly in a local art school where the shame of his failure brought embarassment for a hundred years.

Despite these surroundings, he survived. He survived because he came from a booming textile region. From the beginning as a poor art student he collected textiles. From junk stalls he collected scraps of tapestry, and he never stopped collecting. They became his working tools bringing him derision and ridicule for the art he produced being too decorative. By the time he died his studio was a treasure trove of Persian carpets, Arab embroideries, African wall hangings, cushions, curtains, costumes and fabric screens.

The textiles led him in his later years to his final great development - that of almost abstraction using collaged brilliant cut-outs. Only in the last few years has the town and region he came from finally accepted him and celebrated him as their own. The rest of us for some time have accepted him as the greatest French painter of the twentieth century.

Never wanting my own painting to descend into the arabesque or gestural decoration, it is of himself I think as I carry on painting ignoring the trickery of the third dimension. And, except in the case of serial killers, hoarding is to be considered a good thing - likely to provoke great developments in art history and probably destined for a museum. Tell your loved ones.

Alas I will not be in London for the exhibition next week. Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams is at the Royal Academy from March 5 to May 30.

Instead I will have to make do with the second part of Hilary Spurling's biography of Matisse. The story of his triple failures in the textile-rich region of northeastern France that drove him to Paris and ultimately south to Nice is told in her first volume: Unknown Matisse

Matisse the Master. A Life of Henri Matisse, vol 2: 1909-1954 is published by Hamish Hamilton on March 14, 2005

Paul Dorrell believes that without selfishness you couldn't work as well, or with the devotion you'll need, to bear you through the periods of failure and rejection.


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