Andrew Lambirth

Visual feast

A good many years ago I wrote a short article about the recent work of an artist (who shall remain nameless), and characterised it — in a very positive way — as ‘decorative’. This did not go down at all well, and I was asked to change what I had written and remove this offending word. I refused, and the piece was not published. Such was, and still is, the stigma attached to ‘decorative’. Though it can be intended as praise, it is more often construed as damning criticism. The one great painter whose work has always defied such narrow categorisation is Henri Matisse (1869–1954). A new and utterly delightful show in the Academy’s Sackler Galleries addresses for the first time the heart of his preoccupation with la décoration, by showing some of the fabrics he collected. These have been stored away for the half-century since Matisse’s death, an unseen treasure awaiting this moment and the revelations they offer about their owner’s approach to making art.

The exhibition is the brainchild of Hilary Spurling, the distinguished biographer of Matisse, whose second and final volume on the master has just been published by Hamish Hamilton (see review on page 53). Her research made it clear how crucial the role of fabrics was in Matisse’s life, right from the start. He bought textiles even when he had very little money, always travelled with a selection of them and described his collection as his ‘working library’. As Spurling writes: ‘Matisse’s ancestors had been weavers for generations. Textiles were in his blood. He could not live without them.’ And he made sure he didn’t have to: searching junk stalls and flea markets for old and frayed stuffs (‘noble rags’, he called them) which spoke to him of their possibilities for his art, buying sashes and turbans and harem pants, carpets and couture dresses, Romanian embroidered blouses and African fabrics, in an orgy of sumptuous and decoratively varied acquisition.

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