Art: An immaterial world

    Spurling has just published volume two of her weighty life of Matisse, which I haven’t read yet, although I did read and admire volume one. Spurling also believes that Matisse was the greatest painter of the 20th century, but then she would, wouldn’t she? I don’t think he was. Nor should Marr. Nor should anyone else. Go along and look properly at Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams, at the Royal Academy, and you will witness a louche and lazy talent turning its back on things that matter and concentrating, increasingly and repetitively, on everything that doesn’t.

    Cloth was woven into Matisse’s origins. He was born in a textile town in Picardy, northern France, in 1869. The area supplied luxury fabrics to the fashionable couturiers of Paris, and this display includes a lovely assortment of sample books filled with the finely patterned silks and velvets that Matisse may have seen as a boy. The show claims — and the artist’s own recollections back this up — that the fabulous silks of Picardy, the outré toiles, the vivid velvets, entered Matisse’s imagination as an alternative to the humdrum browns and worn-out cottons of his dull northern home life. They infiltrated his dreams and squatted there for the rest of his career. It’s a fair point.

    Anybody who has ever been to Picardy will sense immediately the truth of this assertion. It’s a place you want to get out of: it’s flat, it’s industrial, it smells of chips and it rains a lot. The promise of pleasure you get with a fine cloth, the uplift of its colours and that evocative thing fabrics have of being able to take your imagination on holiday — all this soaked into Matisse like syrup poured on a sponge. For him, fine cloths became synonymous with the luxurious and decadent and sexy indoor lifestyle he began conjuring for himself in his art.

    The exhibition progresses by engineering face-offs between real textiles and the ones in his paintings. The real cloths come from Matisse’s own collection or have been hunted down. The opening face-offs are the most exciting, because they feature the mightiest changes. In among the vibrant pattern books of the Picardy weavers, with their Bridget Riley stripes and their Yves Klein blues, is a copy of a Dutch still life that is fiercely brown, except in those places where it’s black. Matisse painted it when he was 20. It’s rather good. Some books, a candle, a newspaper on a table, have been arranged, as they always are in this sort of Dutch still life, to remind us of time’s nasty pro-gress. That’s why the candle has gone out. That’s why the books are so beaten up. It’s a sad picture about getting old. It’s very Picardy. And it makes absolutely clear why Matisse changed as he did, and where the change would point him.

    The first piece of cloth to have a truly liberating impact on his art is pinned before you as you enter the show: a blue-and-white patterned cotton, decorated boldly with big baskets of flowers and leaves. It must have been the sheer size of the patterns that impressed him. They are huge.

    Matisse apparently spotted this loud cloth in the window of a Parisian junk shop while going past on a bus, and immediately leapt off to buy it. I like this story. It’s the equi-valent of Picasso’s famous meeting with the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter outside the Galeries Lafayette: an accident that changed an aesthetic. How typical of Matisse to succumb to an attack of amour fou at the sight of a cloth, not a girl.

    The Toile de Jouy, as he christened it, became his talisman, his prompt, his standard. The show highlights its influence in a parade of fauve interiors, most borrowed from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where so many great early Matisses ended up. Look what he does in Still Life with Blue Tablecloth, which doesn’t feature a tablecloth at all, but a huge, mad expanse of the famous Toile de Jouy, simplified and amplified to its basic swirling blues, in which a tiny coffee pot, some fruit and a decanter are being tossed about like little ships in a big storm. Matisse took so much from his Toile de Jouy. He borrowed the boldness of its patterns, its vivid coloration, the absence of three- dimensionality and that sense you get, with great fabrics, of a visual rhythm being built up that plays across the whole surface. This is the exhibition at its bravest and its best.

    Then it all goes wrong. Spending more and more time in Nice, Matisse ensconces himself in a plush two-room apartment that he converts into a kind of virtual harem, fashioned out of the hangings, sheets, screens and cushions he has collected on his travels in Tangier, Moscow, Spain. The cloths are draped all around the walls, and even across the windows, to create an exotic twilight into which he introduces a succession of beautiful, swarthy, droopy girls whom he paints lying around, sitting about, not wearing much, doing nothing. I loathe these paintings. They are corrupt, listless, pointless.

    Most of them feature his model/lover, Henriette Darricarrere, the possessor of a lithe dancer’s body that Matisse forces into a decade of grotesque inaction draped around his ersatz harem. It isn’t just the fact that the women — grandly christened odalisques by a hopeful Matisse — never stir that is so off-putting.

    It isn’t even the thought of poor Mme Matisse trudging her way simultaneously through the life of a loyal artist’s wife while her ageing mate imagines himself a pasha. What grates most about these silly pictures is their betrayal of progressiveness. The cloths had inspired Matisse to reinvent the painting act itself. Yet, tragically, all this revolutionary fervour is squandered on a meaningless return to stale beaux-arts orientalism. He’s no Gauguin. He’s no C ézanne. He’s certainly no Picasso. He’s nothing like the greatest painter of the 20th century. His trajectory is too shallow.

    In 1942, while the second world war was raging fiercely around Matisse, while French Jews were being rounded up and transported to their deaths, while Picasso, in Paris, was subtly taunting the German occupiers with his two-faced insouciance, Matisse was still in the south of France, still painting girls and fabrics, still having exhibitions and occasionally broadcasting on Vichy radio. Having carried round a travelling book of inspirational textiles for most of his career, he had moved on to collecting entire couture collections of dresses. Two Young Girls, Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress, from 1942, shows off exactly this, and only this. You either hold it against Matisse that he spent the war years continuing with his pasha fantasies and broadcasting on Vichy radio, or you don’t mind at all. I am firmly in the first camp.

    Just in case we need further reminders of the spurious seriousness of fashion, the V&A has opened an unusually silly display called Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back. Supposedly interested in the way that modern designers have riffled through the wardrobes of the past for their inspiration, the show is actually the ghastly private plaything of its curator, the hitherto obscure Judith Clark. Have I ever encountered a curator who loved herself more and her subject less? I don’t believe I have.

    The display seems to have been built largely from old orange boxes, hammered together wackily to house a selection of badly lit dresses. There is a section on the influence of theatre costumes. And another on the modern designer’s fascination with built-in obsolescence: the distressed look. In a scarily immodest video about herself, playing loudly in the corner, the plump Clark — wearing black, of course — tells us that she wants visitors to her show to be detectives working out the clues. But the only mystery here is how she was allowed to start any of this.

    There are, however, three outfits by Schiaparelli embedded in the mess. And they, on their own, repay a visit.