Black Sunshine: Matisse in Morocco (Les Marocains, 1916)

Henri Matisse on horseback in Morocco, where he would paint the classic Les Marocains (The Moroccans) in 1916.

Life should be full of strangeness
Like a rich painting
But it gets worse day by day

‘How I Wrote Elasticman’ – The Fall

Matisse had a miserable time in Morocco. In fact there was rarely a moment in Matisse’s life where he wasn’t miserable. During a 1941 interview he talked about seeing everything (in) “black”; his chronic insomnia, his depression and fear of failure. Common stock when it comes to creative types, but generally not the sort of things most people would associate with Matisse or his paintings. Tellingly, he would later prohibit publication of this interview citing editorial disagreements. It seems that he preferred to be seen as cute and cuddly rather than dark and brooding.

For Matisse, life was a series of disappointing (and occasionally spooky) vacations. Reading his biography puts one in mind of the horror writer MR James, for whom Matisse would make the ideal protagonist—stentorian, standoffish, and constantly menaced by the notion of ‘presence’. What a letdown Tangiers must have been: nothing at all like the hipster fantasy of French literature. He arrived in the city halfway through a month-long rainstorm. Most of the time, he told the poet Gertrude Stein, he stayed in his room.

Matisse – Les Marocains (1916)

This painting, produced in the shadow of the first world war and the battle of Verdun, took Matisse over a three year period to complete, so he was relying a great deal upon his imagination and memory. When he started in November 1914 he was suffering from bronchitis. He recovered of course, only to then immediately become ill again, this time with the flu and also tinnitus caused by a painful abscess inside his right ear (“I’m in a bad way,” he wrote to a friend). Illness was a constant in Matisse’s life, from childhood to his final infirmity. Perhaps this explains, in part, the signature character and mood of his canvases—those beautiful views glimpsed through bedroom windows. “I want a balanced and pure art that does not worry or trouble,” he said. “I want exhausted and tired men to enjoy calm and rest in front of my paintings.”

Henri Matisse's painting, "Moroccans in a Cafe", which features Moroccan men reclined against an aquaramarine background.
Matisse – Moroccans in a Café (1913)

The Moroccans fits in nicely with the description provided by Matisse of an art representing calm and comfort. It recounts, after all, one of the few aspects of life in the casbah that truly stuck with him: the quality of oriental meditation. He was intrigued by ‘those great devils who remain for hours lost in contemplation of a flower or some goldfish’. We see a composite of the various cafetinés and arcades that he sketched in situ during his holiday, the robed customers lounging, talking, squatting to play cards or smoke hashish, their slippers lined up in a row at the entrance.

Henri Matisse's black and white sketches and messages made out to his wife.
Sketches made in letters from Matisse to his wife

A quick doodle of some Arabs drinking on a flat roof contains the germ of what will become The Moroccans. We can see the terrace and view of the domed mosque in the distance. Matisse, however, has taken a great deal of surrealistic liberties with the scene. He transfers the stripes of the canopy onto a bunch of stylised flowers. The turreted ramparts of the medina have been rearranged into a series of blocks and discs. A group of watermelons in the bottom left hand corner appear on first glance more like contorted human beings than fruit. Even the light itself has been reversed, the clear sunshine replaced by a uniform black ground.

Some would describe this painting as an orientalist fantasy. And it is, partly. Still, it’s worth noting that Matisse himself was rather critical of the majority of orientalist ‘romantic sleaze’ being produced at the time (least of all by his nemesis Renoir). Postcolonial criticism wasn’t something that just sprung up in the aftermath of 9/11, after all. In the 1910s middle class aesthetes and literateurs could be very intelligently critical about the effects of empire and imperialism. As part of an intellectualised pop culture it was normal for white orientalists to be hip and discerning—in order to better reconcile their bourgeois fantasies with the unavoidably horrible reality of what France was doing in Africa. Andre Gide is a perfect example of this sort of thing, and so is Matisse. In short, it was the orientalists who were the first to identify orientalism as a ‘problem’.

Like so many other works of orientalist art The Moroccans is a western dream of intimacy and escape. But it also represents a vigorous attempt to make something modern—to turn ‘romantic sleaze’ into French Poetry. What this meant for Matisse was an increased tendency towards the brazenly artificial: to ‘dominate’ reality and by ‘extracting it’s substance, to reveal it to itself’. According to his friend Alberto Severini the strategy was “that everything that did not contribute to the balance and rhythm of the work…had to be eliminated. That was his way of working: constantly stripping the work down, as you would prune a tree.”

Pablo Picasso's "Portrait of a Girl" (1914), which a cubist painting featuring a feminine character in a mostly green and flowery backdrop, perhaps in a room.
Picasso – Portrait of a Girl, 1914

Matisse’s intense rivalry with Picasso was also a considerable urging force at the time. The competition between these two artists as documented in their various encounters with one another’s work would lead to some of the most daring and radical paintings of the twentieth century, including Picasso’s early cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and The Morrocans, which finds Matisse responding in turn to Picasso’s now fully-formed cubist aesthetic. Vestiges of Picasso’s angular, scratchy drawing style and syntactical geometry can be found everywhere in the modelling of the figures and the overall drive to simplicity. Matisse is toying cautiously with the idea of being a cubist, here, albeit via cubism on his own terms.

An ancient Iranian painting featuring a respected figure on horseback receiving adulation from those above.
Persian miniature – 1300 AD, Iran

The influence of Persian miniature painting is also noteworthy. The picture space is composed of decorative cells which appear to be at different distances from the picture plane. There is no hierarchical sequence of planes receding into depth, but a simultaneity of presentation, the simultaneous presence and pressure of all sections of the picture surface, of equal intensity in terms of colour. Furthermore there are several incongruous viewpoints or perspectives. We appear to be simultaneously looking out at the flying balcony, down on the ‘melons’, and down on the mysterious circular object directly to the left of the seated Muslim. Various elements such as the balcony, the sitter and carpet of white grid lines (a tiled floor?) appear to float rather than rest. Here and there we see touches of scratchy modelling and shading as in the diagonally cast shadows that rake across the architecture in the top left and between the green foliage. The arm-shape and the inward-slanting window shutter, again out of scale with the rest of the picture, cut into and out of depth, dividing the picture into two separate spaces.

Yet the most subtle elements of the picture come from its use of colour. In particular the right hand third of the painting with its dirty grey pink looks to have been extensively reworked in order to unify with and across the picture. Just look at the contrast of black and violet and how they work to conjure up a completely believable sense of an open space filled with soft light. This subtlety of adjustment is the key to Matisse’s rich use of colour and his ability to use colour to create a complex sense of space. We get the cavernous deep space of the black ground and the broken continuum of different architectural zones filled in with scratchy, zigzaggy brush strokes. The over-painting and opposition of pattern and colour creates a symphonic ordering of effects, which nonetheless follow a logical sequence, naturalistic and lyrical in their interaction(s).

The picture is not wholly reliant on colour for its effect, however (as some have claimed, for instance, of Mark Rothko) nor to this identification with the literal canvas itself. As mentioned, there a fair bit of volumetric shading and modelling going on, such as in the sitters, the fruits, and the balcony bric-a-bric. In fact, the whole picture abounds with an interplay of line and contour, of forms competing for a completeness of illusion.

People tend to overstate Matisse’s anti-naturalism, possibly because of his status as a forerunner of abstract high modernism. However, Matisse’s concern with evoking sensations of light and space was absolute and a direct encounter with any one of his pictures, even those from his so-called radical period (an example of which is currently under review) easily confirms this fact. There is always a subtle catalogue of Illusionistic devices at play, of reflective convex and concave surfaces inflected at various angles towards and away from the eye. The flying carpet in The Moroccans for example helps to cinch the impression of a receding box-like illusion of depth. This is a part of the aforementioned logical sequence implicit in Matisse’s drawing and uses of colour—a series of systems which nonetheless permit a great deal of uncertainty and tension. Safrano Roses at the Window (1925) is another brilliant showcase of Matisse’s talent for constructing exciting perspectives, albeit more deceptively simple than The Moroccans.

Henri Matisse's "Safrano Roses at the Window" (1925), which shows a mostly pink bouquet against a window with a pink sky.
Matisse – Safrano Roses at the Window (1925)

Here I am flogging these mouldy old chestnuts of flatness and space again, and in a manner not a million miles from how I chose to describe Braque’s Studios or Constable’s Vale. These terms, while stimulating to the imagination of a painter or perhaps a sculptor will possibly seem antithetical to the aims of a predominantly literary audience. Also while writing this I can’t help but feel I may have wandered into one of the mantraps laid for western critics writing about orientalist art. I’ve set aside a decent portion of this essay by concentrating my empathy on Matisse as a person—his noble intentions, his casual cherry picking of other people’s cultures for his own ends.

But one can’t help but feel that our common criticisms of orientalist aesthetics are perhaps…a little dated? Edward Said’s landmark essay simply doesn’t hold up in a postmodern context, and feels a little, dare I say, quaint. What would he have made, I wonder of Tokyo’s Harajuku district, with its anachronistic loligoths and punk skinheads?

At its best, orientalist art can show a healthy and respectful admiration of otherness, and in Matisse’s case, the otherness represented by other cultures in the minds of a middle class European audience, for whom locations like Tangiers were so incomprehensibly far away they might as well have been on the moon.

Two major aspects then of twentieth century culture are present in this painting. The drive towards an austerity and monumentality in modern abstract design, as embodied by the Mudéjars in the cafetinés, and the movement of modern, global citizens: tourists, immigrants, cosmopolitans sampling one another’s cultures in cuisine, music, painting and architecture. Indulging, admiring, travestying and desiring the worlds we move through and between.

Matisse may have had a rotten time in Morocco but he used this experience to create one of the most radical paintings of the twentieth century, whose effect was so strange that even to its artist it seemed a stranger. He would never paint a picture as weird as The Moroccans—and certainly not for lack of trying—as is the case of The Piano Lesson. Even the late great cutouts can’t help but appear a little mannered when compared to The Moroccans’ black sunshine.

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