My Matisse

Howard Ginsberg
Jermyn Street Theatre

Publicity graphic

One colourful set of cut paper collages, known as gouaches découpés, empty picture frames, hanging bird cages, some miniature sculptures and other studio odds and ends are the backdrop to the unfolding tale of personal experiences of seven women in Matisse's life.

The 'My' in question is that of each of these women. Each in turn monologises her retrospective experience with the artist that touched her life. Each embraced 'her Matisse' with some of the joys and pains in their relationship with him. We quickly learn that Henri Matisse belonged to none of these women; they belonged to him. That is with the exception of Gertrude Stein, the celebrated American-Jewish art connoisseur and writer (Fiz Marcus). Marcus interjects some humour into her character.

Gertrude, a lesbian, had never been infatuated by Matisse and therefore her perception of him, mercifully, lacked the emotive sentimentality of an obsessive female. She respects but does not worship him. Matisse, she declares, is a great artist but certainly not the greatest. The greatest for her is Picasso. Matisse, she says, is 'a moral coward' indulging in decorative art while great historical events are taking place. 'Art is war. Art is politics' but not for Matisse. He is busy drawing nudes and basking in the Mediterranean soleil while her hero Picasso produced Guernica.

The other females in his life range from his mother Anna (Toni Kanal) who provides some background biographical information on her now famous son, Amelie, his devoted wife (Johanne Murdock), Marguerite, his daughter (Sarah Corbett), Camille one of his early models and apparently Marguerite's mother (Jane Murphy), Olga, his 'red nude' Russian lover movingly acted by Sophie Shaw and Lydia his muse and companion for the last twenty years of his life, performed by Julie Rogers.

All seven protagonists deliver a passionate account of the man they all loved and worshiped in different ways.

Amelie is the only character that gives indication of the physical passing of time. We meet her in her prime and follow the deterioration in their marriage to the point of separation. She recalls his works and styles, laments his departure from the bold and exciting paintings, which were associated by art critics with the 'Fauves' painters. Amilie's Matisse was a great artist and the husband to whom she bore two sons.

Corbett's performance was particularly engaging. She is dressed in Matisse's emerald green and moves about the confined stage with vigour and energy. Corbett sums up Matisse with the words: 'my father loved his country like he loved his family, from a distance'.

Although Ginsberg attempts to show that Matisse was loved and adored in different ways by each one of the women, the end result is rather dull and flat. Most of the characters come across as rather insipid, despite the fact that there were hints of a deeper personality behind each of them.

The Press Release indicated that the play explores the private life of the artist who was painting happy pictures in the French Riviera while his wife and daughter were being tortured by the Nazis. We encounter an artist who lived for his art. Each and every woman in his life was easily replaceable.

Lydia, the young Russian model who had become his muse, confidante and companion, claims that she protected him from the outside world. She did so, we are told, to ensure that his gentle soul was not affected. She did not mention to him that his wife and daughter had been captured and tortured by the Nazis in order to keep up his morale and painting activity.

So, here you have it. It was all his adoring muse's doing. A hint of his illness is interwoven into her monologue. Ginsberg played down a well know fact that Matisse was seriously ill with duodenal cancer and had two major operations in 1941. This may be a legitimate and credible explanation for his total oblivion to the raging war.

The play is short on humour and drama. Much of Matisse's personal life can only be the subject of conjecture and Ginsburg could therefore have used artistic licence to add dramatic content and engage better with his audience.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson

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