You might remember Matisse (and others) hitting the headlines in November with the discovery of a hoard of Nazi-confiscated artworks. At the time I was already reading this biography, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2005.
It was a difficult book to settle into and not because eight years and several previously unknown Matisse works later, I was guessing chunks of it might need revising. There’s its sheer size for starters: over 500 pages each measuring 17.5cm x 23.5cm (as against 12.5cm x 19.5cm for most paperbacks) and weighing over 1.1kg (that’s 2.5lb in imperial), making it hard to hold comfortably, never mind carting it to work and back each day so I could read it on the train. (Isn’t this where an e-book comes into its own? Note to publisher: why is there no Kindle edition?)
There’s also no getting away from the fact that this is the second of a two volume set, and I haven’t read volume one, The Unknown Matisse 1869-1908. Being plunged straight into the critical furore raging around the 30-something Matisse was a bit disorientating to say the least. And then there was my ignorance of art in general and Matisse’s art in particular. This is an “art book”, whatever any reviewer says to the contrary, and my lack of knowledge put me at a disadvantage.
That said, despite my ignorance, or perhaps because of it, it was the analysis of the paintings – those with colour plates to look at – that proved to be the most interesting part of the book. Otherwise it was a soporific procession of people, places and dates, not all that engrossing or entertaining (unlike, say, Clare Tomalin’s biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which won the same award in 2002).
In retrospect it might have been better to read the abridged Matisse: The Life, which condenses both volumes into a single book.
* Not for me but worth a try if you’re an art buff?