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Lives of the Artists

Is biography good for painting?

The Unknown Matisse, a Life of Henry Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908
By Hilary Spurling
Knopf; 480 pages; $40

Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera
By Patrick Marnham
Knopf; 350 pages; $35

The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí
By Ian Gibson
Norton; 798 pages; $45

Painters, as a rule, have livelier lives than novelists do. Where a writer basically sits alone at a desk, an artist does his thing amid a supporting cast of patrons, models, dealers, and assistants. While the novelist hones his private style, the painter joins and repudiates group movements. In the misbehavior category, there’s not even any comparison. As Faulkner nips from a flask in the drawer, Pollock makes a boozy public spectacle of himself. Hemingway might have a few wives, but Picasso has scores of mistresses. If the writer has mistresses, the painter has orgies.

All this has made art biographies, since Giorgio Vasari started writing them in the 16th century, pretty good entertainment. Yet it’s not immediately obvious how such stories help you to appreciate what’s hanging on the wall. If you want to grasp what Harry Truman contributed to civilization, you would do well to pick up a good bio. You can’t exactly go to a museum to view “containment policy.” Artists, by contrast, endeavor to reach us without words. A critic or art historian may direct our attention to things we would otherwise miss. But does the intimate biographer bring us any closer to the experience of art?

You might derive very different answers to that question from the three books I read over the holidays. These biographies of Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, and Salvador Dalí, all of them by British writers without backgrounds in art, represent alternative approaches to the problem of writing a painter’s life. Hilary Spurling’s Matisse is a careful and tightly focused attempt to illuminate a painter’s development. Patrick Marnham’s Rivera is a breezy life and times, a raucous and gossipy tale that is only secondarily about painting. Ian Gibson’s Dalí is an overflowing dumpster of a book, which puts forward an irritating psychological argument about its subject. But though the first two of these biographies are excellent and the third one dreadful, they all butt up against the same generic problem. Artists’ lives are often diverting but seldom illuminating.

Let’s start with the best of the bunch. Spurling’s biography of Matisse, the first volume of a projected two, is a subtle account of a great painter’s unfolding. The obvious question about Matisse is how a seed merchant’s son from France’s ugly and smelly industrial north became both an inventor of modernism and a master of Mediterranean color and light. The Unknown Matisse gives us his small steps, setbacks, and radical innovations. Spurling’s scoop is her explanation of why, after moving several increments toward his mature style, the painter lapsed into a dark period that lasted from 1902-04. Matisse, she has discovered, was drawn into the scandal arising from a huge financial fraud in which his wife’s parents were implicated. This took up all his time, strained his meager resources, and gave him a breakdown. Only after his in-laws were cleared did Matisse make his Fauvist breakthrough in the summer of 1905. Spurling draws our attention to some of his influences: the ornate textiles from the Flanders town where he was raised, paintings by Turner seen on a honeymoon in London, and a Cézanne painting he bought with his family’s grocery money.

The thing that is so admirable about Matisse is his quiet integrity. For the better part of two decades, this reserved man of regular habits fought poverty, illness, incomprehension, and rejection to make revolutionary painting. His father considered him a shame to the family and disinherited him. Teachers in Paris told him he was hopeless. Contemporaries greeted each of his milestone paintings as more ridiculous than the last. Works such as Matisse’s 1907 Blue Nude shocked even rival-to-be Picasso. “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two,” Picasso said. Soon, Picasso was imitating him.

But even a biography as well-wrought as this one does little to elucidate artistic inspiration. What made Matisse radically simplify the figure and flatten three dimensions into two in the way he did in Harmony in Red (1908)? Spurling informs us that the pattern on the wallpaper and tablecloth comes from a bolt of blue cotton cloth that Matisse glimpsed from a bus and that in the course of revising the painting he changed the background from blue to red. This is interesting trivia, but it does nothing, really, to enhance enjoyment of this masterpiece or comprehension of how Matisse could have painted it.

D iego Rivera had a wilder life than Matisse and produced less important art, a balance wisely reflected in Marnham’s entertaining biography. Rivera had a lifelong involvement with Marxist and Mexican politics, countless lovers, famous scandals, and a soap opera of a marriage (actually two marriages) to Frida Kahlo. He was also a fabulist of Marquézian proportions, spinning incredible yarns about his days as a student cannibal or a fighter with Emiliano Zapata.

The true stories are nearly as good as the imagined ones. Though Rivera didn’t, as he claimed, try to assassinate Hitler, he may have got Trotsky murdered, writes Marnham. Rivera evicted Trotsky from the sanctuary of his home in Mexico City when he found out that Trotsky was having an affair with Kahlo. Kahlo seduced Trotsky because of her jealousy over the affair Rivera had with her sister. Without Rivera’s protection, Trotsky was easier prey for Stalin’s assassins. Marnham gives us the Rivera-Kahlo relationship as black comedy. At one point, Rivera confides to friends that his wife has become so depressed that he can’t even cheer her up by telling her about his latest sexual conquests.

But in this biography, too, we learn the salient facts of an artist’s development without really coming to understand how they happened. In Paris before and during World War I, Rivera was a member of the French avant-garde, executing competent Cubist works such as Still Life With Liqueur Bottle (1915). After a trip to Italy, on which he saw the frescoes from the Italian Renaissance, he dropped Cubism for what soon became his well-known mural painting. In the public fresco, Rivera saw the chance to express his political ideas to the masses. But where did this style come from? And why do Rivera’s murals transcend their propagandistic purpose in a way that works by his contemporaries don’t? The mystery at the heart of genius remains.

B ritish biographers can usually be counted on to boil things down for us, but Gibson swamps us with as much boring detail as an American biographer. His book is crammed full of stray data he has disinterred about Dalí’s Catalan ancestors, his sexual obsessions, and infighting within the Surrealist movement, which Dalí was eventually drummed out of for his pro-fascist sentiments. What Gibson never gets around to telling us is why we should care. The author assumes that Dalí was a great painter, which is not a given, as with Matisse.

Gibson’s big theory is that Dalí’s life was defined by his feelings of shame. This hardly amounts to a surprising idea about the creator of a painting titled The Great Masturbator (1929), but Gibson treats it as a bolt from the blue. He does not, however, come close to giving us a sense of what went wrong with Dalí’s art. Unlike Matisse and Rivera, who took a couple of decades to attain their mature styles, Dalí’s arrival came quick and early. Surrealism, a style he borrowed from Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, gave him a way to express the rancid contents of his own psyche. It’s hard to dispute the virtuosity of a painting such as The Birth of Liquid Desires, painted when he was 28, in 1932. But Dalí rapidly became slack, repetitious, corrupt, and in the end completely pathetic. Gibson chronicles his long degradation but can’t begin to explain it.

After reading these books, I performed an experiment by going to the Museum of Modern Art and testing my reactions against the artists in question. Gibson had reduced Dalí to a midget. Several examples of his early works reminded me that he was not completely worthless after all. A chunk of a Rivera fresco left me wishing I could see the artist’s great murals in Mexico City again. Finally, I made my way to MoMA’s big Matisse room, my favorite in the museum. Knowing more about Matisse’s struggles had certainly deepened my respect for him. I could have delivered a short lecture on his early years. But did the book add anything to my appreciation of his paintings? I can’t say it did.