Reading Matisse’s ‘Jazz’ (2): Icarus

Icarus, interleaved between text pages 54 and 57, is probably the best-known image in Matisse’s book Jazz (still on show at Tate Modern, though time is running short).


Similarly, the passage known as ‘The aeroplane’ (pp. 40 to 54 in Jazz) is one of the best-known and most quoted texts in the book:

A simple journey by plane from Paris to London offers us a revelation of the world that our imagination could not foresee. And while we are delighted by the feelings inspired by our new situation, they trouble us, too, when we remember the cares and difficulties we have allowed to vex us on the earth below, visible through holes in the plain of clouds beneath us, when our present, enchanting surroundings existed all the while. Should not all young people be made to take a long plane flight once they have finished their studies?

But what hardly any commentators (since Matisse’s friend and chronicler Louis Aragon) seem to notice is that the two are placed together: first the text, then the picture. Aragon describes the black silhouette falling to earth amid ‘exploding shells’ – a clear reference to the realities of World War II, when Matisse worked on the pictures for Jazz (from 1943 to 1946) – but its impact is all the greater if we come upon it immediately after reading Matisse’s suggestion that all young people should take an extended plane journey at the end of their studies. The account of a plane ride from Paris to London (written in 1946, according to Matisse’s assistant Lydia Delektorskaya) describes something unthinkable just a couple of years before. The experience of rising to a place of eternal sunshine, far above our worldly woes, crystallises the heady relief of peacetime and the (wilfully distanced) memory of war. In this context, Icarus functions as a startling, intrusive flashback: a horrific image of an ambitious, courageous, skilled young person tumbling to earth, struck down, like so many young fighter pilots over the Channel, just when they hoped their wildest dreams might be realised. Text and picture together enact something akin to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

This extraordinary juxtaposition occurs at the heart of an extended sequence in Jazz, opening with the first lines of ‘The aeroplane’ alongside Matisse’s famous Wolf, an image often associated with the Gestapo. The ferocious profile is a savage intrusion into an otherwise delightful sheet of vivid blue and pink space, bordered by sea-green and sunny orange, and dotted with curly fronds.


Immediately after the picture, Matisse continues:

And while we are delighted by the feelings inspired by our new situation, they trouble us, too, when we remember the cares and difficulties we have allowed to vex us on the earth below.

The image of the Wolf – jagged, threatening, red-eyed and sharp-fanged – in the sea of deep azure blue and magenta, dotted with free-floating leafy forms, embodies the twin sensations described in Matisse’s text. He continues:

And when we have returned to our modest, pedestrian condition, we no longer feel the weight of the grey sky pressing down upon us, because we remember that behind that wall, so easily crossed, there is the splendour of the sun, and the perception of limitless space in which we felt, for a moment, so free.

These lines appear either side of a page completely filled with a sheet of pale French grey punctuated by two large holes, one showing a rectangle of grassy green overlaid with black, the other a black field overlaid with pink and white, framing a vivid red heart. The holes in the grey wall of cloud, perhaps?  A suggestion of fields glimpsed from the plane? And that memory of the splendour of the sun, warming our hearts as we go about our pedestrian daily lives back on earth?


The suggestion of plane flights for young graduates, and the picture of Icarus, come next. Icarus’s own heart is a round bullet-hole of precisely the same red as the motif in the preceding picture. His face is an empty silhouette. The following piece of text reads:

The character of a drawn face  does not depend on its various proportions, but on the spiritual light it reflects. To the extent that two drawings of the same face may represent the same character, while the facial proportions of the two drawings may be different.

Icarus’s face is not a drawing, but a subtracted void: a featureless, characterless black hole reflecting no spiritual light whatsoever…

We celebrate, reproduce and translate, even frame and sell passages of text and individual pictures from Jazz, but we should never overlook the astonishing, sometimes appalling impact of the sequence as a whole.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s