Long ago, when P.J. O’Rourke was cutting his teeth as a humorist, he wrote a brief skit that reviewed a train journey to New York as if it were experimental theater. Presumably, the experience was absurd enough to warrant it. Similarly, experiencing the visitors jostling, pushing, barging, and otherwise clamoring their way into MoMA’s new Matisse exhibit (it’s summer, after all), may at times feel like a new form of performance art.
It’s particularly bizarre when you consider that Matisse has come to be known for art that soothes. As he wrote in “Notes of a Painter,” his personal manifesto of 1908, “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.”
He yearned for an art that could be “for the businessman as well as the man of letters… a calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” The crowds presently careering into MoMA’s galleries are never going to be in a fit state to relax. Yet maybe Matisse changed his mind about that early goal; maybe he even regretted writing those words. Certainly, in the light of Matisse: Radical Invention – or, rather, in the shadows of its anxious introspection - one has to wonder whether everyone got the man wrong.
Look at French Window at Collioure (1914). Collioure was the sunny, southern French town that provided so much of Matisse’s inspiration during his Fauve years. He looked out of its windows upon a bounty of warmth and nature and color. But in this picture from 1914 it seems to be nightfall: the view from the window is inky black. Or take Bathers with a Turtle (1908), which dominates the show’s first gallery: three nudes crouch and crane over a tortoise - not looking with wonder, but almost with fear. Or Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Landsberg (1914): Matisse had at one time set his figures in backdrops writhing with color – they were lost in its riot; here the palette has narrowed and darkened, the subject has come into the foreground, and all celebration has gone. The paint is scraped away from the surface of the picture as if to evoke a cage around the figure, an iron maiden agonizingly encasing her.
MoMA’s exhibition concentrates on five years in Matisse’s career, the years he spent in Paris between his arrival from Morocco, in 1913, and his departure for Nice, in 1917. In fact it begins somewhat prior to 1913, and includes late Fauvist landmarks like Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907), yet this retrospective glance is only intended to help us source the roots of major works that preoccupied him in the teens, such as Bathers by a River (1909-16), and the sculptural Backs series (1909-31). These five years are ones that critics have long noted for being both “un-Matissian” – darkly dominated by blacks and greys, and freighted with anxiety and ambiguity - and, paradoxically, for generating some of his best and most ambitious work. Various explanations have been offered for it. One suggestion is the impact of World War I, which cast gloom not only over Paris, but over the artist’s conscience, since he felt duty-bound to serve in the conflict, and yet, for health reasons, could not. Others emphasise the challenge of Cezanne, Picasso, and Cubism, and the show begins, appropriately, with Cezanne’s Three Bathers (1879-92), a picture Matisse bought in 1899, and which he kept as a talisman through thick and thin. Certainly, many of the works from the all-important Paris years are more preoccupied with form than color – in the manner of Cezanne: the show culminates with Bathers by a River, a picture that seems entirely Cubist in inspiration; its four figures apparently revolved so we might inspect them from every angle.
Matisse spoke once, in an interview in the 1950s, of his interest during these Paris years in “methods of modern composition.” Scholars have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to unpack the meaning of the phrase, for it would seem to explain a lot. But not everything. Not the awful, empty, featureless faces in works like Bathers by a River. Or the fathomless black eyes of those figures who are blessed with detailed faces. And certainly not the uncertainty that clouds these years, and that makes us doubt that we know Matisse as well as we do. As the gallerist and publisher Christian Zervos said, as early as 1931, “we know Matisse much less than we admire him.”
Article written by Morgan Falconer
Senior Editor of TheArtStory