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The Golden Age


by Pierre Schneider, translated by Michael Taylor and Bridget Strevens Romer
Rizzoli, 752 pp., $95.00

Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse; drawing by David Levine

Virtually all of Matisse’s important early patrons and collectors were foreigners: Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, Germans. It was not until 1922, when Matisse was in his fifties, that the French government purchased a work for the Musée du Luxembourg, choosing the somewhat conventional Odalisque with Red Trousers. But Matisse had still not had the critical attention he deserved. Apollinaire, who had done so much to keep Matisse’s name before the public in the years before 1914, was dead. Breton, who was about to succeed Apollinaire as the most effective artistic impresario in France, had as a youth admired Matisse’s work but was now coming to regard it with suspicion. Reviewing a Matisse exhibition in 1919 Cocteau spoke of “le fauve ensoleillé devenu un petit chat de Bonnard.”

Matisse’s popular reputation grew steadily throughout the 1920s, but Derain, his closest collaborator during the heroic years of Fauvism, and fourteen years his junior, was held in greater esteem by influential critics such as André Salmon and Roger Allard; the former saw Derain as the greatest French artist of his generation. In the early Thirties Ozenfant was writing of Matisse’s art as “a prolongation of the superficial painting of the Eighteenth Century.” Most of the best writing on Matisse—and for that matter on French nineteenth- and twentieth-century art in general—has been in English. Roger Fry’s short monograph of 1935 was the first attempt to demonstrate analytically why Matisse’s achievement as a painter was unique. And Matisse literature today is still dominated by Alfred Barr’s Matisse, His Art and His Public, first published in 1951, and in many respects still the most satisfactory monograph on any major twentieth-century artist.

It was only after the Liberation that the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris began systematically to build up its Matisse holdings, and these today rival those of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Barnes Foundation’s, or the large group of pre-1914 masterpieces currently shared between Moscow and Leningrad. Since World War II the US has continued to lead the field in promoting Matisse’s reputation, but in 1970 the Exposition du Centenaire brought together in the Grand Palais a large proportion of the greatest Matisses in France, America, and Russia to make the finest display of Matisse’s art to date in what the American critic Thomas B. Hess called “the most beautiful exhibition in the world.” The exhibition was organized by Pierre Schneider who has now produced the only book—if we leave aside Louis Aragon’s imposing but somewhat idiosyncratic two-volume collection of essays of 1971 entitled Henri Matisse, Roman—to rival Barr’s in importance. The two books complement each other well, for while Barr’s approach was detached and objective, Schneider has produced a work that is, in the best Baudelairean tradition, “partial, passionné, politique.” “My work consists of steeping myself in things. And afterwards, it all comes out,” Matisse said to Père Couturier in 1949, and this is the approach that Schneider, after an immersion of fourteen years, adopts toward Matisse himself.

The result is large-scale in every way. Schneider had the cooperation of Marguerite Duthuit, Matisse’s daughter and the principal guardian of his archives and reputation, and the book’s 752 pages are packed with new information. Its ambitions match its length, for Schneider believes that he has discovered the keys to a true understanding of Matisse’s art. He is aware of the subtlety of Matisse’s mind and of the complexities of the procedures that underlie the often seemingly effortless paintings and drawings. Again and again he stresses the duality of Matisse’s art, the constant pull between the subjective and the objective, the fact that the work is so deeply rooted in the observation of things and yet so often highly abstract; that it is so sensuous and physical and yet so frequently ethereal and contemplative. But Schneider’s own arguments, while they are embedded in truly impressive learning and scholarship, are basically simple. They are repeated with an urgency and enthusiasm that can be exhausting and irritating but that also give the book great momentum.

Schneider sees Matisse as standing simultaneously at the end of and apart from a tradition of Western art initiated by Giotto. Matisse detaches himself from this tradition primarily through his interest in, and ultimate identification with, the art of Islam and of “all the Orients,” and because in his La Joie de vivre (also known as Le Bonheur de vivre) of 1905–1906 his art became centered on the theme of the Golden Age, which put him in touch with the beginnings of things and with certain primal sources and principles of inspiration and creation. Linking these two cardinal aspects of Matisse’s art, in Schneider’s scheme of things, is the fact that around 1905 he became a religious artist or, at the very least, that his art has a religious quality to it and is best seen in a religious setting.

This view Schneider puts forward in his introduction and most specifically in his discussion of The Conversation, probably of 1911, a work of extraordinary gravitas that shows Matisse in his pajamas confronting Madame Matisse in front of an open window of their suburban house at Issy. The theme is developed in the chapter “The revelation of the Orient,” where, for reasons that I cannot altogether understand, Schneider equates decorative art with the sacred: “all true decorative art requires the presence of the sacred in the background: under different guises the sacred constitutes its unique meaning.” Further on in the book Schneider talks of Matisse as “dreaming of a decorative—in other words religious—art.” Certainly much of the decorative quality of Islamic art is related to religious concepts, and Matisse was undoubtedly aware of this. But I can’t follow Schneider when he says of Matisse that “religious faith was no more a part of his nature than instinct, but since the inner logic of his painting required it he became a religious painter.” Is he simply saying that Matisse put himself at the service of his art? In one of the central chapters of the book Schneider writes:

In elaborating a decorative style appropriate for images linked with mythical or religious themes, Matisse was after all conforming with what appears to be a basic rule in art history: abstract styles are characteristic of essentially religious artistic forms and themes, while realist styles are typical of periods of waning faith marked by secular themes and preoccupations.

May be it is more a question of how you like your religion and your art.

It is in his discussion of La Joie de vivre that Schneider comes closest, perhaps, to telling us in what way he sees Matisse’s art as being religious. “La Joie de vivre,” he writes, “seeks to be the complete representation of the Golden Age, a sacred history of the origins, that is to say of happiness….” Matisse’s religion is, then, one of happiness. This is much easier to accept, although Schneider’s list of writers whose careers overlapped with Matisse’s and who worshiped at that altar has about it, for someone trying to approach Matisse’s art in this light, a somewhat uncomfortable ring: Nietzsche (not much room for the decorative there, one might have thought), Gide (whose desiccated attitude to pleasure has little in common with the genuine hedonism of Matisse’s art), and Whitman (surely a strange companion for someone who was the archetype of the artist as an antibohemian).

But it is true that as Matisse’s aesthetic concerns evolved they seemed more and more to focus on pleasure, relaxation, idleness, and luxury. In the celebrated “Notes of a Painter” of 1908 Matisse had spoken, in connection with his figure work, about his “almost religious awe towards life”; approximately 99 percent of his figure pieces were of attractive young women, and this would seem to give credence to Schneider’s view. Matisse’s most forthright pronouncement on his religious beliefs came in his text to Jazz, written in 1946, when he asked the rhetorical question, “Do I believe in God?” to which came back the answer, “Yes, when I am at work.” From this is might be assumed that, like many other great artists, he recognized that his talent was something greater than himself.

In 1951, three years before his death, discussing his work in the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, which has just been consecrated, Matisse said, “All art worthy of the name is religious. Be it a creation of lines and colours if it is not religious it doesn’t exist.” Interestingly enough it is in connection with the chapel that Schneider’s attempts to divorce Matisse from postmedieval Christian or Judaic traditions of religious art seem most effective. There is more than a touch of the mosque about the chapel; of its tile panels, the Stations of the Cross gave Matisse the most trouble and they are the least successful aspect of the complex because in Matisse’s art there was no room for guilt or for drama or for pain. Perhaps on the question of religion Schneider’s simple statement in his introduction that “for Matisse working means art and art is the sacred” comes closest to telling us the truth.

Each chapter of Schneider’s book is devoted to a particular theme or aspect of Matisse’s art, and this enables the author to range back and forth in time so that one is made aware, as never before, of the continuity and totality of Matisse’s art; that every chapter can be read as an independent essay is an advantage in a book of this length, although it also inevitably leads to much repetition. Schneider, however, has also attempted to structure the book chronologically. He possibly distorts the true picture of Matisse’s development by placing the section on “The revelation of the Orient” before the one entitled “Only by color,” which deals with Matisse’s Fauvism and his emergence as a fully mature and independent artist. Matisse several times stressed the importance for him of his visit to Munich in 1910 to see the enormous Islamic exhibition, and it is surely after this that Islamic art became such an inspiration to him. He was almost certainly aware of Islamic art before this. Its influence is visible in some of the details of La Joie de vivre, and it may well have encouraged him to clarify and heighten his palette. But in my view it did not play the all-important part in the coloristic revolution effected by Matisse in his Fauve canvases of 1905 and 1906 that Schneider would have us believe it did when he writes, “Color was the revelation of the Orient.”

The statements made by the Fauves about their intentions tended to be generalized, often vague and contradictory. But they all agreed that they wanted color to produce a sensation of light that would emanate directly and artificially from the canvas rather than to use it to create an illusion or a substitute for the changing effects of light observed in nature. Fauve pictures, and Matisse’s in particular, achieved a new autonomy for color, and they mark the beginning of the advance of the picture toward the spectator which has been a characteristic of so much twentieth-century art. Matisse had studied Redon’s pastels, works of exceptional coloristic intensity, and one of his unique achievements was to attain the cloudlike and evanescent effects of this medium—the only one that incorporates no binding agent—in his oils. “Divisionism”—Signac’s name for the attempt to give Impressionism a more scientific bias and an even greater luminosity—and in particular the divisionist sketch, initiated him into the discipline of the possibilities of using pure, prismatic colors. But it was Gauguin who was the final catalyst in liberating Matisse’s color, even though Matisse didn’t always care for Gauguin’s use of it. Schneider refers to Gauguin as frequently as he does to Matisse’s revered Cézanne, and he is acutely aware of Gauguin’s historical role. But he is bothered by him in relation to Matisse, and this is understandable because he has identified so completely with Matisse, and Matisse’s own feelings toward Gauguin were so ambivalent.

So were those of a very large proportion of young artists who had come under Gauguin’s sway. Cézanne (“Ce bon dieu de la peinture,” as Matisse used to call him) was much easier to accept as a father figure because he was more sympathetic as a personality, and because his art seemed to open endless new paths of discovery in a way that Gauguin’s did not. Schneider is absolutely right in stressing that Matisse distrusted Gauguin’s art in many ways. Matisse seems to have found it too literary, too programmatic and voulu in its outlook. One senses that he was made uneasy by its underlying melancholy. Like most artists deeply influenced by their immediate predecessors he inevitably became interested in their personalities, and that of Gauguin he possibly felt too ruthless, too cold.

It may even be that Matisse sensed in Gauguin an aspect of himself that he was unconsciously anxious to conceal or disavow. I wonder if Matisse may even have been aware of that atmosphere of slight emotional chill which I for one sense beneath the surface splendors of Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) and even of La Joie de vivre, the two works in which Schneider feels that Matisse sought and then found himself. “La base de travail de Gauguin et celle de mon travail ne sont pas les mêmes,” Matisse said curtly in 1949. But in 1924 he had remarked to his friend the painter Hans Purrmann, “Only Gauguin could extricate me from Divisionism.” In 1950 he admitted that Gauguin was “sur ma route.” And in one of his longest and most thoughtful reflections on color, published in 1945, he said, “From Delacroix and Van Gogh and principally through Gauguin…one can follow the rehabilitation of color, and the restitution of its emotive powers.”

It is not until he gets to the chapter on La Joie de vivre that Schneider mentions Matisse’s visit in the summer of 1905 in the company of Maillol and Derain to Daniel de Montfreid, who had in his custody a collection of Gauguin’s South Sea works. But I suspect it must have had a cardinal role in the first phase of Matisse’s Fauvism and in his emergence as a great and innovative artist. And it was Matisse more than any other artist who saw through to its ultimate conclusion the greatest lesson that Gauguin had to teach—a lesson from which the Nabis and Matisse’s fellow Fauves profited and subsequently retreated: that it was possible to be a decorative artist while remaining within the avant-garde; or, to put it more strongly and perhaps more appositely, that it was possible to be a decorative painter and simultaneously a high artist, even a revolutionary one. In this sense it was Gauguin who prepared Matisse for the revelation of the Orient which Schneider so rightly stresses and of which he writes with such eloquence.

Toward the end of his life Matisse said: “From La Joie de vivre—I was thirty-five then—to this cutout—I am eighty-two—I have not changed….” Schneider, having demonstrated that the true subject of the picture is the Golden Age, devotes much time and space to bringing in the greater part of Matisse’s subsequent output under the same iconographic umbrella. Although there is, as far as I know, no proof that while Matisse was at work on the painting he was reading Longus and the other classical writers to whom Schneider refers, he would undoubtedly have been aware of them. With his move into a fully developed Fauve idiom Matisse had achieved what he came to think of as “the return to the purity of means,” which he defined in turn as “the assertion of expression through color.”

It is attractive to think that Matisse wished to apply these newly purified means to the depiction of a myth of man’s beginnings. But if La Joie de vivre is a revolutionary work it also kept alive a tradition of art that goes back to the Renaissance bacchanals of Bellini and Titian and in turn to the classical world. And if it marks a turning point in Matisse’s art, despite its coloristic originality it is also an eclectic work. There are as many things that are un-Fauve about the painting as there are elements that speak for Fauvism as an ongoing, coherent style. Poussin, Agostino Carracci, Ingres, and Puvis all seem as important to an understanding of it as do Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the Neoimpressionists.

Schneider’s hypothesis is that although Matisse never again tackled the theme of the Golden Age so overtly or in its entirety—and perhaps the new purity of exclusively pictorial means was not after all suitable to a theme so deeply embedded in literature—it nevertheless is the key to an understanding of most of his subject matter and of his aesthetic. On the whole Schneider is remarkably persuasive and he undoubtedly provides new insights, although occasionally the reader may feel he pushes things too far (women, sleep, oranges, and goldfish, for example, are among the Golden Age’s attributes and can act as symbols for it).

Quite obviously many of the works that immediately succeed the pivotal painting are derived from components of its imagery. La Danse and La Musique of 1910, favorites of Schneider’s, in fact owe stylistically most to the 1908 Bathers with a Turtle (St. Louis); and about this work, which combines in equal proportions the influence of Giotto and Cézanne, Schneider is strangely reticent, possibly because it has an air of psychological tension that does not accord with the picture of Matisse’s development that he means to paint. In the four great interiors of 1911 the theme of the Golden Age becomes more veiled, but it is now that the paradise of the Koran and that of our Western beginnings start to inform each other. Schneider is right in saying that The Painter’s Family is among the most Islamic of all Matisse’s canvases, and the other three are all in their different ways coloristic masterpieces that have about them unquestionably a euphoric and paradisiac air.

Schneider is particularly good on the first Nice period (1919–1928). It helps to explain the charm and fascination of these paintings of young models dressed up in their party clothes, or as odalisques, and placed in overdecorated interiors if we view them as bourgeois metaphors for an Islamic Garden of Delights. The concept behind the chapel at Vence is undoubtedly as much utopian as religious, and Matisse remarked once that he would like the nuns while they were in it to feel that they were already inhabitants of the New Jerusalem. The last great papiers decoupés, moreover, are well viewed as a final, spiritualized journey to Baudelaire’s world of luxe, calme et volupté.

It is the work executed by Matisse between late 1913 and 1917, from the Leningrad Portrait of Madame Matisse to the great Chicago Bathers by a River—a period that includes the somber, magisterial canvases so superbly represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York—that can least well be viewed under the light of the Golden Age, as Schneider recognizes. The color sensations achieved by Matisse in his Fauve years were of a totally new order; but the movement as a whole can still perhaps be best viewed as a final, brief, and marvelously vivid flowering of French Postimpressionism. The masterpieces executed during the First World War, on the other hand, show Matisse at his most self-consciously modernistic. Because of his complete fealty to Matisse, Schneider seems reluctant to acknowledge the extent of Matisse’s reaction to the work of Picasso and other younger rivals and colleagues in French art. The Bathers with a Turtle, for a start, might with some justification be regarded as Matisse’s answer to the pictorial bombshell that Picasso had dropped the previous year with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

I myself have never pressed Matisse “summarily into the Cubist ranks,” as Schneider claims. I have always seen him as a figure apart, both because of the magnitude of his gifts and because of their nature. But I would certainly contend that the impact of Cubism on Matisse was greater than Schneider would acknowledge. And one of the things that gives the totality of Matisse’s art such resonance and depth is that having learned all he could from his immediate predecessors and mentors, from Courbet and Manet onward, he was then prepared to consult a style toward which he had originally felt alien and antagonistic, but which he eventually recognized as having something to offer the development of his own.

Matisse spoke of reworking his large Still Life after de Heem of 1915–1916, the most Cubist of his pictures, “according to modern methods of construction.” Many other of the greatest canvases of the period bear witness to Matisse’s awareness of Cubist compositional procedures, although he put them to ends that were unmistakably his own. His use of large, upright, interacting but independent or self-contained compositional elements gave his work a new structural majesty. And the new compositional procedures also sharpened and clarified one of his supreme gifts as a painter: his ability to use pure unmodulated color, frequently at maximum intensity or hue, in such a way that it defines the architectural breakdown of the picture plane, adhering to its two-dimensionality, while simultaneously playing its part in a naturalistic rendition of space. On purely visual grounds it seems to me clear that it was in the Bathers by a River that Matisse, intrigued by the compositional procedures the Cubists had evolved from their experiments with papier collé, began in turn to apply cut paper provisionally to the canvas support, subsequently painting in the effects achieved, locking the figures into their individual space cells and into the overall compositional structure. To this extent the work looks forward directly to the Barnes murals of 1931–1932, and beyond to the great papiers decoupés of old age and to Matisse’s final coloristic revolution.

In his introduction Schneider disclaims any attempt at writing a definitive book on Matisse. This is because he has preferred to put his unique knowledge of Matisse’s life and output at the service of a view (one is tempted to say a vision) of the art which he believes to be the true one and which he is anxious to share with others. Given the fact that this is in a sense an “official” book, in that the author was lent much support by the family, it might have been ponderous and cautious, and it is certainly neither. It is noteworthy, too, that while his book has an abundance of new material Schneider never makes use of it gratuitously but always to enlarge our knowledge of aspects of Matisse’s development, or to reinforce particular arguments. An astonishingly high proportion of the works illustrated have never been reproduced before; not all of them show Matisse at his best, but their very unevenness helps to bring him to life as an artist. The drawings, often the most personal and revealing aspect of his talent, are scattered throughout the text. The book is full of splendid anecdotes. My favorite one concerns the final stages of the chapel. Matisse had thanked the mother superior for allowing him to design it. When she understandably expressed surprise he insisted, “I am doing it for myself.” Soeur Jacques-Marie, who had been Matisse’s nurse and whom he loved, was also present and she exclaimed, “But you told me you were doing it for God.” “Yes,” said Matisse, “but I am God.”

Schneider’s breadth of knowledge about Matisse is matched by the breadth of the cultural setting in which he places it. Besides the fullest account of Matisse’s art to date we get some wonderful insights into the work and personalities of his teachers and friends. The essays within essays dedicated to Puvis, Moreau, Redon, and Marquet, though short, are as good as any I know. This book will remain indispensable not only for a study of Matisse but for a study of the origins of modern art. It is at times contentious and overassertive about certain interpretative issues which can in the last analysis only be approached subjectively. But it is also a marvelous book, learned and original, committed and courageous.