“Un artiste ne doit jamais être prisonnier de lui-même, prisonnier d’une manière, prisonnier d’une réputation, prisonnier d’un succès…. Les Goncourts n’ont-ils pas écrit que les artistes japonais de la grande époque changeaient de nom plusieurs fois dans leur vie. J’aime ça: ils voulaient sauvegarder leurs libertés….”
—Matisse, in Jazz
In the visual arts, two forces above all others determine the character of our response and the quality of our judgments: our experience of the masterworks that carry a particular style or vision or idea to its most complete realization, and our sense of the aesthetic history in which these masterworks take their central, transfiguring place. Especially in our encounters with works of modernist art, this sense of history is often the primary intermediary, indeed the very medium of our aesthetic experience, for modernism is itself the offspring of an acute historical self-consciousness. Aesthetic emotion, which offers its pleasures in the guise of a spontaneous and transcendent response to an unanticipated revelation, is, more often than we generally care to admit, in thrall to a theory—some generalized notion of the terrain on which such revelations will take place, and even perhaps of the form they may be expected to assume.
But what if this sense of history, with its elaborate scenarios of victories and defeats and its disposition to favor some revelations over others, turns out to be something of a myth—a synthetic construction based on imperfect knowledge and the need to believe that the aesthetic imperative follows a logic and enjoys an ontology all its own? The process of putting art in a museum, itself a coefficient of the modernist movement, reinforces this myth by imposing—on our consciousness no less than on the walls of the museum—a series of masterworks in which all trace of the problematical, all those failed alternatives and rejected misadventures which occupy so large a place in any serious artistic career, have been subsumed in the final process of consummation. Yet it is doubtful if a theory of art based on a scenario of such perfect consummations is any more faithful to the actual vicissitudes of art history than a theory of love based on nothing but the realization of an ideal communion would be to the vicissitudes of life. In art, as in love, or indeed in any form of contingent human experience, what has misfired, what has been refused, and what has actually failed are frequently the key to a real understanding of what has been achieved.
The great virtue of the large and astonishing Matisse exhibition which Pierre Schneider organized at the Grand Palais in Paris this summer lies precisely in the extent to which it disturbs the established museological view of the artist’s accomplishments and, even if only temporarily, places the myths of art history at a certain distance from our immediate apprehension of the artist’s true quality. Masterpieces—well-known, little-known, and unknown—certainly abound in this exhibition. But in assembling …