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The Golden Age

Matisse

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

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.

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