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Passions of Matisse

Henri Matisse: A Retrospective 1992–January 12, 1993

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York September 24,

Henri Matisse: A Retrospective

catalog of the exhibition by John Elderfield
Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 480 pp., $37.50 (paper)

Collecting Matisse

by Albert Kostenevich, by Natalia Semenova
Flammarion/Abbeville Press, 192 pp., $60.00


In 1950 Bernard Berenson visited Henri Matisse at his apartment in the Hotel Regina overlooking Nice. Berenson, who had been one of Matisse’s early supporters, was irritated to find that the man whom he chose to remember as a starving young Fauve now displayed a seigneurial self-absorption even grander than his own. Polite but remote, Matisse seemed to take it for granted that the noted connoisseur’s visit was an act of homage. Five years after this encounter, Berenson took his revenge by ending a short essay about the recently deceased artist as follows: “My conclusion about Matisse is that in the neck-and-neck race with Picasso for the highest place in the art of the last fifty years he ended by coming in second.”1

At the time, most people would have agreed with Berenson, but during the past twenty years or so, a consensus has slowly been building about the importance of Matisse’s art. The large Paris retrospective in 1970 gave people a new awareness of the extent of Matisse’s accomplishment, and in the years since a number of other shows have concentrated on the brilliance of specific aspects of his work, such as his drawings, his paper cutouts, and his painting in Nice and Morocco. I can think of no one in recent years who has exerted a greater effect on contemporary art. Painters as different as Richard Diebenkorn, Ellsworth Kelly, and David Hockney have drawn on Matisse, and his influence is also quite apparent among countless younger artists.

The Museum of Modern Art has made the extraordinary gesture of giving over to Matisse’s work the second and third floor galleries usually dedicated to its permanent collection—the first time that an artist has been so honored since a similar display was made twelve years ago for Picasso. It is a very large and impressive exhibition, which will, I believe, greatly increase the number of people who think that Matisse is the equal of Picasso or just about any other modern artist. 2

The exhibition presents us with more works by Matisse than have ever before been seen together—some four hundred in all, ranging from his early realistic paintings to his near-abstract late cutouts, and including sculpture, prints, and drawings as well as works in color. The size of the exhibition calls attention to Matisse’s immense formal diversity, the way he was able to work in very different styles not only at different times in his career but frequently at the same time, producing widely divergent works within the same week or month. Such intensive scrutiny can have a devastating effect on an artist, and many people had serious misgivings about how Matisse’s work would appear in the Museum of Modern Art’s rather cramped and claustrophobic galleries. But the curator, John Elderfield, has installed the pictures with a deep understanding of the inner rhythms of Matisse’s art. Not only do most of the individual paintings look wonderful, but they are enhanced by the way that the installation brings out their formal and thematic affinities. So strong are these paintings that they actually seem to transform the Museum of Modern Art’s second and third floor galleries into luminous and open spaces, to push back the walls and fill them with light.

Seeing this exhibition is a pleasurable experience and also a very demanding one. For Matisse is at once a quite accessible and extremely difficult painter, depending upon how much effort one wants to invest in actually looking at his works. The challenge of the exhibition lies in reconciling Matisse’s obvious surface charm—the bright colors, pleasing patterns, and sensual subjects—with his pictorial complexity and psychological elusiveness. This is a challenge that he has presented to viewers since the beginning of the century.

Throughout his career, Matisse has inspired very different, often contradictory, reactions. Early in the century conservative critics attacked him for the roughness of his work, and like Courbet and Manet before him, he was called “an apostle of ugliness.” But with the rise of cubism, avantgarde critics began to accuse Matisse of painting pictures that were too pretty. The man who had been considered the most radical painter alive soon came under attack for being a mere decorator, and an old-fashioned one at that, because of his insistence on working directly from nature. Around World War I, at the time that he was creating some of his greatest works, he appeared to be oddly removed from the preoccupations of the rest of the European avant-garde. He seemed to have no interest in theory and he could no longer be identified with any of the movements into which modern art was so conveniently divided. His works were unique and uniquely unsystematic.

Yet when we look at the large sampling of his work in the current exhibition we sense that there were nevertheless a number of essential elements that gave coherence to his enormous stylistic diversity. For one, perhaps more than any other artist of our century, Matisse was determined to explore and extend the purely pictorial qualities of painting. He was acutely aware of how to take advantage of the expressive opportunities offered—sometimes almost by chance—by the manipulation of paint. And to an astonishing degree, he was able to make meaningful use of the resistance that the process of painting offered to representation. In his paintings, there is a strong tension between the painter’s immediate vision and the duration of the process of recording it. Matisse uses this tension to bring out the contradictions between the way things look and the feelings they inspire. In a very real sense, the subject of Matisse’s paintings emerges from the interplay between what the artist painted and how he has gone about painting it.

As you walk through this show, you are intensely aware of how exuberant Matisse’s visual imagination was. His ways of handling color, line, surface, and space are so inventive and complex that many of their implications are only beginning to be understood. You come upon image after image that is so strikingly original and suggestive—and distinctive, even within Matisse’s own work—that it is hard to believe that one man produced them all. For certain pictures he invented new and strikingly original ways of painting that he never used again in quite the same way, as in French Window at Collioure or Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Landsberg of 1914, or The Yellow Curtain of 1915.

Sometimes he seems to flaunt his inventiveness, as in the pictures he purposely painted in pairs, in which he presents the same subject composed in virtually the same way, on canvases of almost exactly the same size. In viewing these pairs, such as the two versions of the Young Sailor of 1906, we are especially aware of the degree to which style in and of itself is an integral part of Matisse’s subject. The first of these two pictures of a young Catalan fisherman is loosely brushed and intensely modeled, while the second is painted in bright, flat planes. Matisse uses the differences in rendering to convey very different aspects of his understanding of the model. In the first version, the electric brushstrokes and somber tones emphasize the feral intensity of an apparently “primitive” man; in the second version, with its colorful, almost childlike simplicity, Matisse emphasizes the innocent, folkloric aspects of the exotic young fisherman.

One of the most stunning moments of the entire show is the side-by-side presentation of the two versions of the Dance that Matisse painted in 1909 and 1910 for the Russian collector Sergei Shchukln. Although the two compositions seem at first to be very similar, on closer study they are profoundly different. Without making any major alterations in the overall design, Matisse, in the second version, has nonetheless radically changed his conception of the dance. In this version, the figures are more firmly modeled and more intensely colored, and each one conveys a strong sense of individual will and energy. In the first version, the figures are not only flatter and paler, but they seem to move in harmony with an outside force rather than propelled by their own wills. In the second version the dancing is more aggressive and more physical, in contrast to the lyrical and supernal round of the first version.

Paintings like these remind us that the enormous diversity of Matisse’s pictorial means reflects his refusal to follow a fixed method. It is as if each time he approached a subject, even a familiar one, he was seeing it for the first time. Or, as he himself said, as if he were seeing “with the eyes of a child.” The ideal that underlies this way of working goes directly back to impressionism, especially to Claude Monet’s notion of the innocent eye. But what different use Matisse makes of it!

Seeing so much of Matisse’s work together also makes us aware of a number of repeated themes and formal concerns that appear to have concentrated and guided his immensely varied vision. We are constantly struck by how frequently Matisse reworks these themes and how differently he treats similar themes in different images. One of the most striking examples of this can be seen by comparing his Blue Nude of 1907 with his Pink Nude of 1935, in which a similarly posed reclining woman is treated so differently that the “subject” is ultimately transformed. The earlier picture is vigorously painted and sculpturally modeled and employs a number of rhyming curves that evoke the relationship between the woman and the surrounding landscape. She is earthy, rough, and sensual, and suggests the procreative energy of the earth in spring. The picture evokes a world of dynamism and flux. The figure in Pink Nude, by contrast, is painted in a more restrained and gently lyrical way. The image of the woman is more ethereal, and more elegant, and evokes a cooler sort of sensuality. This is a more obviously rationalized image, in which the woman becomes an abstract evocation of the idea of sensuality within a geometrical, intangible environment.

Because Matisse’s art is formally so diverse, for many years he was discussed as if his concerns were purely formal ones and his subject matter of little importance. As a result, Matisse was frequently associated with a superficial kind of hedonism—the “purely” visual aspect of his work, as John Elderfield aptly points out in the catalog, became confused with the “merely” visual. The association of Matisse with a superficial hedonism was also in large measure the result of the constant comparisons made between him and Picasso, in which he was cast as the lightweight and Picasso as the artist who confronted the burning issues of his time. The two were constantly compared from the beginning of their careers, and as early as 1920 Clive Bell was writing,

The names go together, as do those of Shelley and Keats or Fortnum and Mason. Even to people who seldom or never look seriously at a picture, they have stood, these ten years, as symbols of modernity.3

  1. 1

    Bernard Berenson, “Encounters with Matisse,” in Essays in Appreciation (Chapman and Hall, 1958), p. 133; the essay, dated May 23, 1955, was first published in Italian as “Incontri con Matisse,” in La Biennale di Venezia, December 1955, pp. 9–10.

  2. 2

    The strength of the impulse to sustain this comparison is evident even now at the Museum of Modern Art. As you stand near the ground floor escalators and glance toward the galleries that have been set aside to show selections from the permanent collection, the only painting clearly visible is Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon—as if to remind us that even now we should not forget to locate Matisse in relation to Picasso.

  3. 3

    Clive Bell, “Matisse and Picasso: The Two Immediate Heirs to Cézanne,” Arts & Decoration, Vol. 14 (November 1920), p. 42.

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