Two artists more dissimilar in character, background, attitudes, and achievement than Fernand léger and Henri Matisse would be difficult to find. Yet during the same years, from the late Twenties onward, Matisse and léger were almost alone in choosing to confront in their work what might be called the problem of the age: how to salvage quality in a world henceforth ruled by quantity. Economists and political and social thinkers had of course been concerned with this for some time, but artists were quite unaware of it, with the exception of Matisse and léger.
This might seem a rash statement when one remembers the Russian avant-garde of the Twenties. The Russians, however, did not really regard the problem as a problem: their solution was to immolate quality on the altar of quantity—to give up painting in favor of designing chairs, workmen’s clothes, or shoes—and this sacrifice was seen as the proof of the artist’s revolutionary spirit. The Bauhaus was only apparently more willing to risk the confrontation. There the qualitative (art, as traditionally conceived) and the quantitative (design suitable for mass production and architecture) existed side by side but seldom had much to do with each other: Klee’s and Kandinsky’s paintings were simply hung on Breuer’s prefab walls.
Matisse and léger were not content to sacrifice the traditional craft that both had been trained to practice. Nor were they satisfied with entrenching themselves in a small but safe reserve, within the brave new world. Instead, they attempted—and in this I believe they remained unrivaled for almost a quarter of a century—to find a place for the qualitative amid the quantitative.
The triumph of mass production of objects and design brought about changes so fundamental that one is tempted to call it a mutation. These changes forced themselves upon artists in a number of ways. The private, the intimate, gave way to the public, the collective. Easel painting had been adapted to work aimed at the happy few: was it suitable for work addressed to the unhappy many? Could it command the stentoriousness required if one wished to be heard in an environment that was crowded, noisy, bombarded by myriad visual appeals? The artist could, of course, go on practicing the old handicraft as if the machine age did not exist, or give it up as obsolete. Both léger and Matisse, however, were determined to maintain, if not the traditional craft of painting, at least the values that were usually considered as inseparable from it, in a new environment that seemed to be excluding them.
léger’s efforts to reconcile modern art with modern life have, of course, long been recognized, not least by léger himself, who said he was the “primitive of a century to come.” Peter de Francia in his new book about léger adopts this conventional view, but his passionate admiration for the artist lends it new life and excitement. Enthusiasm is a virtue so rarely found in art historians that one feels almost guilty not to be able to commend without reservation his often perceptive, richly documented, splendidly illustrated study. I am not bothered by the text’s obvious, minor flaws, as when the author confuses the priest Marie-Alain Couturier with the artist Pierre Couturier. Or by grand, airy affirmations that are linked, like captive balloons, by tenuous ties to the facts beneath. (About Les Demoiselles d’Avignon he writes, “Picasso’s painting aimed at dynamiting the whole ethos of a concept of beauty based on the remnants of Neo-Platonism.”) And I doubt that allusions within the same sentence to Orcagna’s Last Judgment at Santa Croce, the paintings of Master Theodoric at Karlstein, folk art, and floral decoration really help to define what is interesting about a particular work of léger. But these are trifling faults in a copious and lively book.
More questionable is Mr. de Francia’s presentation of léger’s career as one of continuous progress toward the climax of the late work, for in so doing he plays down the drastic change in scale that took place in léger’s work of the Thirties. Mr. de Francia apparently wants his hero to be seen as immune to the “socalled conversions which litter twentieth-century art,” all the more since in léger’s case the change of direction of his work, according to the “modernists,” whose blindness the author attacks, was accompanied by a decline in its quality. Yet this was precisely the risk léger consciously took during the 1930s: to pass it over in silence because he did not do so with complete success is to omit the confrontation between quality and quantity which makes the case of léger remarkable.
The author’s insistence on continuity leads him to understate the delicacy of léger’s early work and to overstate the “humanity” of his late period. De Francia deals excellently with léger’s “machinism”—his work of the 1920s in which his canvases reflected the precision and polish of new machines and showed images of mechanical parts. But the result is that the period between 1915 and 1918, during which léger produced some of his most impressive but also subtlest paintings, appears like a mere introduction to the work associated with “The Aesthetics of the Machine,” to use léger’s own phrase from a lecture of 1923. It was, however, far more than that: it was the period of delicate painting against which léger felt he had to react in order to meet the challenge of more brutal times. léger’s own career, in short, can be seen as embodying one of the “contrasts” on which, as he repeatedly stressed, his art was based.
As for the progress in léger’s work, it consisted, we are given to believe, in his passing from the pure, painterly abstraction of his early phase, around 1911, to what might be called the “objectivism” of his middle years, and thence to the realism of the final years between 1945 and 1955, in which his canvases were peopled with monumental human figures. Such a conviction of continuous progress may be the price of intense admiration, which will tolerate no blemish on its object. What I question in Mr. de Francia’s book is not his admiration, but its main object, for that object, it seems to me, is not so much léger as ideology. When De Francia describes Renato Guttuso, the foremost Italian practitioner of a kind of socialist realism, as “a major artist,” it seems clear that the dice are loaded. Attractive as that ideology may be, it does little to illuminate Fernand léger’s artistic itinerary.
That itinerary must be reviewed to understand the mutation to which I referred. After his initial Postimpressionist apprenticeship, léger developed his own brand of Cubism—the only truly original one after Picasso and Braque. In it, extremes come together: the soft curves of clouds and foliage combine with the hard lines of houses; flat, blunt areas of color with refined tonal gradations, the delicate with the monumental. At first applied ingenuously, his “general law” of contrasts was next to become, for two or three years, beginning in 1911, the overt subject of léger’s paintings—the only purely abstract ones he ever did. On the other hand, this abstract work had all the painterly quality associated with traditional easel painting.
The experience of World War I brought about an abrupt change. “It was those four years which threw me suddenly into a blinding reality,” he was later to say. They moved him away from abstraction. “Suddenly, I found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people.” Yet if the war aroused léger’s social consciousness, this did not affect his work. What he had discovered was not the workers but the machine and the industrially produced object, the end and the means of their exploitation. “Nowadays,” he asserted, “a work of art must be able to stand the comparison with any manufactured object.”
His paintings between 1918 and 1926 certainly do. They have the look of perfect, smooth, stainless mechanisms. Although at times as nonrepresentational as paintings by Mondrian or Malevich, they never evoke abstraction, unless it is the abstraction that is part of the reality of machines. When human figures occur in these pictures, it is not for the sake of their humanity, but because léger requires curves to counterbalance his straight lines. He was still building his pictures on contrasts. And it is this deep-rooted dualism that accounts for the continued presence of the delicate painting one would have thought banished from the cold world of machines. Indeed, the harsher the machines, the gentler became his handling of shapes and tones. Bright, flat areas are contrasted with forms modeled in blacks and grays with a refinement of shading that reminds one of Seurat, an exquisiteness of contour that recalls Ingres. In such pictures as Les Disques or Le Mecanicien, the contemporary force of technology is, for the first time, faced by an artist who was formed by the past, when all things, including pictures, were handmade, subtle, perishable. And the success of these pictures speaks, even today, for the possibility of a harmonious transition from the artisanal to the industrial age.
Léger felt something more was needed: the consequences of industrialization had to be confronted—mass production, concentration of people in cities, larger numbers, bigger sizes. In a museum, a private house, a picture could whisper; on the walls of a factory, in a street, it must shout. “I hate discreet painting,” léger said. To reach people in the modern world, one had to be broad, unequivocal, simple. During the late Twenties, léger concerned himself primarily with simplification. He turned increasingly from complex compositions to the representation of single objects or even of fragments of objects. These were now set against a uniform, neutral, “abstract” ground. Unrelated to others or to the horizon, these isolated objects loomed enormous. Perhaps unconsciously, léger had thus been led from simplification of form to what he called “amplification of space”; in his work on films he had seen how singling things out could mean blowing them up in size.
During the Thirties an increase in scale thus became léger’s chief preoccupation. The passage from small to large scale was to be the painter’s way of translating into art the change of civilization—that over-whelming quantification of life—which struck him as the most important phenomenon of the times. To paint pictures that looked or felt like machines was to limit oneself to the effects of modern technology; to change scale was somehow to deal with its causes. Indeed, change of scale could be taken as implying much else: the elimination of the hand, the move from indoors to outdoors, from easel to wall, etc. “A new development in size and extension could be called my current problem. To obtain a maximum of power and even of violence on a wall, such is my final goal.” In America (“a big, tall, wide, limitless place,” he wrote), where he stayed during World War II, he tried to carry out this aim as is illustrated by the works of his last ten working years, during the 1940s and 1950s. And perhaps the concern with scale that has dominated American art since that time may derive to some extent from his influence.
The effect of the change of scale on léger’s work was, almost immediately, deadness. The colors are frank and clear but, devoid of all expansiveness, they seem fettered by their leaden contours—somber prisoners in bright clothes. The contours, once so firm and sharp, are limp, swollen, like the musculature of a retired wrestler. The space against which the figures stand or which separates them is crystal clear but implacably neutral, frozen. Perhaps it was in order to react against this petrification that léger increasingly turned to organic subject matter—plants and people. The working men and women in léger’s late work are epic in size but they are uniform, interchangeable, and they have the same vacant stare. The léger of the Twenties had deliberately glorified the products of mass production, but one may wonder whether he had intended to show, as he now did, the mass producers themselves similarly standardized. The postwar léger, his head filled with visions of the workers’ paradise, sought a humanist art but found estrangement.
The reason for this disaster does not lie in ideology, but in léger’s approach to scale. What he meant by it is clear: “A fragment enlarged a thousand times.” To léger, “amplification of space” was synonymous with enlargement. In his late monumental commissions, in his ceramic sculptures and murals, he would in fact leave his assistants to project the work on the grand scale he conceived. While the aim—enormousness as such—was new, the means—the mise au carreau of a slowly, meticulously elaborated modello—were devices familiar to the traditionally trained, “classical” painter léger never ceased to consider himself. He thus felt it possible for an artist to achieve the grand, quantitative scale congruent with the modern age by practicing the small-scale, qualitative, premodern craft.
In the art of the past, however, the relationship of modello to final, enlarged work was of the order of perhaps one to five: the change of scale was not considerable enough to alter the equilibrium worked out in the modello. With léger, that proportion became, as he stated, one to one thousand. This completely altered the situation. Amplify the singing of a rock singer beyond a certain point, and what you hear is no longer the voice of the singer, but the sound of the amplifier. Blow up a form incommensurably, and what you see is no longer the enlarged form, but the process of enlargement. The artist has set off a mechanism for indefinitely extending neutral space, which henceforth escapes his control and no longer seems to require him. The images of popular joy, proud work, and rustic pleasures—nostalgic visions of the “quality of life”—to which léger devoted his factory-sized final paintings, only emphasize the inhuman emptiness of the quantitative technological society in which they were created. As such, they can be said to symbolize many of the evils that beset us today; but their maker certainly hoped for more than the role of expiatory victim and faithful witness. The hope and ambition léger invested in these paintings lend the work greatness despite its failure. One may apply to him the words Mr. de Francia uses to describe the United States: “a giant—perhaps a hollow one—but a giant nevertheless.”
Far from each other as léger and Matisse seem, their similarities can be striking. When léger claims that in his painting he seeks “a state of organized intensity,” he could be describing Matisse’s aim since about 1906, that is to say since the time when he strove to bring order to the anarchic intensity that was revealed to him by Fauvism. But when léger added, “To obtain it, I apply the law of plastic contrasts which, I think, has never been applied to this day,” he ignored, perhaps deliberately, the method Matisse had already been using at least eight years before.
As with léger, Matisse was driven by the opposing forces within his personality to emphasize the potential conflicts in his art; and he was enabled to do so by the simplifying boldness of an approach that made him reduce the complexities of nature to clear oppositions of straight and curved lines. “Too short,” “too soft,” “You must not hesitate,” léger told his students. “Exaggerate according to the essential lines,” Matisse told his. Matisse was no more than léger an advocate of “discreet painting.” He too felt that painting could no longer afford to wait for people to come to it, but that it had to go out—beyond the quiet of the private home or the museum—into the brutal world and force itself upon people’s attention. “The characteristic of modern art,” he said, “is to participate in our lives.” What Matisse’s art has to say is not only said, it is directed forcefully at the viewer. And this of course would not have been the case had he not felt the same social duty that léger did when he said that “painting has an immense role to play, and painters have obligations toward people.”
This sense of obligation led both artists, at roughly the same time, to face the challenge of modern technological society, which somehow had to be mastered if people were not to remain beyond the artist’s reach. For both léger and Matisse, this meant mastering the change of scale. Matisse’s contemporaries were wholly blind to the transformations that this concern introduced into his art from 1930 onward, probably because they could not rid themselves of the image of the charming petit maître who indulged in paintings of odalisques—“une peinture d’intimité” as Matisse himself called it.
Beginning in 1927 and 1928, the narrow row limits of this “intimacy” had been making Matisse restless. To break out of them, he began to toy with the idea of taking a trip to Polynesia, not out of some craving for the exotic, but in the hope of finding there the “vaster space” of which he was dreaming. The journey took place in 1930 and Matisse returned from it eager, after not having painted for over a year, to work out the new sense of scale he had brought back from the Southern hemisphere. The commission for large-scale decoration at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia provided him with an opportunity to do so.
Changing the scale meant switching from easel to mural painting, and that implied working through architecture. “I congratulate the directors of Russia’s Beaux-Arts for the good idea of having public monuments decorated by painters,” Matisse wrote to the Soviet critic Romm. “There lies the great problem.” In his approach to the problem of how to amplify space Matisse, although every bit as “classical” a painter as léger, at once showed himself more radical. The hand, he realized, no longer had its place in large public painting: it was impossible to preserve “the little play of the brush” that had struck him when he saw his Danse of 1910 hung in Sergei Shchukin’s mansion, in Moscow. As if to force himself to do without “the hand,” he worked out his composition by juggling paper forms cut with scissors and colored by assistants.
This determination to use such methods and materials, however, did not mean that he was willing to give up what he himself called the qualitative, traditionally regarded as produced only by the hand. Matisse now set out to prove—and here his method diverged completely from léger’s—that quality could be produced without the hand. His method on the Barnes mural was to “put on flat colors without nuances.” As he told Romm: “What seemed essential to me was the quantity of color on the surface…. When colors are used with total frankness, it is the relationship of their quantities that creates their quality.”
That was to be Matisse’s solution to the problem of how to preserve quality. Quality for him was something that issued from the inner person. What place would the personal have among components of the large-scale work? Indifferent hands may apply the colors to its big areas, scissors interpose their metallic coldness between sensitive hand and final form. Indeed, color and shape could when necessary be entrusted to industrial production. Matisse makes a point of emphasizing that the ceramic tiles of the walls and the stained glass of the windows of his chapel, at Vence, are not precious, unique, but were manufactured industrially. The elements of the modern work are quantitative. But the relationship between them is—or rather, can be made to become—qualitative. In working out the relationship, personal talent and individual sensibility are still free—and more than ever needed—to exert themselves.
For that task, Matisse was perfectly prepared. The relation among parts is the heart of his theory and the key to his practice. Ever since 1905, he had been aware—and said so in countless statements—that the elements related mattered less than the relation between them. The beauty of a painting did not spring from the selection of a beautiful red and a beautiful green, but from the rapport between them. Anyone could buy the colors in any shop: the rapport could only be provided by the intervention of a unique colorist.
Matisse’s way of making this intervention differs radically from léger’s. By conceiving a small model and enlarging it to a vast scale, léger denied himself the possibility of intervening directly in largescale work. The small model was created by him; the large work is produced by blowing up neutral space—by the effect of the scale itself. To Matisse, on the other hand, size, scale, that “vaster space,” was among the work’s elements, just as color and form were. Like them, this element could not just be measured but had to be experienced. Matisse notes that after much unsuccessful experiment, the solution for the Barnes mural quickly came to him when he decided to draw the composition, not on a reduced scale, but on the life-size canvases.
Perhaps it might be important to indicate that the composition of the panel grew out of a corps à corps fight between the artist and fifty-two square meters of surface, of which the artist had to take possession, and this not by means of the modern device of projection upon a surface enlarged a certain number of times “upon request” and traced.
A man who explores the immensity of the sky with a searchlight does not move about in it in the same way as a flyer.
The searchlight operator is safely settled on firm ground; the flyer is thrown into the sky and runs a risk. The earliest and most memorable image of Matisse’s Jazz is of the fall of Icarus.
Thus, far from shutting himself up in Capuan delights, Matisse became, between 1931 and 1933, the most radical practitioner of the muralism through which the renewed social consciousness of the Thirties expressed itself. Yet Matisse was not given another opportunity to prove his mastery until some fifteen years later. He was practically the only artist not to be given a commission for a large-scale work at the Exposition Universelle of 1937. Indeed, the Chapel of Vence would never have been built had he not personally taken the initiative. From 1933 on Matisse felt that he was fully equipped to take the step from past to future, from easel painting to “architectural painting,” but that he had been denied the opportunity to do so. His frustration was at times acute, and would undoubtedly have proved unbearable, had he not managed to transfer his yearning for architectural painting to a medium he had not yet tried—the book.
Upon returning from Polynesia, Matisse had accepted still another commission: the illustration of Mallarmé’s poems for the publisher Skira. He worked concurrently on this project and the Barnes mural. Not only are the same cavorting nymphs to be found in both, but Matisse approached book illustration as if it were a variety of monumental decoration. Speaking some twenty years later about the walls of his chapel, which carry black-and-white writing on one side and colorful images on the other, he noted: “They are the visual equivalents of a large open book.” Conversely, he treated the pages of a book as the equivalents of walls. “This book,” he wrote about his illustrated version of Montherlant’s Pasiphaé, “because of the numerous difficulties of its architecture, has taken me ten months of work.”
The books illustrated by Matisse during the Thirties and Forties—works by Mallarmé, Joyce, Montherlant, Ronsard, and Charles d’Orléans, and Jazz—can be seen as successive models, substitute architectural plans for the temple of love which he first attempted to evoke on the Barnes Foundation walls and ultimately built at Vence. The most complex and inventive of these is Jazz, begun in 1943 and published in 1947, just before Matisse was to expand its lessons into the Gesamtkunstwerk of the chapel and the great final cutouts.
Jazz was originally published in an edition of 250 copies. It has been republished by George Braziller in an edition of several thousand. The original stencil-and-gouache technique has given way to offset printing. Yet one might claim that reproduction was part of Matisse’s project to begin with. For what he was trying to demonstrate with Jazz was that quality could prevail even when the component parts were mechanically produced.
The scissors used to cut out the original gouaches already interposed, as I have suggested, a barrier between the sensitive hand and the definitive product. The stencil process eliminated any remnants of handiwork, the hesitancies, the infinitesimal irregularities that the scissors had been unable to censure completely. Matisse had deliberately burned his bridges. His own audacity frightened him at times. When Jazz was sharply criticized, even among his friends, he regretted for a moment the “little play of the blade.” But he promptly recovered his confidence and soon wrote the same friend to whom he had confessed his doubts that the printed version of Jazz contained the essence of the work. He believed when that essence—quality—is independent of its quantitative components, production and reproduction are identical.
Well, almost identical. Mr. Braziller’s German technicians have done remarkably well with their colored inks—the hardest part of the undertaking. It is all the more regrettable, therefore, that owing to the paper’s lack of thickness or opacity, the black of Matisse’s handwriting can be seen on the verso of the pages on which it is printed, causing unwelcome interferences with the images. (In the third edition of July 1984, the images and writings appear on entirely separate pages.) The edges of the cutout forms, moreover, are ever so slightly more blurred by today’s printing techniques than they were by quasi-artisanal methods used by Tériade, the original printer. Only the carping eye of an aging critic, however, will detect the difference. On the whole, the demonstration that Matisse had in mind has been admirably carried out by the Braziller Jazz. And Riva Castleman’s elegant, terse introduction tells us what needs to be known about the origins, technique, and history of this masterpiece.
I have chosen to discuss Jazz from the point of view of Matisse’s concern with the relation of quality to quantity. This accounts for one aspect of the book’s greatness: its monumentality or, to be more precise, its grandness of scale, which far exceeds its actual size. Matisse’s script reads like writing on the wall, his images are like frescoes in a Romanesque apse. Jazz has the vastness of space of the architecture for which it was a substitute (whereas the decorative pictures that adorn the walls of post-Romanesque churches often have the cramped look of book illustrations). Matisse’s books reinvent the amplitude lost in book illustrations since early Christian and Byzantine times.
The grandness of his conception, inseparable from that of architecture, imposes its manner: abstract, decorative. And this style, in turn, imposes its subject matter: decorative form works best when expressing religious content. Matisse had been aware of this ever since 1905, when painting La Joie de vivre. His first truly decorative painting was also the first in which his “credo” found expression: that “religion of happiness” for which the myth of the Golden Age was henceforth to provide the theme. In La Joie de vivre, La Danse, and La Musique, indeed until 1911, the myth was stated in images borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology. Late in 1911, when Matisse went to Tangiers, Morocco struck him as the painter’s earthly paradise. For the twenty years that followed, Morocco replaced mythology as the figure of the Golden Age: it provided the realistic alibi for the intimate, reduced scale and realistic manner adopted by Matisse in Nice.
The trip to Oceania provided him with the new, grand scale. Yet when he first sought images to express it in the Barnes mural, Matisse reverted to pagan mythology. In the substitute architecture of the books he illustrated—the ones by Mallarmé, Joyce, and Montherlant, and much of the one by Ronsard—the “battle of love” between nymphs and fauns likewise provides the figure of the Golden Age. In Jazz, we see a cowboy lassoing his prey, a knife thrower skillfully missing his assistant: they are substitutes for the earlier satyrs raping nymphs—themselves figures of the relationship of the painter and model. It is only in the later images of Jazz—in the visions of the three Lagoons—that subject matter drawn from Polynesia makes its appearance, and there the cutout technique itself evolved: instead of staccato cutting, the scissor’s blades now sheared smoothly through the paper.
Why did it take so long for the Polynesian material, which was to provide the dominant image of the Golden Age in the painter’s final phase, to emerge? Because those thirteen years were needed for memory to filter the realities seen in Polynesia to the degree of abstraction where they became usable in decoration. The lagoons of Tahiti could replace the gardens of Morocco in the painter’s paradise only when they had become, as he put it, “crystallizations of reminiscences”: Souvenir d’Océanie, the title of one of the last great cutouts in Jazz, might serve as a definition of Matisse’s entire final period.
Jazz is a “Remembrance of Things Past”—it includes memories of tales heard of circus performances Matisse saw during his childhood, as well as his voyage to the South Seas. Like Proust, Matisse conjures up luminous visions in the dark of night; his books were the only works he did not create in daylight. Thus their generalized abstraction—to his old companions Jean Puy and Charles Camoin it seemed “inhuman”—is rooted in the most intimate moments of his life. Images like The Juggler, The Sword Swallower, The Clown, or Icarus are metaphors for the condition of the artist. Even the cutout technique used to execute Jazz is related to the painter’s personal experience. The thread of his own life had almost been cut by the surgeon’s knife, in 1941, and it was this event, which he viewed as a veritable death and resurrection, that marked the moment of his complete liberation from tradition and gave him the strength to launch himself into the unprecedented production of the years between 1943 and 1954.
The nearly fatal operation and miraculous recovery had projected him into a “seventh heaven” whose chief reward was “the perception of unlimited space.” Actually, as Matisse described it in Jazz, he had already experienced that perception: in 1938 he had been physically propelled into heaven by taking an airplane from London to Paris. The term “revelation” which he applies to it may seem somewhat solemn, unless we keep in mind that his artistic aim was to provide the viewer with precisely the sort of reconciliation between the intimate-scale human feelings and the macro-scale of “unlimited space” that he had experienced on his flight from London to Paris: “to find joy in the sky.”
This example—one of many—should suffice to call our attention to the importance of Matisse’s text for Jazz. He himself spoke of it disparagingly as insignificant remarks designed only to provide him with the possibility of counter-balancing his vividly colored images with black-and-white calligraphy. After his “Notes of a Painter on his Painting” (1908) and his “Notes of a Painter on his Drawing” (1939), however, this text is the third major statement of his aesthetics—indeed, one might call Jazz the “Notes of a Painter on his Cutouts.”
When Matisse “cut” and wrote Jazz, the major architectural cutouts were yet to come. One of the most exciting things about Jazz is its prophetic quality. It provides a concentrated model for the work he did during the last six or seven years—work that was to open entirely new perspectives not only for Matisse himself, but for the second half of the twentieth century as a whole. What we see in the Vence chapel—the great cutouts, the ceramics, the stained-glass windows—was all present in Jazz, but as an intense core of possibilities. Looking at this small, great book we see the bottle while the jinni is still prisoner in it, knowing that he will soon escape.
April 11, 1985