Over the years I’ve had conversations with friends, often artists, who tell me they much prefer Bonnard to Matisse and Braque to Picasso. For them it’s Bonnard, not Matisse, who understands the poetry of the everyday. And it’s Braque, not Picasso, who gives Cubism a lyric power. Their feeling is that Bonnard and Braque were devoted to their craft, the art of painting, while Matisse and Picasso were too frequently show-offish, self-dramatizing, calling attention to themselves rather than the work they were doing. Bonnard and Braque, so the argument goes, were somehow selfless. They followed the imperatives of the imagination wherever it led. Their development was natural, organic, while Matisse and Picasso looked for ruptures, crises, provocations, thrills.
I find too much to admire in each of these artists to want to take sides in this discussion. But my friends have a point. In two extraordinary recent exhibitions—“Matisse in the 1930s,” currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and “Matisse: The Red Studio,” which was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York over the summer—we see Matisse going to extremes. He challenges us with simplifications and complications that raise questions about what a painting, a sculpture, or a drawing can and cannot do. Even with all that we know about Matisse—one of the most widely exhibited, discussed, and beloved artists of the twentieth century—the nature of his achievement remains elusive. It’s no wonder that the literature on him is vast. Early on he was embraced by formalists, including Roger Fry in England. In successive decades his work has been the subject of immense philosophical meditations by Louis Aragon and Pierre Schneider, Yve-Alain Bois’s strenuous theoretical investigations, and Hilary Spurling’s sprawling biographical anatomization. The ideas of Nietzsche and Bergson have been invoked in one or another effort to explain what he was up to.
In “Notes of a Painter,” the testament that Matisse published in 1908, when he was nearly forty, he spoke of “reach[ing] that state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture.” In the decades that followed he found radically different ways of exploring his sensations. At one extreme are the intricate studies of a woman in an interior, painted in the 1920s with a delicacy of touch that sometimes brings Watteau to mind. At the other extreme are the immense, almost stentorian cut-paper compositions of the early 1950s. If there is, as his friend Aragon observed, a “Matissean algebra,” it continues to confound a formidable succession of writers and thinkers. Schneider was certainly pointing in the right direction when he insisted on a cyclical reading of the artist’s work, with its intricately interlocking themes. He suggested that Bergson’s contest between intelligence and instinct offered one key to this Matissean algebra. Everybody who looks at Matisse’s work, even if what initially strikes them is his daredevil hedonism, eventually grapples with what an early admirer, the American critic Henry McBride, referred to as something “over-intellectualized and dry.”
Matisse beguiles and bewilders. He renders tree trunks in incandescent primary colors or turns the view out a window into a black void. He’s voluptuous in one work and austere in the next. Gertrude Stein, although ultimately out of sympathy with the man and his accomplishments, was getting at something essential in her prose portrait of him. “Some,” she wrote, “said he was not clearly expressing what he was expressing and some of such of them said that the greatness of struggling which was not clear expression made of him one being a completely great one.” Going through “Matisse: The Red Studio” and “Matisse in the 1930s” I found myself caught up in this struggle to express, which sometimes seemed more important than whatever was being expressed. What does it mean when the struggle itself becomes a form of expression? If we knew the answer to this question we might finally know Matisse.
Ann Temkin of MoMA and Dorthe Aagesen of the National Gallery of Denmark have done themselves proud with the compact powerhouse of an exhibition they built around The Red Studio (1911), a linchpin of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection since it was acquired in 1949 (see illustration below). The Red Studio is an unabashedly hyperbolic vision, a sort of fever dream (a cool fever dream, if that’s possible). The deep Venetian red that saturates the entire surface is sharpened by the clear-cut shapes of the furnishings, paintings, and sculptures casually placed around the room. As an accompaniment to The Red Studio, Temkin and Aagesen gathered together all of the surviving works (paintings and sculptures plus one ceramic) depicted in it, plus a few earlier and later canvases and related drawings, photographs, and documentary material. The centerpiece of the catalog is a brilliant monographic study of The Red Studio, which ranges from a detailed description of the workspace that Matisse built for himself outside Paris in 1909, through the gestation of The Red Studio in that space, to the exhibition of the finished painting in the Armory Show in New York in 1913, its inclusion among the décor of London’s chic Gargoyle Club in the 1930s, and its eventual purchase by MoMA.
Museumgoers who saw the exhibition last summer on West 53rd Street won’t easily forget the gallery where The Red Studio held center stage, surrounded by the works that Matisse chose to include in a painting that amounts to a very personal discourse on the nature of the visual arts. There’s something simultaneously seductive and belligerent about this wildly self-reflexive painting. The Red Studio is a self-portrait of the artist in which the artist chooses not to appear but instead presents his own landscapes, still lifes, and figures as a kaleidoscopic self-portrait—a map of his avidities. These works of art, their now miniaturized compositions strikingly contrasted with the monumental impact of that overall red, suggest a series of mottos or emblems or heraldic devices, each reflecting some aspect of the artist’s imagination. The entire composition, which at first can feel casual, almost haphazard, has a puzzle-like, maybe even hermetic power.
I’m not the only observer who has noticed that the face on the grandfather clock has no hands. Could Matisse be suggesting that the studio is a place out of time? That thought is underscored by a couple of pastoral compositions hanging in his studio, especially Le Luxe (II) (1907–1908) in the upper-right-hand corner. This study of three nudes in a landscape harks back to the work of the late-nineteenth-century neoclassical painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the entire classical Mediterranean tradition. I’ve never felt that Le Luxe (II) was one of Matisse’s more successful works. I find his blunt, almost faux-naif paint-handling underpowered and overly self-conscious. At MoMA it was The Red Studio, not Le Luxe (II), that convinced as a pastoral vision—a dream, an escape, a time out of time.
The studio itself, the retreat where Matisse drew and painted the women who posed for him, remained an essential theme in his work throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The artist’s workplace was a house of mirrors, with the same model or the same objects transformed—expanded, reduced, reversed, doubled, refracted—in successive paintings, sculptures, and drawings. The Red Studio wasn’t the first and would by no means be the last work in which Matisse chose to incorporate his own creations within one of his paintings or drawings. His sculptures frequently appear in his still lifes. And in at least one painting—the great Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground (1925–1926)—the seated model has the blocky solidity of a sculpture. There are even paintings and drawings in which Matisse represents himself in the act of creation. In one pen-and-ink study of a reclining nude from 1935, he makes us feel as if we’re looking over his shoulder as he works, for in the lower-right-hand corner he includes his own fingers holding the pen with which he’s drawing the reclining nude. In his final years the walls of his studio, covered with immense cut-paper compositions, became works of art in their own right.
In all this, there is perhaps something of Proust in his cork-lined room, a vision of creation as perpetual self-exploration and self-examination, the people and places that are the painter’s or writer’s putative subjects finally regarded as aspects of the creator himself, occasions to dig deeper into his own impressions—and ultimately his sense of self. When Matisse presses too hard on a theme—when his interest in the voluptuous female model strikes us not as revelatory but as repetitive—he can suggest the pages in Proust’s novel where some apprehension or idea is pursued with an insistence that becomes off-putting. Virtuosity—even the virtuosity of a genius—can be a dead end.
“Matisse in the 1930s,” the exhibition that Matthew Affron has organized at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in collaboration with two French curators, Cécile Debray and Claudine Grammont, is the first major survey of what may well be the strangest and most challenging decade in Matisse’s career. In the 1920s he had reinvigorated what was by then a cloying if not downright disreputable vision of a woman as an idol or an odalisque by using the old romantic clichés with reckless panache, as if they were fireworks or maybe even hand grenades that might go off at any moment. Whatever the triumphs of the 1920s—and there are many—I don’t think Matisse was ever able to decide whether the women he drew and painted were pinups or goddesses. (A sculpture from the early 1930s is titled Venus in a Shell.) So it’s not strange that in the 1930s, in what may have been an effort to split the difference, he began to regard his models as something more like figments of his imagination. The intricacies of the relationship between the artist and the model gave way to the exigencies of ink, charcoal, and oil paint. This was formalism as sublimation, by any reckoning a risky proposition, but one that despite the equivocal results in some of the works of the 1930s led, two decades later, to the series of Blue Nudes that are among Matisse’s Apollonian triumphs.
With this pathbreaking show, Affron gives museumgoers an artist who is exploring extremes. Early in the decade Matisse was focused on the large decorative composition The Dance, produced for the Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes; you can see it if you take a short walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the new home of the Barnes Foundation, which ten years ago moved from suburban Merion, Pennsylvania, to Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the center of the city. At the same time that Matisse was working on The Dance he was turning from the challenges of monumentality to the intimacy of the book arts, beginning what would be a yearslong period of experimentation with illustrations for an edition of the poems of Mallarmé. Later in the decade Matisse made his second major foray into theatrical design, creating costumes and sets for Rouge et noir, a ballet choreographed by Léonide Massine to music by Shostakovich. The body-hugging costumes, festooned with sharply colored shapes, gave his pictorial vision a kinetic dimension.
Matisse was increasingly interested in decorative schemes that challenged the limits of easel painting and its generally rectilinear format. These experiments ranged from a brilliant overmantel designed for the New York apartment of Nelson Rockefeller (one of the highpoints of the show) to a design for a Steuben glass vase (not included in the exhibition). Affron is asking a lot of museumgoers, who must frequently shift focus from paintings to sculptures, book illustrations, drawings, and monumental tapestry designs. He pulls everything together with some bold, decisive curatorial strokes, including rare footage of Matisse at work and a performance of Rouge et noir. The exhibition is big but unhurried. The Rockefeller overmantel, The Song, is a particular treat. Matisse’s unusual color orchestration, with great swaths of deep green and black punctuated by shots of primary red, yellow, and blue, is at once festive and subdued—perfect for a composition in which three women listen to a fourth woman singing a song that one feels must be something by Ravel.
For all Matisse’s interest in the sensuous impact of colors, lines, shapes, and arabesques, he was always critiquing his own hedonism. Could there be something especially French about this taxonomy of pleasure? I find myself thinking about the writings of Gide, whose cool in the face of hot experiences suggests affinities with Matisse. Be that as it may, there was no time in Matisse’s life when he was more aggressively self-critical than in the 1930s. He was asking himself how much he could do with very little. Sometimes this severity—this austerity—was a response to a commission. The simplicity of the figures in the Barnes decoration, designed to hang high up above the windows in the central room of the foundation, was a function of Matisse’s admirable unwillingness to detract from the masterworks in a gallery that included major achievements by Seurat, Cézanne, and others.
When it came to illustrating the luxurious edition of Mallarmé’s poetry, Matisse aimed for a decisive balance between image and text. He saw the purity of his etched line as a counterpoint to the purity of the typography, his studies of women, landscapes, and a magnificent swan only fully revealed as the pages turned and the images fell into place, the parts of a whole. In the 1930s this desire to strip an image to the essentials sometimes led to surfaces so thoroughly reworked as to suggest essays in uncertainty; a case in point is the large study for a tapestry, Nymph in the Forest (1935–1942/1943), which Matisse exhibited on a number of occasions. The insistent reworking of Nymph in the Forest may be what led the art historian John Klein, in his valuable book Matisse and Decoration (2018), to speculate that “the prospect of sexual violence [was] a private obsession that he mediated—even sublimated—by decoration.”
A diaristic impulse animated much of Matisse’s work in the 1930s and early 1940s. He not only wanted to lay bare his processes; he wanted to do so in public. In Drawings: Themes and Variations (1943), a book he assembled from a selection of works produced in 1941 and 1942, he documented his subtly variegated responses to a particular model in a particular pose or a particular arrangement of still-life objects; he might have been a choreographer trying different moves with his dancers. Matisse was increasingly interested in seeing that his paintings were photographed as he worked on them over a period of days and weeks. He wanted to record an imaginative journey, which often began with a relatively naturalistic composition that was wiped out again and again, until his multiplying impressions had coalesced into an ineradicable image—what French intellectuals would refer to as a sign. Perhaps the most famous example is Large Reclining Nude (1935). Photographs show how the woman’s reclining body, initially powerfully volumetric and set in a relatively deep space, became a flat, singular shape emblazoned on a blue-and-white grid. Another canvas, Seated Pink Nude (1935–1936), was only finished when most of the picture had been wiped out and just a few harsh, abrupt lines were left to describe the oval of the head and the solidity of the torso. Although there has been a good deal of interest in this painting in recent years, it strikes me as a failure—reduction as demolition.
For Matisse, austerity—a kind of artistic unburdening—was part of a process of renewal. In the text he wrote for Jazz, the collection of silkscreen reproductions of paper cutouts published in 1947, he admiringly observed that “Japanese artists of the great period changed their names several times during their lives,” adding that it was because “they wanted to protect their freedom.” To change was to remain free. In this regard the insistent questing and questioning that Matisse embraced in the 1930s look like a long prelude to the triumphs of his final dozen years: the brilliant paintings and ink drawings of interiors from the 1940s; the designs for the Vence Chapel, with its tile murals and stained glass, completed in 1951; and the monumental cut-paper compositions of the years up to his death in 1954. What Matisse seems to have been looking for in the 1930s was an all-in-one impact. He had been thinking along similar lines since he was in his thirties, but even The Red Studio, despite the unified declaration of his Venetian red, was complicated by the carefully rendered details of paintings, sculptures, and furnishings. Those lovingly described objects pull us in different directions. We can’t help but take them in one by one.
With the audacious symmetry of Woman in Blue (1937)—it’s a transcendent playing card, a supernova of an icon—Matisse is finally in absolute command of an all-in-one image (see illustration on page 13). Here is a painting that we don’t so much explore piece by piece as succumb to as a totality. We can’t even begin to grasp Woman in Blue incrementally; Matisse’s dispassionate handling of areas of red, yellow, blue, black, and white oil paint makes that impossible. It’s an amazing painting, with the dispassionate parts adding up to an impassioned whole. Matisse’s desire for a totalizing experience may help to explain why so often in the 1930s this sublime figure draftsman seems intent on rendering a face or a hand almost as an afterthought. There are times when the simplifications don’t work. Some of the faces in the 1930s, with features rendered in a shorthand, strike me as clichés—albeit clichés of Matisse’s own invention.
Although world-famous by the 1930s, Matisse was not at peace. His marriage to Amélie, whose devotion had sustained him through his early, difficult years as an artist, had been troubled since the period around World War I, when he began spending more and more time in the South of France. They were finally legally separated in 1939. By then Matisse was spending a good deal of time with Lydia Delectorskaya, a model in many works of the 1930s, a devoted assistant in the studio, and a close companion until his death. Their relationship may have been the most important of his life, after those with his wife and three children, whose doings and struggles were rarely far from his thoughts; there was his daughter’s unhappy marriage and his son Pierre’s efforts to establish himself as a major art dealer in New York. The overseas trips Matisse made in the early 1930s, to Tahiti and the United States, were significant departures from routine for a man who counted on his concentrated work in the studio to insulate him from life’s trials and tribulations. How all this affected his art—and whether the life shapes the art or the art the life—are questions to which there are no clear answers.
The reconsideration of nineteenth-century naturalism that Matisse undertook in the 1920s was viewed by a number of his contemporaries as a reactionary gesture, and it may be, as some have speculated, that he hoped to reclaim his place at the head of the avant-garde with his most audacious works of the 1930s. Others have theorized that Matisse’s more dramatic artistic gestures were fueled by a rivalry with Picasso; since the first decade of the new century the two men had sometimes found themselves vying for the attention of the same adventuresome collectors, dealers, and critics. It was only in the years after World War II that modernism really went mainstream, and both Matisse and Picasso found themselves achieving a popularity that easily eclipsed their already considerable fame in the 1920s and 1930s. That they leapt to embrace new opportunities—producing limited-edition prints in large numbers, inviting photographers and filmmakers into their studios, exhibiting around the globe—was perfectly natural, victory laps well deserved after the penury that had so often seemed the fate of the avant-garde in their younger years. Given Picasso’s cheerfully rapacious self-promotional instincts, it was no surprise that there came a time in the 1960s and 1970s when Picasso fatigue set in among sophisticated museumgoers, especially in the United States. As for Matisse, although the radically abstracted works from both early and late in his career continued to inspire fresh excitement among artists, critics, and curators, the ubiquity of some of his images, especially in mediocre reproductions, left open the possibility, however ironic, that he could be mistaken for what Dwight Macdonald once described as a midcult artist—one who impersonates or replicates an avant-garde style.
If it’s true that some of the attention accorded Matisse has blurred the actual outlines of his achievement, then it’s perhaps a little easier to understand why there have always been those who prefer Bonnard. Regardless of all the enthusiasm that his work inspired during his lifetime, Bonnard always insisted on following the same singular solitary path. A career like his can register as a dissent from an age of alarums and diversions. Matisse, despite the probity of his art, could never entirely embrace the old idea of the artist as a disinterested craftsman—an idea you feel in every touch of Bonnard’s brush. For Matisse art was a perpetual emergency, a matter of going to the limit, testing boundaries, breaking through. In the end he gave up painting on canvas for cutting compositions out of colored paper. In “Matisse in the 1930s” he’s a man in the fullness of his powers who doubts or at least questions nearly everything about his powers. The masterworks scattered through the show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are eruptions, exhilarating and confounding.