05 Jan 1993
Matisse at the Modern
Matisse at the Modern
In 1931 the Museum of Modern Art staged a show of the work of Henri Matisse, who thus became the rst European artist to be singled out for major individual exhibition by that recently-founded but already inuential institution. A second exhibition at the Modern 20 years later was the occasion for publication of Alfred H. Barr Jr's Matisse: His Art and His Public. This study established an image of the artist's career as a whole which has still not been superseded by any comparable publication. Since then Matisse has been continually and prominently featured in the authoritative Modernist narrative of the Modern's permanent collection. His work has remained central to the values that narrative represents, both on its own account and as authorisation for the abstract expressive tendency of American painting during the 40s and 50s.
In the establishment of Matisse's canonical status, the Modern thus takes second place to none. In the words of John Elderfield, organiser of the recent exhibition and principal author of its catalogue, 'Matisse lays claim to the title of our greatest painter'. That 'our' is clearly meant to be inclusive of all and any interested parties, but from the pen of a Curator at MOMA it takes on a possessive and thus exclusive aspect, to which some of Elderfield's readers will no doubt respond unsympathetically. Given the current fashion for incredulity towards historical narratives and for the deconstruction of canons, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective was anyway bound to be an occasion for the parading of some Postmodernist scepticism.
The exhibition included over 400 works, with an emphasis on paintings. Since there is as yet no catalogue raisonné of Matisse's work, we can't know for sure just what proportion of his total output of paintings the show represented, but the visitor could feel confident that the substantial work was remarkably well represented (the more so as the majority of the obvious absences were listed and reproduced in the exhibition catalogue). It was an important condition of the show's representativeness that a large number of loans was secured from the former Shchukin and Morosov collections, now housed in St Petersburg and Moscow. Without these no adequate view could have been formed of Matisse's achievement during the years 1908-13. Among the key works made available were the finished version of La Danse, The Harmony in Red, the so-called Moroccan Triptych, Conversation, The Painter's Family, and the less obviously ambitious but no less effective Still Life with Blue Tablecloth.
The generosity of the Russians in this respect served to emphasise that it was not just Matisse's work that the show was designed to celebrate. Prefacing the catalogue, a note from the sponsors established the now customary associations between artistic and political liberalism and between artistic and commercial enterprise. 'The achievements of Henri Matisse speak a universal language of creativity and experimentation. It is particularly fitting, then, that we owe this definitive retrospective of Matisse's work to increased international understanding and openness to new ventures... In the belief that a spirit of innovation is crucial to the vitality of our society, Philip Morris etc. etc.'
The publicity attendant on the show made much of records broken: the fattest catalogue, the biggest insurance bill, and, at $12.50, the highest admission charge in MOMA's history. This barrier notwithstanding, queues formed each morning long before the museum opened. Once inside, the visitor interested in viewing the works on display had either to join or to compete with an unending crocodile of the glassy-eyed, their pace attuned not to the different virtues of the pictures themselves, but to the rise and fall of a tape-recorded commentary, through which those virtues were registered without need of any actual scrutiny.
It has to be acknowledged that the more assiduously the forces of institutional ratification are marshalled around Matisse's work, the stronger the temptation becomes to entertain that account of his career which would represent it as a betrayal of avant-garde commitments. A really determined attempt at disparagement might assemble motifs from the art-historical revisions of the past 25 years in order to summarise that career along the following lines.
1) Matisse's appearance as leader of the Fauves in the 1905 Salon d'Automne was a piece of carefully stage-managed opportunism.
2) The avant-gardism attributed to his major figure compositions of 1907-10 is the consequence of a category mistake: i.e. of viewing works conceived as wall-decorations for the apartments of plutocrats as if they were radically simplified kinds of easel painting.
3) It may be allowed that Matisse produced a number of formally complex and adventurous works during the years 1913-17; but these largely owe their vitality to the critical climate established by Cubism and they testify more vividly to the professional challenge represented by Picasso than they do to any real originality on Matisse's part.
4) After 1917, with his move to Nice, Matisse comes out in his true colours as the apostle of a return to conservative forms of figuration and as the unremitting celebrant of bourgeois hedonism (and of its typical masculine form, in which sensual delight is equated with female passivity and submission).
5) Further evidence of the depth of his conservatism is to be found among the works of his dotage: decorations for a Christian chapel and large-scale coloured cut-outs which established an immediate following in the world of up-market fashion and publicity. (And incidentally, if these late works were not largely made by assistants, why do so many photos of the master at work in his bed or his wheelchair seem necessary to establish their authenticity?)
The point is not that such disenchanted valuations are assured of validity. But in the face of any tendency to uncritical celebration it is as well that they should be brought out into the open, where they can be tested against experience of the works in question. And if they can be made to stick, then stick they should. On the other hand, if they fail they will be the less likely to circulate as forms of innuendo among those resentful of the power of representing institutions such as MOMA. At the least it can be said that if the actual virtues of Matisse's work are eventually to show through such curatorial exercises as the Modern's, then the spectator will always have need of a few rough edges on which to snag the seamless and dissuasive blanket of approbation in which those virtues tend to be enshrouded. The art needs to be given some work to do, and in turn to provide exertion for the spectator. Specifically Matisse's oeuvre needs to be tested against the presumption that its function is uncritically celebratory of a culture ethically continuous with the sponsoring institutions.
This presumption might seem to take some license from a notorious passage in Matisse's own Notes of a Painter. 'What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing,
calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.' To those for whom art is defensible only in so far as it can be seen as disturbing to bourgeois ideology, the reputation of Matisse's work could hardly be advanced by its role as entertainment for those seeking relaxation at MOMA from the ardours of shopping on Fifth Avenue or gorging on Madison Avenue.
And yet it is not always observed by those who quote the familiar passage that later in the same text it is asserted that 'whether we want to or not, we belong to our time and we share in its opinions, its feelings, even its delusions. All artists bear the imprint of their time, but the great artists are those in whom this is most profoundly marked.' However insistently one may represent oneself as an exile, Matisse concludes, 'between our period and ourselves an indissoluble bond is established' - a bond from which the artist can no more escape than the shopper, the businessman or the disenchanted writer on art.
The installation at the Modern divided the artist's career into two halves, with the division marked chronologically by his move to Nice at the end of 1917, and stylistically by a return to more clearly readable forms of figuration. The first section thus ended with that sequence of ambitious, often ambiguous and often seemingly unresolved works,
dating from early in 1914 to the summer of 1917, which includes the Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg, MOMA's View of Notre-Dame, the French Window at Collioure, The Yellow Curtain, the two versions of the Piano Lesson, The Moroccans, The Studio, quai Saint-Michel from the Phillips Collection and Bathers by a River in its definitive version. With the exception of the second version of The Piano Lesson (immovable in the Barnes Foundation), these were all there in New York to be puzzled over. They are not all successful paintings. The Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg has the mark of desperation on it, while the stylisation of Bathers by a River seems in the end to have been pursued just past the point at which an animating mimesis could be sustained. But taken together the paintings of these years are evidence of a remarkable and unrelieved engagement with 'the time... its feelings... and its delusions', as that time was open to being conjured through the deformations it wrought upon traditional genres and icons, through the contingent appearances and domestic occupations of individuals, through the thematisation of modes of studied or casual apperception, and through those resources of expression and analysis - Cubism certainly among them - in which these and other conditions of the pictorial could be made to determine the forms of paintings. The best of the results - the French Window at Collioure, the first version of the Piano Lesson, The Studio, quai St Michel - are among the most demanding of 20th century paintings. Between 1914 and 1917 Matisse may still have dreamed of 'an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter', but the lesson his painting had principally to teach during these years was just how difficult of achievement such an art was bound to be if it was also to be bear the imprint of its time in some better-than-documentary manner.
To consider these works in relation to those grouped on the other side of the exhibition's chronological and stylistic divide was to face in dramatic form the substantial question raised by the exhibition as a whole. Or rather it was to face two questions: one specific to Matisse's career and already trailed in the disenchanted account of that career proposed above; the second bearing generally upon our procedures for assessing the critical worth of art, and, by implication, upon our grounds for relating the historical and the aesthetic.
The first question is whether the softer and more modelled style of Matisse's work of c.1918-30 - the 'Nice period' as it is generally conceived - is significant of a loss of critical and aesthetic power after the hiatus of 1914-17; whether, for example, a painting like the Odalisque with Magnolias of 1923/4 must be said to represent a decline in relation to a comparable earlier painting like the Blue Nude, Souvenir of Biskra on the grounds of stylistic regress - a relative failure to confront either the technical or the ethical demands of modernity (not that the Blue Nude itself gets off scot free at the hands of those compulsive iconographers for whom its blueness is significant of the represented woman's identity as a prostitute).
The second question, which effectively underlies the first, is just how phenomenal difference - difference measurable in terms of changes in descriptive content, in colour range, in formal organisation, in paint texture and so on - is connected to aesthetic difference; or, indeed, whether it is connected at all in any significant manner. The assumption that there is some such connection - that, for example, a dramatically formalised painting must somehow be more deeply modern, and thus more aesthetically powerful than a naturalistic painting - tends to underlie most valuations of avant-gardism in 20th century art. The same assumption forms an essential component of that critical glue by means of which pictorial forms of painting and conservative forms of politics have tended to get stuck together in the second-hand forms of Modernist theory. To question such assumptions is to entertain the possibility that the reading out of a conservative esprit from Matisse's paintings of the 20s may just have followed automatically from a relatively unreflective response to their manifest pictorial properties, when it may in fact be the case that their aesthetic properties tend in quite the opposite direction.
That these assumptions are in need of both acknowledgement and examination is a conclusion to which Matisse's own paintings seem to direct us. One example will have to suffice. (What I have to say about it will specifically address the fourth item in the sceptical summary of Matisse's career sketched out above, but the more general conclusions to
be drawn will be of relevance to the other items as well.) I take this example deliberately from among the most clearly naturalistic and most emphatically modelled of the Nice paintings. At a simple level the Woman Before an Aquarium is a picture of a woman seated at a table and lost in thought before a bowl of goldfish. The effect of the painting, however, has much to do with the state of mind it constructs for the imaginary spectator posed before the scene it represents - a spectator defined by his exclusion from whatever it is that the woman is supposed to be thinking about (and it is relevant that the masculine pronoun seems to be apt). For the actual spectator of the painting, a corresponding state of mind is induced in imagination by that metaphorical system which is the formal composition of the painting: by its mostly subdued lighting and tonality and by the placement of its various motifs - the barrier of the table edge almost corresponding with the picture plane, the white rectangle signifying a letter or note pad, but more tellingly serving to pull the spectator's focus down, the highly textured but plastic forms of the pine cones ranged in front of the woman's arm and so on. Whatever condition it is that this picture conjures by virtue of its figurative components, it is assuredly not one such that the identity of a bourgeois male can be assumed before it in the confident prospect of any sensual delights, or indeed, of any relaxation of its subject's unreachable otherness. That condition is nonetheless framed in a manner which renders it sociologically and psychologically quite specific. And yet the viewing of the painting is a thoroughly pleasurable experience.
I don't mean to suggest that the mood of the picture and the effect of the painting are in this case separable into different worlds, but nor are they coincident. Rather each informs and qualifies the other, as it were across a space in which something like empathy can be allowed to develop. Perhaps it is in terms of some such relation of mutual qualification that we should understand the relation between the phenomenal and the aesthetic. To disparage so serious and complex a painting as the Woman Before an Aquarium solely on the grounds of its merely figurative properties would certainly seem a curiously philistine form of modernism.
More clearly than any other painter of the 20th century, Matisse demonstrates how much is lost when the effects of paintings are confused with or reduced to the effects proper to what paintings picture. To fail to acknowledge the grounds of their differences is not simply to fail to admit the practical specificity of painting; it is to fail to recognise the function of imagination in the production and experience of art - for it is precisely in the negotiation between possible states (or imaginative effects) and material conditions (or practical techniques) that the realistic work of imagination gets done. It is also to fail to entertain the very conditions under which imagination may be exercised as a means of extension of human experience.
It is precisely so that such failure may be avoided that the work of art needs to be allowed to be done, both in the paintings themselves and by those who look at them. In the case of Matisse, to disallow the work his art both entails and demands is to miss the point of his entire project as an artist - which I take to have been the forging of materials for continuing aesthetic pleasure out of the expressions of a historically contingent and by no means untroubled consciousness. If a project along these lines is seen as a betrayal of the commitments of the avant garde, then it may be the understanding of those commitments that is in need of some critical re-examination.
First published in Issue 8