Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the MET

Pairs and Series Abound

Nélida Nassar  12.24.2012

The exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, comprises a selection of unique masterpieces from the most prestigious public and private collections worldwide, with a great number of paintings belonging to American museums. Throughout his life, Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) continued to question his own work. Among the issues he pondered were: What should the means of representation be? What is the role of color? What constitutes a completed canvas? The exhibition attempts to answer these questions through an examination of Matisse’s creative process and stylistic exploration that sparked his creation of pairs. Forty-nine paintings and thirty drawings are presented covering the career of the leader of Fauvism (1900 – 1910) in the early twentieth century. Some paintings with the same subjects are paired for the first time since their creation.

Unlike most paintings in the exhibition, the ones from the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Nasturtiums with the Painting Dance II (1912), from the Sergei Shchukin Collection, and Still Life with Seashell on Black Marble (1940), are not under glass, allowing Matisse’s bright and vibrant color palette to be fully evident.

The exceptional quality of Matisse’s paintings appears immediately in the first gallery with the Still Life with Compote and Fruit (1899) from the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in  St. Louis and the Still Life with Compote, Apples and Oranges (1899) from the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Cone Collection. Both canvases were painted during the winter of 1898 – 1899 in Toulouse. Matisse, who was then a 29-year old unknown artist, produced many such pairs of paintings, experimenting with several specific themes. In what order did he create these two paintings?

In the catalogue, curator Claudine Grammont’s essay explores technical and psychological hypotheses. But, as is the case with many other “pairs” presented in the exhibition, we do not know much about them or the exact process Matisse followed. Other essays by some of the greatest experts and specialists on the painter’s oeuvre analyze the different periods of his work. However, enigmas remain resistant to their efforts. Matisse was a master at concealing his design intentions, reducing forms to fragments, while deepening his experimentation with and about color. This is what constitutes his struggle.

Virtuosic Curatorial Selection
In 1916 – 17, Matisse abandoned the restrictions inherent in painting in pairs and fully embraced larger series. The exhibition offers some extraordinary ones, such as the two Lorette paintings: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Lorette in a Green Robe, Black Background (1916), and Lorette Seated on a Pink Armchair (1916-1917) from a private collection. These images remind us how much Matisse, born in the North of France, liked the color black. Black proves that it is a color that one can discern.

Lorette, the sensual Italian model, posed in a green Moroccan gandoura and yellow slippers, facing the viewer in one of the studio’s available chairs. Matisse’s overall design is patterned by Laurette’s black eyebrows and the accent on her two ropes of black hair that flow down over her shoulder, and almost her arm, as well, eventually moving all the way to the bottom of the painting.

This recalls Charles Baudelaire’s poem, in which hair ressembles lava that is cooled off by a gesture that a model makes with her hand: “Blue hair, pavilion of stretched darkness, you give me back the blue of the round and immense sky.” (“Cheveux bleus, pavillon de ténèbres tendues, / Vous me rendez l’azur du ciel immense et rond.”)

Matisse used black when he reached an impasse. “Before, when I didn’t know what color to put down, I put down black. I used black as a blast to simplify the construction” the artist once said.

The poet Paul Eluard posited that the earth is blue like an orange. Matisse removed the word “like”: the earth is blue, and it’s an orange, like the ones he painted. Comparing Still Life with Compote and Fruit and Still Life with Compote, Apples and Oranges, one finds that they have an identical format, an identical image framing, and an identical layout (this is not always the case with his “pairs”). The table edge, a cup, a jug, three oranges are arranged in exactly the same way; in each there is a dish holding six fruits. Are they oranges or apples? Only the titles differentiate them. But it is not from a tree that these fruits fell. Their precedent may be found in previous paintings by other artists where an early revelation of the power of color surface is displayed. In his analytic essay, Yves-Alain Bois argues, after examining the two paintings Luxury I and II (1907-1908), one from the Pompidou Center, and the other from the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, that the explanation for the change in Matisse’s approach can be found in his work of early 1905.

Arabesques as Embellishment
Still Life with Compote, Apples and Oranges from Baltimore is the more finished of the two. The multiplicity of the paint marks is reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist work of Cézanne. This may be the reason why Matisse listed, like a gardener, “apples and oranges” in the painting’s title. But, at the bottom of the cup there already appears a striking purplish pink that seems to spread and move from the Baltimore painting to the Saint Louis Still Life with Compote and Fruit table corner, transforming it into an awkward patch of color. This color pink, which we find in the sucessive exhibition spaces, becomes omnipresent in the paintings, as black had been in the Lorette series. The color is emancipated from the subtext, standing on its own, harsh and wild.

In the Saint Louis painting, the idea behind the pairing is immediately apparent. All along the exhibition the pairings develop similar meaning with more gusto, arabesques, and gravitas. Still Life with Compote and Fruit, like the others pictures, does not seem finished. The canvas is bare on the bottom left side, except for a brown spot which, however, emphasizes the rest of the composition. Large planes of autonomous colors spread over the walls and over the fruits: Vermeer’s “little patch of yellow wall” became a big one. The unfinished painting is by far the most successful of the two. Through color Matisse is already turning and breaking patterns and perspectives, relentlessly moving towards abstraction.

A few rooms later, two views of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, both painted in the spring of 1914, expands this dual language born from Matisse’s personal exploration of possibilities. In one instance, we have a realistic oil painting, saturated by color, depicting the Cathedral, a vehicle, and a boat. The other, has nothing but blue, a little gray, a big green oval, and two ghost towers that could be made of glass, as well as few black lines across the canvas, connected in a vaguely geometric order.

In the margins of a text composed by Aragon, Matisse wrote: “As the spider extends its thread towards to the most receptive roughness, and then from there to another one it sees, thus weaving its web from point to point.” Aragon concluded that Matisse needed “the model to transcend it and to leave it behind.”

Plethora of Gestures
The exhibition, which reflects on the abandonment of the model, is neither long, nor contextualized nor purely chronological. Obliging the viewer to see, and even to feel, why Matisse works as he does, it is a small opening onto his entire body of work. The visitor will learn something from each of these pairings. He cannot fail to be struck, above all, by Matisse’s controlled radiant colors and strong disciplined lines, which amply display his talent and fierce obstinacy. In the room devoted to the Maeght Gallery Exhibition of 1945, we see photographs made by a photographer that Matisse hired to document the various stages his “progressive development of the artworks through their various respective states toward definitive conclusions and precise signs.” Among them, The Romanian Blouse, in which he paints, erases, repaints. The final stage of repainting is nothing but a little additional death.

The mastery is in the color as well as in the linear quality of the drawing. In the room where faces, flowers and fruits are exhibited, one is confronted with the line’s cruel simplicity. There is only one woman’s face, never the same, yet each time it expressing a different emotion, sometimes brutal, recalling Toulouse-Lautrec’s prostitutes, and sometimes Eluard’s Médieuses, a child dreamer, or, again, a model whose cheekbones anticipate today’s plastic surgery. Among the fruits there appear small, turgid sex organs. The form according to Matisse is the pure desire which springs from the theme. But to stimulate the feeling of desire one needs to work, and here Matisse is undoubtedly a master, as this exhibition strikingly confirms.

The Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art continues through March 17, 2013.
It is accompanied by a catalogue and an Audio Guide.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts


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