Black Is Also a Color
In 1908, when Henri Matisse exhibited in Paris thirty paintings, sculptures and drawings representing his work of the previous eight years, a disgruntled critic complained of the artist's "unhealthy state of mind, overworked by search and ambition." If only he'd realized what was coming. Just three years earlier Matisse had burst into notoriety as the most radical of the Fauves, or "wild beasts," of painting; the 1908 exhibition showed that the 38-year-old artist was ready to take stock of his work without false modesty, the better to push forward into new terrain. His sense of accomplishment and his restlessness could hardly be disentangled. "I do not repudiate any of my paintings," Matisse declared in his "Notes of a Painter," published a few months later, "but there is not one of them that I would not redo differently, if I had it to redo."
Where most observers saw madness and aggression in Matisse's work, his one great early defender among the critics, Guillaume Apollinaire, saw a "Cartesian master." "We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or extremist undertaking," Apollinaire argued. "Matisse's art is eminently reasonable." The poet was being sly, knowing as he did that to be reasonable, or rather to put one's reason into practice, can be a most extreme undertaking. And Matisse was just as crafty when he claimed, in implicit contradiction to Apollinaire, to disdain intellect as a guide to painting: "I believe only in Instinct." True, Matisse is the most intuitive of painters, yet to express his instinct cost him immense intellectual as well as physical labor. "Often behind one of these works," he explained to a Catalan journalist, "a dozen more have been undergoing evolution, or, if you wish, involution, from objective vision to the sensationalist idea that engendered it." Matisse's insight, if it has been precisely transcribed, is extraordinary. It would have been more conventional to assume that art begins with sensation and is gradually elaborated to construct an "objective vision." But Matissean vision is just the opposite, moving from objectivity to sensation, or rather (and here comes a curious oxymoron) to a "sensationalist idea," apparently a sort of intellectualized sensation. It's as if, in Blakean terms, one were to start from experience to achieve innocence.
Matisse's paintings can appear to have taken form effortlessly. Their timelessness is akin to that of the icons that stunned the painter when he visited Russia in 1911—"the true source of all creative search," he declared. Of course, the frank evidence of multiple revisions observable on the surfaces of most of them tells us that this sense of ease is deceptive. Readers of Hilary Spurling's biography of the painter can easily come away from it thinking of the artist as an absolute kvetch: high-strung and anxious, a reckless workaholic on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Of the 1906 painting The Gypsy, he later observed that it "shows the energy of a drowning man whose pathetic cries for help are uttered in a fine voice," while the mural Music (1910) he described as "an immense effort which has exhausted me." Of the glorious 1912 still life Basket of Oranges, later purchased by Picasso and now on view in Chicago, he told Françoise Gilot, "It was born of misery." When a painting happened to achieve an unexpected success he took little pleasure in it, seeing the work as just "the beginning of a very painful effort." A confirmed atheist—except "when I work"—he would use the Lord's Prayer as a mantra to calm himself down. And yet as his friend the writer and socialist politician Marcel Sembat observed, "He has no wish to offer other people anything other than calm."
The war years made Matisse's anxieties even more acute. He volunteered for military service and even bought combat boots but failed the medical exam; he appealed his refusal and was turned away again. His mother was caught in the German-occupied northeast; painter friends were in the trenches. Contributing prints to fundraising efforts for civilian prisoners of war did something to assuage his feelings of guilt, "sickened by all the upheaval to which I am not contributing." His living had been dependent on a market composed mostly of foreign buyers, now dispersed; there were no more commissions from Russia. But in his art, Matisse never thought of seeking safer ground; away from the front, his struggles became all the more acute. Alfred Barr, in his pioneering 1951 monograph on the artist—still the first stop for anyone wanting to look further into his work—defined the years 1913–17 as Matisse's period of "austerity and architectonics." The perceptual puzzles of the Cubists having stolen the Fauves' thunder as the last word in artistic radicalism, and with the fate of France in doubt, the luxe, calme et volupté, the bonheur de vivre that had given names to some of Matisse's most ambitious canvases of the previous decade yielded, at least for a while, to a new sobriety of color and emphasis on geometric structure. "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917," at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 20 (and then at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, July 18–October 11), puts the artist's work of this period under a microscope—sometimes literally so.
Some works of this period verge on abstraction and, significantly, some of the most important among them were not exhibited until much later, as if the artist feared that the public would not comprehend them. When the 1914 View of Notre Dame—with its rough and hesitant approaches to an architectural volume that might have been unidentifiable without the title—was finally shown thirty-five years later, it was still seen by some as "an unfinished sketch to which Matisse had unaccountably signed his name." Another famous near-abstraction from the same year, French Window at Collioure, really might be unfinished—or perhaps it would be better to say that Matisse may never have stopped wondering whether he was done with it; in any case it was exhibited only after his death. The black rectangle that occupies most of the canvas is not simply a negation—the "black future" that the poet Louis Aragon later saw there—but a latency rich with possibility. A finely balanced uncertainty toward itself makes French Window at Collioure the quintessential Matisse painting—if there is one.
During these years Matisse produced some of his greatest works, and some of the best-known. The exhibition's climactic next-to-last room includes three of his most monumental and mysterious paintings, The Piano Lesson and The Moroccans, both works of 1916 in MoMA's collection, and the masterpiece completed the following year, Bathers by a River, from the Art Institute. Not that Matisse's relentless self-criticism always stood him in good stead; his attempt to get the better of Cubism in an oversized 1915 pastiche of a Dutch still life in the Louvre is a thing of fits and starts. But a visitor who'd walked into the exhibition (or picked up the catalog) without reading its subtitle would never imagine that it simply covers the years 1913–17. Really, the exhibition chronology starts in 1907 (and there are even a few works dated earlier than that); you go through several rooms (or 140 pages of text) before reaching 1913. Why the discrepancy between the actual scope of the show and the more modest claim of the title? The reason, I'll guess, was the unavailability of many of Matisse's most important works from the half-dozen years before the war. Because his greatest collector in the prewar period was the Russian textile manufacturer Sergei Shchukin—could he have been the tired businessman Matisse so notoriously invoked as a potential receiver of his art in "Notes of a Painter"?—paintings like Harmony in Red (1908–09), Nymph and Satyr (1908–09), The Conversation (1909), The Dance (1910), Music (1910), The Painter's Family (1911), Moorish Café (1912–13), Mme Matisse (1913) and many more are today in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. None are in this exhibition. There are wonderful paintings from these years in Western museums too, not to mention some of the artist's best sculptures. But while they are sufficient to illustrate Matisse's development away from Fauvism, they can't convey the whole story, so the curators were wise to refrain from appearing to claim any full accounting of the period.
But when Stephanie D'Alessandro of the Art Institute writes of Matisse having "radically changed direction" around 1913 (and in this she reflects the prevailing wisdom), I'm not convinced. In what sense could his paintings of 1913–17 be considered significantly more "austere" or "architectonic" than Bathers With a Turtle (1907–08)? Here the three nudes, starkly rendered, pensive, are isolated against an environment reduced to three imposing horizontal blue bands, an abstraction closer to the minimalism of Brice Marden's Grove Group of the mid-1970s, or to the geometricized backgrounds of some of Matisse's later works such as the still life Gourds (1916), than to the luxuriant foliage echoing the figure's sensuousness in a somewhat earlier painting like Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), from 1907. And the severity of Bathers With a Turtle is hardly a rarity in Matisse's work before 1913. What about the 1911 Portrait of Olga Merson, in which the primly seated figure is hemmed in by a pair of blunt, almost brutal concentric black arcs—a painting in which geometry seems to be used less to "construct" a figure than to deface it with what Barr called a "scimitar-like stroke"? Even the works Matisse produced in 1912, a year spent mostly in Morocco—works that explore, as D'Alessandro well puts it, "the power of North African light to dissolve form and to reconstruct space into vaporous, mutable, interwoven layers of ethereal color"—are not as sensuous or exuberant as she seems to imply. Reflecting the strictness of Muslim mores as well as the intensity of North African light, the figures are hieratically static, self-contained, distant. Although the paintings include passages of delicious detail (for instance the pointillist shorthand fantasy of dots and dashes at the center of the sash worn by Fatma, the Mulatto Woman, from 1913) they generally use a mode of representation based on the principle of the adequacy of the least possible indication.