by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Centre Pompidou/Jean-Claude Planchet
An illustration for 'Jazz,' a limited edition book by Matisse, using his trademark cut-out technique.

Matisse in All His Forms

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 6 June 2014


Henri Matisse was already in his mid-30s when he first attracted public attention as the senior member of a group of younger artists who exhibited at the Paris Salon d'Automne in 1905, and whose violently colorful canvases led an art critic to dub them 'Les Fauves,' or wild beasts.

Fauvism was determined to revolutionize painting by having 'the courage to return to the purity of the means,' as Matisse later put it when recalling the origins of the movement, with its 'beautiful blues, beautiful reds, beautiful yellows, materials to stir the sensual depths of men.' An American journalist who interviewed Matisse was evidently disappointed to find 'as mild a man as ever tortured the human form or debauched a palette.'

Yet, while seeking to renew the means of artistic expression, Matisse placed himself firmly within the classical tradition of Western art by making the human figure the primary focus of his artistic endeavors.

Matisse's abiding engagement with the human form is examined in the insightful and enlightening 'Matisse: The Figure,' at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy, through June 15.

The choices by the curator, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, of over 100 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints from nearly 30 international collections cover every phase of Matisse's career, from the early canvases of his student days to the last that he painted, as well as the first of the colored gouache 'cut-outs' that became his principal mode of expression during the final decade of his life.

'Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,' at the Tate Modern in London, takes up the story more or less where the Ferrara show ends, with the largest-ever gathering of nearly 130 works from this relatively short but highly productive period. Presented by a team of curators led by Nicholas Cullinan of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, this exhibition, in London through Sept. 7, will travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in October.

Born in 1869, Matisse arrived in Paris in 1891 but, a slow starter, he failed at first to gain entry into the prestigious école des Beaux-Arts. Nonetheless, Gustave Moreau, who had recently become a professor there, allowed Matisse to frequent his studio. Over the next six years Matisse also became, in his own words, 'a student of the Louvre,' spending much time there copying Old Masters such as Chardin, the Carracci and Raphael.

By 1900 Matisse was married with three children and chronically short of cash. The first painting in the Ferrara show dates from the same year, a self-portrait in dark hues of a careworn man looking considerably older than his age.

The opening sections trace the progress of an artist emerging from his years of extended art school training and striving to form a new style through an original use of color and the distillation of essential pictorial elements.

Among the works here are Matisse's portrait of his fellow founder of Fauvism, André Derain, itself an Ur-Fauve piece, and portraits of Matisse's children; the deliberate childlike qualities in some of these were attributed by Picasso to the artist's imitation of his own children's paintings.

There are also early examples of themes that Matisse would continue to revisit: 'Joachina,' a gypsy woman encountered on a trip to Seville, was his first study of an 'exotic' female figure, and an arresting portrait of the art critic George Besson draws on non-European mask traditions.

Matisse also made sculptures throughout his life, and some of his earliest ones are represented here.

His commitment to finding new ways of treating the female nude went back to the early days of the 1910s. But his financial circumstances made it impossible to hire a model on a regular basis. A number of groundbreaking works in these first rooms were based on erotic, mildly pornographic nude photographs in the periodicals 'Mes Modèles' and the pseudo-ethnographic 'L'Humanité Féminine.' After 1910 he could afford to employ life models.

From 1917 onward, Matisse began to visit Nice and in the early 1920s he took an apartment there. In 1921 he discovered Henriette Darricarrère, who was to be his muse-model for the next six years. She is the subject of many of the drawings and paintings in a section of the show titled 'Nice 1919-1929,' including the celebrated odalisque images.

There is a telling example here of Matisse's prolonged, sometimes agonized, working methods, provided by the juxtaposition of a carefully executed lithograph image of Darricarrère posing nude in an armchair with his 'Large Seated Nude,' one of his sculptural masterpieces, on loan here from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The sculpture had its origins in Matisse's second visit to Nice in 1918, when he spent many hours copying a cast of Michelangelo's 'Night' in the collection of what was then known as the école des Arts Décoratifs. Later he recognized in one of Darricarrère's characteristic poses a kind of living reincarnation of Michelangelo's sculpture. He recorded the pose in multiple versions and, in 1922, began work on a sculpture based on it, which was finally cast in bronze in 1929.

At the beginning of the 1930s the American collector and philanthropist Albert C. Barnes commissioned Matisse to make a series of large canvases, and it was while executing these that the artist first used painted cut-out figures, at this stage as movable, purely preparatory tools to help him decide on the optimum position of elements in the final picture. He used the method again while doing the monumental backdrop for 'Rouge et Noir,' a 1939 production by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

During the early 1930s he also discovered a new muse and model in Lydia Delectorskaya, a young Russian. She went on to become his principal model, studio assistant and closest collaborator until his death in 1954.

In 1941 Matisse was operated on for an intestinal cancer that left him debilitated and with a sensation of living on borrowed time. Faced with these limitations, he returned to composing images by cutting figures and other shapes from paper pre-painted by his studio assistants.

He applied this technique to preparing the illustrations for a limited-edition book, 'Jazz.' In the course of the volume's long gestation and production, from 1943 to 1947, he found that 'cutting straight into raw color reminds me of the direct carving of sculptors.'

The first two rooms of the Tate Modern's exhibition contain examples of cut-outs as solely compositional devices. The second room displays all 20 of the original cut-outs for 'Jazz' with Matisse's handwritten text.

Although housebound, with the aid of his assistants Matisse soon began to use cut-outs to adorn the walls, from floor to ceiling, of the three places in which he spent time during this period: an apartment in Montparnasse in Paris, an apartment in the former Hôtel Régina in Nice, and a villa in Vence, outside Nice. A wide range of examples of these lively vegetal, animal and figural forms, and further cut-outs for book and periodical designs, fill the next four rooms of the show.

Matisse came to see cut-outs as not only a substitute for more traditional media, but also a resolution of what he had described as 'the eternal conflict between drawing and color.'

The method also enabled him to undertake a major commission: the decoration of the chapel of a convent in Vence, where one of his former models had become a nun. An entire room of the exhibition is devoted to his designs for stained-glass windows, murals and priests' vestments, made between 1948 and 1951.

The increasing sophistication of Matisse's handling of the cut-out materials allowed him to return to the genre into which he had put so much passion and energy over so many years: the female nude. These reached a high point in his 'Blue Nudes (I-IV),' now belonging to three different collections; the current exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see all four displayed together.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023