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MATISSE In Search of True Painting

DECEMBER 4, 2012 – MARCH 17, 2013

The art world is in love with Matisse. Since the MoMA retrospective of 1992, there has been a Fort Worth show setting him alongside his greatest “frenemy,” Picasso; a display at the National Gallery, Washington, of the paintings from Morocco; a showcase, three years ago at MoMA, of his art from 1913-17; and just seven years ago, an exhibition, also at the Met, devoted to the decorative aspects of his work. In the decade 2000-10 alone, he was in 74 museum shows, many with catalogues. John Elderfield has written about him repeatedly, as has Jack Flam; Hilary Spurling has published a two volume biography; and Pierre Schneider, a lavishly illustrated, highly personal study.

Henri Matisse, “Luxe, calme, et volupté,” 1904. Oil on canvas, 38 3/4 x 46 5/8”. Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, Gift in lieu of estate taxes, 1982. On extended loan to the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Until recently, even his champions offered qualified praise. Lawrence Gowing worried about his presentations of women. Clement Greenberg was puzzled that he, no artistic revolutionary, was the greatest painter of his era. And the retrospective at MoMA, in the prime time of anti-aesthetic art, prompted worries. His desire to avoid depressing subjects; his obsessive pursuit of the female nude; his complacent lifestyle; and, of course, his sustained success in the art market—all were held against him. Now, however, as the ecstatic Times review by Roberta Smith nicely shows, his apotheosis is complete. Just as Marcel Proust—whose views of Jews, homosexuality, and women were often politically incorrect—has triumphed over the many early critical reviewers, so too Matisse has become a classic.

Since most of the 49 paintings in this exhibition are not unfamiliar, it is natural to wonder whether anything new now remains to be said.  In fact, as it turns out, this exhibition offers a strikingly original point of view. After the period when rivalry with cubism inspired innovation, Matisse settled into isolation in Nice, creating what has often, defensively been characterized as a relatively conservative art. As Meyer Schapiro wrote in 1932: “In his more recent pictures, nature is a tranquil, relaxed, semi-tropical, ornamented summer world for convalescents and family vacations; or a harem without men.” But what informs his entire career, In Search of True Painting argues, is his systematic use of pairs of paintings, working from the more naturalistic to a more abstract, decorative representation of a subject. And this, it is suggested, explains why early in his career he copied old masters, redoing the same work of art in different ways; and why, later on he was so concerned to achieve pictorial stability.  A wholly new view of his development emerges.

In general, there is a tendency for recent art historical writing to make earlier artists appear more complicated. Caravaggio, once a straightforward naturalist, has become a subtle allegorist. Matisse’s subjects and working procedure appear easy to understand, but this seemingly straightforward, sensual painter has been transformed into a highfalutin philosopher-painter. Composition, he said in 1908 “is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.” The catalogue essays, though very good at revealing the complex implications of this statement for his development, are curiously uncritical about this procedure: “Matisse sought not only to depict the appearance of specific women,” Flam writes, “but also to express an ideal akin to that of the Eternal Feminine, in which the power of Woman is associated with creativity, fecundity, and even a state of grace.” Is this not a pregnant fiction—like Proust’s account of involuntary memory? Because everyone loves Matisse, no one suggests that he is a little fussy, or that there is something ultimately limited about his oddly self-contained art.

The natural audience for massive catalogues is the scholar, who will welcome the full discussion of provenances and elaborate references to the literature. Although the general public may purchase this expensive book as a souvenir, they are unlikely to make their way through the essays by 15 authors. (Here we find an unhappy trend. The catalogue of MoMA’s almost concurrent exhibition, Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art, which is even heavier, and even more expensive, has even more authors.)  And that is a shame, for since the museum works hard to make its exhibitions accessible, why not support them with publications that will be widely read?  As it is, this catalogue presents a dazzling original analysis, a great story told in terms that are accessible only to patient specialists. Perhaps, however, it’s a mistake to over-estimate the importance of the catalogue. In the end, it’s the visual evidence in this exhibition that tells the story. 

Note: Meyer Schapiro’s account is quoted in Matisse: A Retrospective, ed. Jack Flam (New York, 1988); Flam has also edited Matisse on Art (New York, 1973). See also my “Henri Matisse: The Recent Literature,” Word & Image 25, 2 (2009): 210 – 213.

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David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


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