Matisse at War

John Haber
in New York City

Henri Matisse: Radical Invention

For a moment, as Europe stumbled headlong into war, Henri Matisse stood on the edge of abstraction. He had returned some months before to Paris and taken an apartment by the Seine. From there, his studio could take in the late afternoon light. Yet his 1914 view up the river, culminating in the Notre Dame, is little more than a field of blue. Henri Matisse's View of Notre Dame (Museum of Modern Art, 1914)

If anything deserves the label "Radical Invention," it is this. The Museum of Modern Art also uses that label for just four years, from 1913 to 1917.

It takes as its theme Matisse's development, as seen in two series of sculpture and just two paintings. Both The Moroccans and Bathers by a River took years, and their completion in 1916 and 1917 concludes the saga. But what makes that period so radical—or even a period? To make its case, MoMA has to exceed its aims, in ways that reflect the artist's special place in Modernism. It has to include both earlier work and paintings outside the series, such as View of Notre Dame.

A view of the Seine

With Notre Dame, a single color stands for water, sky, and shadow, as well as for oil and canvas. Spare black curves and lines define bridges, promenades, towers, and riverbanks. The black serves both as grid and perspective, and it culminates in a deeper patch of black shadow at left that both anchors the cathedral and lofts it into space. Blocks of gray, lightened by scratches into the paint, cap each tower. Their famed Gothic architecture ends in a monument to plane and solid geometry. It is a long way from his place in art history as a synonym for color rather than modern drawing, the world of Red Studio, Green Stripe, and Blue Nude.

A smaller patch, an echo in bright green beside the right tower, has its own black shadow. It adds a forward diagonal, almost the only other color, and a lone burst of representation—a magnificent clump of trees. Matisse might well have effaced all other traces of experience, and in fact he started the canvas with a more detailed image before simplifying it. One can see him scraping it away in the towers or much of the blue. The dry black, almost like charcoal on paper, seems improvised, and Matisse loved improvisation. His prints of the period favored monotypes, so that his only choice was to begin again.

Henri Matisse tended to use size to make major statements, as with his two versions of The Dance a few years before, The Joy of Life back in 1906, or room-scale cutouts like Matisse's The Swimming Pool. Notre Dame is only three feet wide. He had been working on Bathers by then for seven years. A photo shows him on a ladder holding a palette and brushes—a charmingly old-world approach to mural painting. Still, the blue field of Notre Dame, the few black lines, and the vertical just short of human scale make me think decades ahead to a painting with a similar title but more than five times as wide. In Cathedra, in 1951, Barnett Newman has the ultimate expression of Abstract Expressionism and the late modern sublime.

Matisse is too down to earth for sublimity. One can see his abstraction away from earlier works and earlier versions as progress in a straight line, and MoMA does. However, one can also see the process as a rootedness in experience. The black lines of overpainting shape reality. He came even closer to abstraction once, that same year, with an almost illegible French window. But then he returns to reality.

One can also see the scratching, scraping, and gray overpainting as torment and as a reflection of World War I. MoMA does that, too, but the darker, more limited range of color may mean something else again. So may the barer canvas of Notre Dame. It lets in a palpable sunlight, especially between the towers and in a flood across the base of the cathedral, but more subtly everywhere. His prints and drawings linger over a woman's outline, and he is always after sensuality and sensation. He just happens to hold them at a distance, like late afternoon on the Seine.

If anything, the war brought out the artist's empathy, along with a slightly embarrassing patriotism. Born in 1869, Matisse seriously wanted to volunteer, and he put painting aside to do his duty. The show includes mild portrait sketches that he churned out for cash, to supply food to friends and relatives whom the Germans had interned and deported. One could describe Notre Dame in sunset as severe, filled with light, or simply the calm of an artist's point of view from his studio. One could describe it as an escape from politics or a surrender to vision. Part of its glory and mystery is in puzzling out reality from art.

Surviving the fall

What, then, does define the war years for Matisse? The curators see the period as neglected, and in a sense it is. His work from Green Stripe to Red Studio, in 1911, drives textbook histories. As MoMA insisted in a superb 2003 exhibition, Matisse and Picasso were inventing modern art. Matisse's later years, after he departed for Nice in 1917, are ubiquitous in another way. A stream of prints and cutouts, often related to Matisse's love of tapestry, allow an older and tamer beast a well-earned calm.

Yet Matisse hardly became invisible from 1913 to 1917. The years hold one signature work after another. Everyone will have a favorite, and I have more than a few myself—in fact, pretty much everything. For once, however, a blockbuster is really a small show, in this case several small shows. If it cannot quite find a focus, it seems to have begun with one and then grown organically into several distinct stories. Matisse worked that way himself.

Matisse's L'Italienne (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1916)One story is the evolution of Bathers, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibition began. It is the largest work and dominates the last room. It motivates the opening room of Matisse nudes by the sea from a decade earlier, hung beside small bathers by Paul Cézanne. Cézanne set the model for struggling with figures in space, color and drawing, observation and deep structure, art and experience. And Matisse did struggle. The catalog has chapter divisions, broken by photos and radiographs of Bathers by a River over ten years.

A second story is the nature of the struggle. For the curators, it is as much a technical question as a metaphysical one. MoMA's John Elderfield and Stephanie D'Alessandro of the Art Institute point to the scraping and overpainting. A muddle of gray, orange, and green turns the background of Italian Woman in 1916 into a veil. They point, too, to the works in series, like sculpted backs and portrait busts, which again they see as a progressive abstraction. Notre Dame, in fact, returns to a 1902 view from the very same building, when Matisse had a studio on a different floor.

Now pair the Art Institute's prize possession with one from the Modern, The Moroccans. In the first, vertical fields of black and white isolate two bathers, as silhouettes with blank ovals for faces and black circles for breasts. One holds her arms tensely behind her back, while the other's arms fall forward as if in prayer. Shoots of greenery freeze two other bathers in place, one barely straddling the reeds and the darkness. The curves of vegetation reach up against a bather's sculptural pallor. Another curve suggests a snake in the grass.

With the bathers, art seems determined to survive the fall from Eden. The Moroccans allows rituals to call up life from the surrounding darkness. A black field raises a dome and striped blue flowers into a skyline. As a turbaned man raises his arm, rows of watermelons morph into men at prayer. A doorway at right looks slightly menacing, but the pink wall adds still more peace and color. And to think the mosque is just a few miles from Ground Zero.

Seashores and sunsets

Add a time and a place, and the stories are almost done. The struggles coincide with a war. They also begin with Matisse's return to Paris from Morocco in 1913. He took a studio by the Seine and one in the suburbs, although he went south again for a few months afterward. The trip inspires some portraits, as well as perhaps his cheerful variation on a Dutch still life. It looks boring compared to the encroaching darkness.

Of course, he also encountered Cubism. Blue Nude had obliged Pablo Picasso to turn up the ferocity of his breakthrough work, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Now Picasso returned the favor. He even has his own Cubist view of the Seine and Ile de la Cité. Still, Matisse's real business lay elsewhere. The only vaguely Cubist work in the show, a woman's face, draws more closely on Juan Gris for what looks like night vision.

And, sure enough, every one of these stories breaks down if one looks too closely. The Fauves, or wild beasts, earned their name long before, and the green stripe down his wife's face in 1905 looks pretty fierce. Blue Nude of 1909, which opens the show, looks even fiercer. Her blue shadows all but hack away at her flesh—and, in turn, at the viewer expecting her to lie still for casual delectation. The first room has its share of scratches, overpainting, and second versions, just like Cézanne, and his early bathers share the darkness. A tree isolates a woman's heavy black outlines from the sea, like a figure out of Edvard Munch.

In Bathers with a Turtle from 1908, the turtle already plays the role of the snake in Bathers by a River. One woman toys with it, while another stuffs something like it into her mouth. The background geometry isolates them as well, much as in the later work. Each of blue-green stripes for land, sea, and sky locks onto a woman's head. It is hard to believe that the women are part of the same picture—or even the same world. Nearby, the sea cuts off a man's foot as if it were set in concrete.

It is not so easy either to identify the war years with trauma. They include the glow of red, yellow, and green apples and MoMA's Rose Marble Table. It is just as hard to identify gray with darkness—or, for that matter, the mood of a painting. The Italian woman has a harsh expression, gaunt body, and stiff pose. Gray overpainting actually softens her figure and extends the beauty of her long black hair. Matisse never picks a fight with his subject like Picasso's women, especially in his studio.

When he views Paris from his window, the illumination runs both ways. In another painting, sunset adds warmth to a pillow on his sofa, while giving a building below a spectral presence. It reduces people below to barely human shadows, but it also outlines the window's grille as a work of art. Two goldfish hold the work together, one executed in just four bright strokes. (The French for Green Stripe could just as easily come out as "stroke" or "streak.") Matisse accommodates as many strong feelings as sources of light.

Remembering Fauvism

Still, something is going on from 1913 to 1917. He had had his last major statement with Red Studio, and he has to take slash-and-burn tactics to the show's two central paintings before he has another five years later. He has his most unrelentingly monochrome portrait, of Yvonne Landsberg in a dark gray enriched by purple. Its one other accent of color treats her face as an African mask, and its brightest light comes from strangely radiant arcs emanating from her body but incised into the paint. He also has his most rigid pose, for Woman on a High Stool—in front of a one-legged table and nearly blank wall. Its gray lacks any color at all.

Perhaps he knew he had come to the end of something with Red Studio. It marks the ultimate in using color alone to bend and create space. It is also a conscious reflection on his own achievement, in the work scattered along the walls and floor. They, like the circle holding hands in The Dance, also get him thinking more about the interplay of objects and line. From this point on, color is no longer a subject to itself. Art, however, still is, and it is inseparable from looking back.

Henri Matisse's The Piano Lesson (Museum of Modern Art, 1916)He stepped away from it briefly in Morocco, and there, too, he comes back with memories. The Moroccans is less a postcard home than a memory painting. Ironically, coming home to Paris is then a further displacement. Like those closest to him during the way, he is in transit. In response, he has to keep at it. Where Picasso must have felt that he had to come up with a new idea every day, Matisse had his idea, and he had to cling to it to make sense of things.

He is also twelve years older than Picasso, with two children. They, too, add to the memory play. His son is at the center of another painting in the last room—and, along with Notre Dame, my other long-time favorite. In The Piano Lesson, a candle burns on the piano, and a metronome ticks away. The first can burn for only so long, and the second will never allow time to miss a beat.

People have described his son's face as anxious, blank, a work of art, or a loving memory. It is at once alert and inhuman, and everything around it presses in. One eye is wide open, and light from the rear somehow obliterates the other. The triangle of shadow echoes a much larger triangle of summer light in the open window behind him, as well as the shape of the metronome. Woman on a High Stool hangs behind him, as in The Music Lesson in the Barnes Foundation. As others have pointed out, she replaces his piano teacher, who leans over his shoulder in an earlier version.

The woman on a stool has now lost the small drawing behind her in the earlier painting, and she and the table have become a single white against the wall behind the piano. A small reclining nude at left seems to have risen from her pedestal. The painting has become a sculpture, while the sculpture has come to life. The window trellis that enriched earlier paintings parallels the piano's elegant music stand, with the make of the piano, Pleyel, reading from right to left. When Matisse looks at life, he sees his own art, and when he reflects on art, he remembers.

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"Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through October 11, 2010.


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