Friday, September 3, 2010

Miscellaneous Thoughts About “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913 - 1917”

The Italian Woman, 1916, oil on canvas (about 46 x 35") Guggenheim Museum, New York
  • During this period, Matisse made space tangible. This is most obvious in The Italian Woman, where he draped the space around the right shoulder of the model as if the surrounding space became a semi-opaque shawl. This merging of figure and ground goes back at least as far as the Impressionists and Cezanne. 
  • The painfully thin arms, fidgeting, nervous hands, tight mouth (not at all like Laurette - a favorite model of Matisse’s), together with the sickly yellow-green tonality, makes this one of Matisse’s most anxious paintings. 
  • The black shadow under Laurette’s chin is something Matisse did a lot and may relate to the black choker that Marguerite, Matisse’s daughter, wore around her neck and which appears in all of Matisse’s many portraits of her. When Marguerite was only six years old she contracted diphtheria and had to have an emergency tracheotomy (without anesthetic!) in order to breathe. She always wore a choker to cover the large scar. 
Back I, Second State, Fall 1909 and Back IV, c.1931. Both plaster cast in bronze c. 1950 (about 74 x 44 x  6”) MoMA
  • The way the light reflects off of the background of Back I (somewhat exaggerated in the left photo) creates a horizon line (beginning at her buttocks) and an illusion of space that the figure inhabits. The background of Back IV, on the other hand, is very much a wall that the figure stands in front of. This is reinforced by the way the head and forearm of the the figure in Back IV extend above the wall, and the way the figure stands on the ledge rather than in front of it as in Back I.
  • Matisse had as physical a relationship with his painting as he did with his sculpture. He vigorously worked his paintings: he scraped, scored, wiped down, scumbled, incised, and sometimes painted with a stiff brush. 
  • The space in Matisse’s painting was informed by his sculptures. Just as the figure in Back IV is in front of a wall, the figures in many of these paintings (especially Bathers By A River - see below), visually begin at the surface of the canvas, as if it were a wall, and come out toward the viewer. 
  • In my opinion, Back IV is a more interesting sculpture in the original plaster, set on the floor the way Matisse kept it until he died, compared to cast in bronze and hung on the wall.  (See the photo below.) The light reflecting off the plaster sculpture is softer and more etherial, and the surface is more tactile and sensual; yet because it’s physically on the floor, it’s very much in our (i.e. real) space.
Matisse's studio at the Hotel Regina, Nice, c. 1953
The Moroccans has about an inch border of white-primed canvas or rabbit skin glue. This has the effect of flattening the painting and making it self-contained -- a thing (paint) existing in our world, not an imaginary picture behind (and beyond) the frame. (See my post on Monet’s Waterlilies.)
Detail, Henri Matisse, The Moroccans, 1912-16, the Museum of Modern Art. 

Composition No. II, c. 1909. Watercolor on paper. The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Matisse sent this watercolor (above) to his Russian patron Sergei Shchukin to share his initial idea for a painting. Shchukin apologetically replied (P.89 in the catalog):
I cannot at present put a nude in my staircase. After the death of a relative, I took three little girls (8, 9, and 10 years old) into my household, and here in simply cannot display nudes to little girls. Do the same ronde but with the young women in dresses. The same with composition no. 2.
Matisse responded with a drawing with the two figures on either end dressed in loose drapery and the other figures repositioned in more modest poses.

Eugene Druet’s November 1913 photograph of Bathers by a River, digitally re-colorized to represent the appearance of the painting at the time.
  • I believe the vestiges of clothing can be seen in the final painting.  It looks to me like the figures are partly covered by a filmy gray drapery or negligee.
  • The rectangle above the seated figure is very difficult to interpret. Clearly, the bottom part continues her breasts and shoulders but is lighter as if in the sun, but Matisse radically abstracted what was a hood and some leaves and trees (see illustration above) to the point that it’s unrecognizable.  He did a similar radical abstraction with the figures in the windows and arches of The Moroccans
Not exactly about the show:
  • From a 1951 interview by  E. Teriade, reprinted under the title “Matisse Speaks” in the 1952 Art News Annual: "Despite pressure from certain conventional quarters, the war [World War I] did not influence the subject matter of painting, for we were no longer merely painting subjects." 
  • Matisse with his cat from a Matisse website:

  • And finally, what does MoMA have against apples?

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