|Cezanne, Three Bathers (1879-1882)|
As the final days of the Matisse exhibition, “Radical Invention 1913-1917,” at MOMA
draw to a close, I wonder if I have anything to add to the rich volume of articles, reviews and interviews surrounding the show. I’ve seen it four times. Each viewing has brought me an inner calm allowing me to see more deeply into Matisse’s workings and accomplishments as an artist. The paintings themselves openly display their maker’s will and serious pursuit. Matisse’s inventive drawing, color, touch and experimentation can be endlessly described and discussed. For me, I continue to go back to the unexpected bonus of the small Cezanne bathers in the first gallery, the picture that Matisse held onto through hard times and throughout most of his career. Everything that Matisse needed was in that picture. He created his life’s work out of it.
Matisse bought “Three Bathers” (1879-1882) in 1899 from Vollard for 1200 francs. After nearly four decades living with the painting, in 1936, he donated it to the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. In November that year he wrote a letter to curator and author Raymond Escholier (1882-1971), stating plainly how important the painting had been for him over the years.
"In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance; for this reason, allow me to request that it be placed so that it may be seen to its best advantage...I know that I do not have to tell you this, but nevertheless think it is my duty to tell you so; please accept these remarks as the excusable testimony of my admiration for this work which has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it."
He looked at “Three Bathers” for sustenance. I believe he also saw in this painting, and in Cezanne’s pursuit of his particular vision, an example of how his own artistic search might be sustained. For Matisse, extracting essential elements directly from “Three Bathers” allowed him to maintain a direct connection with Cezanne and to explore new aesthetic dimensions of his own. There lies the tradition of French painting and the seeds of what was most modern. Matisse knew it without a doubt when looking at the elder artist’s work.
Each painting seems to find Matisse touching the canvas brush stroke, by stroke, building up flat areas of color, articulating the surface. He’s feeling his way through and around the paintings. He draws and paints the figures, modeling form with his brush by working and reworking the linear edges of figures which finally creates a kind of volume that is integrated with the flat surface of the painting. In still other paintings in the exhibit, Matisse defines flat areas with his drawing. He paints and repaints allowing the under color and transparency of earlier layering to come through. The surface always breathes even after many alterations. His connection to the picture’s surface and color is always close at hand.
Matisse sculpts his three-dimensional figures, helping him better understand form. His working process of adding and subtracting allows him to finally leave what is most essential to the sculpture he is working on. This is also true of his process while he paints. In the series of small black prints, Matisse uses a delicate white line to animate the black field.
|Matisse transforming his sculpture Back (II) into Back (III), May 13, 1913. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Archives, International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York|
For Cezanne it was a dogged pursuit of visual perception—light and form—translated onto a flat surface. Matisse’s quest was much more tactile, workmanlike, a sculptor in paint finding a way to create form, almost willing the paint to create volume while maintaining flatness and integrity of the surface. In the final painting of the show, “Bathers by a River” (1916) he is able to shed the articulated figure for the complete flatness of the figure on canvas.
In their bold and determined working processes, the artists’ work offers inspirations to new generations of artists. Though I don’t have an extraordinary small Cezanne or Matisse to hang in my studio, there are shows like “Radical Inventions,” which remind me of painting’s importance. Or I can make a visit to MOMA or the Met, answering the need to take a step back from one’s work and review the grand past.