Ben Luke applauds a show that reveals the role of experimentation in Matisse’s creative process
Ben Luke, Friday, 1st June 2012
Matisse: Paires et Séries
17 March–18 June 2012 Centre Pompidou, Paris
Catalogue by Cécile Debray (ed.) ISBN 9782844265555 (hardback) €42 (Centre Georges Pompidou)
At last, the crude stereotype of Henri Matisse’s art simply as a ‘comfortable armchair’, fodder for the tired businessman, is being laid to rest. Matisse’s misleading quote has been used as a stick to beat him with, supposedly betraying a shallowness that compares unfavourably with other 20th-century masters. But recent publications and events have exposed the fallacy of the ‘armchair’ Matisse. Hilary Spurling’s two-volume biography of 2000 revealed one of the most anxious yet driven innovators of his time, in his early years a leader of the avant-garde. A 2010 exhibition, ‘Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917’, at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, focused on the remarkable and often difficult experimentation of that era. And now, ‘Matisse: Pairs et Séries’ reflects an artist who from the start pushed his art in new directions, dramatically transforming his subjects. It is foolish to deny the undoubted pleasures that Matisse’s work brings, and indeed, this exhibition is visually ravishing. But it also shows how, through pairs and small groups of related works, Matisse achieved his celebrated harmony, balance and sumptuous colour with rigorous and often strident formal experimentation.
Despite its relatively small selection of work – 60 paintings and cut-outs and 30 drawings – the show is at its heart a retro- spective, beginning soon after Matisse discovered Impressionism and ending with the late paper cut-outs. The essential premise is to show the routes Matisse took from his ‘idée première’ through to the ‘definitive version of the picture’. Notably, Matisse realised his idées premières not as small-scale works, but on canvases more or less corresponding to the dimensions of their final versions. During the early part of his career, particularly, the first version was quickly executed, in a fluid style with thin paint, and while not strictly illusionistic it bore a reasonably clear relation- ship to the spatial arrangement before Matisse in his studio. The definitive version, mean-while, might be subject to endless deletions, revisions, scrapings and overlayings over an extended period – and bear the scars to prove it. Among the exhibition’s most compelling elements is the growing daring and freedom with which Matisse redefines his idées premières over the years, testament to a hard-won mastery of his medium and system.
The exhibition begins with Matisse’s struggles with the legacies of Paul Cézanne and Impressionism. Two still lifes with oranges from 1898 to 1899 and a trio of views of the Pont Saint-Michel in Paris from 1900 to 1901 reflect a battle between the short, thick, broken marks of Post-Impressionism and arrangements of flat colour. Matisse pushes and pulls in different directions, not yet certain which painterly route to take but unafraid to create works of striking disparity. He appears set to throw his weight behind Paul Signac’s divisionist techniques in one of his earliest masterpieces, Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904), here paired with the more Cézannian Le Goûter (Golfe de Saint-Tropez) (1904) from which it is derived. But flatness eventually wins the day, as Le Luxe I (1907) and Le Luxe II (1907–08; Fig. 1) demonstrate: the scumbled marks and uneven colour patches of the first version become the smooth planes of relatively even colour in the second, paving the way for two later masterpieces, La Musique (1910) and La Danse (1910), not exhibited here.
La Danse does appear, however, in one of the most transcendent pairings in the show: two versions of Les Capucines à La Danse (1912; Figs. 2 and 3), a view of Matisse’s studio in Issy-les-Moulineaux showing a chair and a table with a vase of tumbling nasturtiums in front of Matisse’s first version of La Danse, featuring a ring of pink figures linking hands against a saturated blue sky and green land. In the first of the nasturtium paintings Matisse held fairly true to the original motif in his rapid application, but the second version contains radical alterations, such as a diagonal band across the canvas to mark the bottom of La Danse, and a greatly reduced variation in colour. The dancing figures are painted in a richer pink hue, while the brown of the wooden chair, the green vase and parts of the ochre wooden table all become a deep magenta; the original green is subsumed by the blue sky and moved across instead to describe the table top and one of its legs – other than these patches of green and the yellow nasturtiums with their green leaves, the painting is a harmony of blues and pinks.
During the 1910s Matisse took vast leaps forward, as two paintings of Notre-Dame de Paris as well as a pair featuring goldfish in his Parisian studio, all made in 1914, reveal. The disparities between the first and final versions are so extreme that it barely seems possible that they were made in the same year, the second variation being as close to abstraction as Matisse got before his late paper cut-outs. Matisse began to document, in photographs, the tortuous journeys he took with a painting in the late 1930s, and as arch- ival images testify he showed these photo-graphs in large format directly alongside the final paintings in Paris in 1945. The Centre Pompidou, in a sense disappointingly, has chosen not to disrupt the elegance of its exhibition by repeating Matisse’s earlier proto- installation, and instead small photographs sit in vitrines while the associated works – including La Blouse Romaine and Le Rêve (both 1940) – adorn the surrounding walls.
The photographs attest to the fluency of Matisse’s revisions, documenting a virtuosic ability to synthesise colour and design which reaches its crescendo in a thrilling sequence of paintings made in a final burst of painterly activity at his villa in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, south-eastern France, during the late 1940s. The idée-première/definitive-version approach is by now long abandoned, and Matisse, emboldened by his experiments with paper cut-outs, juggles with apparent ease shared elements of the pictures – textiles, paintings within paintings, still lifes, windows framing his garden – amid flat planes of rich colour, almost as if they are materials in a collage.
There are omissions – works that rarely, if ever, travel, such as the red and pink studios of 1911, La Leçon de Piano (1916) and the related La Leçon de Musique (1917), but these are addressed in the catalogue. In many ways this is an exemplary show, to the extent that it uses an essentially academic premise not only to deepen our knowledge of Matisse’s practice but also to create a display of astonishing beauty. o
Ben Luke is Contemporary Art Critic at the London Evening Standard.
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