Friday, March 28, 2014

The Mystery of Matisse

Baltimore was recently ranked among the ten most dangerous cities in the United States—along with Detroit, Newark, Camden, Cleveland, and Memphis. It’s our good luck, then, that a magnificent collection of artworks by Henri Matisse owned by the Baltimore Museum of Fine Art is currently on exhibit here at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Everyone loves Matisse, I suspect, in the same way that everyone loves Monet, but for the sake of different effects. Matisse’s color schemes and decorative patterns are inordinately pleasing—so much so that they have influenced several generations of department store decorators. We’re more likely to be dumbfounded by the simplicity of his works than by their complexity. Anodyne rather than challenging, placid rather than angst-ridden, they subvert every value held dear by modernists, post-modernists, conceptual artists—and the critics who write about them. The same clichĂ©s may creep in here and there—pushing the boundaries, exploring new worlds. But Matisse, like Bach, filled a world rather than merely discovering one.

It seems that commentators often can find nothing better to do in describing Matisse’s work than cite the master himself, at those places in his letters and books where he speaks about harmony and line and sincerity. Such remarks could be applied to many artists in one way or another. And yet, they take on added meaning in the context of the specific lines and colors we're standing in the midst of.

"In speaking of a melon one uses both hands to express it by a gesture, and so both lines defining a form must determine it. Drawing is like an expressive gesture, but it has the advantage of permanency."

Reading these lines, we feel that Matisse is concerned about form and expression...but also that he likes melons.

And how about this one: "For me, the subject of a picture and its background have the same value, or, to put it more clearly, there is no principle feature, only the pattern is important. The picture is formed by the combination of surfaces, differently colored."

Paintings from every stage of Matisse's career are included in the show. This in itself makes it interesting. Looking at a given canvas, we're likely to be pleased. Then we ask ourselves: How can it be so simple? Then we begin to notice that the colors and patterns involved are actually a horrible mishmash. We notice that colors on different parts of a given canvas have been selected with less regard to what a window frame or an apple actually looks like than to how the color works within the ensemble. But then the opposite notion enters our head. The pages of that book there on the table are exactly the right color. That gauze curtain shielding the rainy day outside the window looks exactly like a gauze curtain letting in a little light.

An exhibit as large as the one on display here in Minneapolis gives us ample opportunity to compare and contrast. Some of the painting are overworked, and a few of the drawings epitomize “bad drawing,” with every line heavily over-sketched and every pattern laboriously complete.  

One entire wall of the exhibit is devoted to a series of photographs documenting the many iterations Matisse devised and rejected before at last completing the famous pink-and-blue “Large Reclining Nude”—an awkward, unsubtle painting that he might just as well have scuppered early on. 

But such evidence of laborious work over many months reminds us that even the drawings Matisse executed with unparalleled freshness and lyric grace were the result of years of training, practice, dissatisfaction, and repetition.  

And such work isn’t merely a matter of addressing a given subject arranged in front of him.

“I take from nature what I need,” Matisse once wrote, “an expression sufficiently eloquent to suggest my thoughts. I painstakingly combine all effects, balancing them in rendering and in color, and I don’t attain this condensation, to which everything contributes, even the size of the canvas, at the first shot. It is a long process of reflection and amalgamation."

I might also observe that Matisse took from nature what he liked--women, flowers, fabric.

The show currently at the Institute gives us ample opportunity to spend some time in the midst of canvases and drawing, lithographs and sculptures, that exude the beauty and feeling that Matisse found in life and succeeded in capturing time and again on paper and canvas. Nor is the beauty merely in the colors and forms involved. It runs much deeper than that. It extends to the sensibilities of the individual who developed such a profound rapport with these things, and to the wider world we all share with him. 

The last room of the show is devoted to the illustrations Matisse made for books--especially that well-known paper-cut creation, Jazz. The colors are bright, the forms are direct. My heart leapt as I looked around--and not just because I love books. Quite a bit of text has been translated and put on display, too. Matisse's musings on art, color, God, work. A fitting conclusion to a remarkable show. 

In the gift shop next door,  it struck me immediately how much grayer the posters on sale were than the originals we'd just been looking at.

Later, having lunch at Gandhi Mahal on Lake Street, I noticed that the plate of food I'd assembled from the buffet looked a lot like a Matisse painting. Well, maybe a little...

I spent the afternoon thumbing through an old copy of Matisse: Rhythm and Line by Jaqueline and Maurice Guillaud, a 650-page, full-color tome that weights five pounds. Ah, bliss! 


Randee said...

Reading this, finding the characteristics spoken in the pictures brought me great pleasure. I will go for myself. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to seeing Matisse and comparing impressions with yours. As we discussed -- appreciating his work does not feel like work and I appreciate that! Thanks for the preview. Your Cuz...