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28 july 2021
It took Matisse a while to become Matisse. I guess you could say the same for other notables among his Modernist contemporaries: Kandinsky, Mondrian, Picasso. All worked in numerous styles before finding a signature mode. People noted this in real time; Henri Matisse was famous before critics could figure out what distinguished him. As Kathryn Brown says in her recent book, even Matisse fans, c1905, had
difficulty in ascribing a consistent style to the artist. How was it so much as possible to identify a work as a "Matisse" in the face of such relentless stylistic variability? (49)In the 1920s observers were baffled when Matisse turned from "large-scale, complex paintings" to "naturalistic depictions of women in hotel interiors." Matisse, says Brown, continually subjected "a repertoire of tangible things" (a high percentage of them being nude women) "to endless visual variation" (103). The result was art that stayed representational but kept seeing things anew. (Brown seems to use "naturalistic" to mean "representational," because Matisse abandoned verisimilar illusion early on and never engaged the social commentary typical of literary naturalism. She is probably using a sense of "naturalistic" that I just wasn't aware of.) Throughout, Brown argues that Matisse's work "affirmed the decorative value of art and a lifelong commitment to the expressive potential of colour" (176).
Modernist art so highly values the individual, the distinctive, and the original that forming a brand can be a balancing act; you need to establish what a "Matisse" is to sell one but you need to keep surprising your customers if you are to keep selling them. Though this focus on marketing seems a sublunary approach to such a sublime artist as Matisse, it's just biographically accurate, says Brown. Matisse involved his extended family and a wide network of collectors and patrons in an elaborate project to maintain and enhance the value of his creations; his son Pierre, for instance, parleyed marketing his father's art into a career as a prominent New York art dealer.
Collectors, patrons, and assistants – unusually for an art critic, Brown stresses at several points how Matisse became a studio. "His models helped to prepare canvases and materials" (156), and Matisse's late cut-outs (178) were assembled from materials produced by assistants. I was lucky to see an exhibition of Matisse cut-outs in Detroit in the fall of 1977; the guiding narrative then was one of disability. Matisse, immobilized (the story went), could not paint or draw and was "reduced" to cutting designs from paper colored by his assistants. Brown suggests that the constraint may not have been so drastic; cut-outs were more a choice than a forced makeshift, and Matisse had long used them as planning devices for large-scale works. In any event, Matisse turned constraint into a triumph; but the triumph was undeniably collaborative.
Henri Matisse did not grow up in the art world. His father made a fortune in agricultural supplies; Henri was expected to carry on the family trade or, if that didn't suit, become something useful and respectable like a lawyer. The young Matisse took the proverbial road less travelled and retrained as a painter, showing no prodigious gift at first, but stubbornly committed. Early on, he seemed to have little gift for critical or commercial success and had to take jobs like painting a background for an exposition model of the Trans-Siberian Railway (36). I bet the promoters wish they'd kept the scenery around for a few decades to see it appreciate once their journeyman hit it big.
Brown places Matisse in the context of writers and critics (he himself wrote about art quite a bit, consistently produced art books, and leveraged the ways in which text could sell images and vice versa). She also juxtaposes Matisse to the big canonical names from the art history of France: Cézanne, who fascinated the young Matisse; Picasso, who became twinned with Matisse in a friendly sort of rivalry as the two became the biggest brand names in modernist art; Renoir, who intrigued the younger artist because of "the sensual qualities of his female nudes" (101).
Matisse ventured briefly into Cubism, but rarely dissolved representation into juxtaposed shapes in the way Picasso made his trademark. He continually returned to the subjects of still lifes and especially to the human form, though radically simplifying and stylizing his images. I would be interested in knowing more about the mutual influences among Matisse and his German and Nordic contemporaries: Edvard Munch, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gabriele Munter, Alexei Jawlensky, Helene Schjerfbeck. Brown presents Matisse as scandalizing the French art world by reducing reality to coarse, sometimes childish outlines; Matisse is one of those artists of whom viewers early on thought "My kid could have done that!" But similar portraiture was being done in central and northern Europe. Matisse was scarcely alone – but circumstances might have made contemporaries somewhat isolated from influencing one another. And the art world of Paris tended to think that the whole world needed to look in its direction. Matisse became central to that Paris scene and helped in great part to define modern art for a century and more of admirers.
Brown, Kathryn. Henri Matisse. London: Reaktion, 2021.