Of all the great modern artists, Henri Matisse has enjoyed the most paradoxical reputation. A dozen years older than Picasso, Matisse was a leading force in the avant-garde and pre-eminent among the Fauves by 1908. His status as one of the creators of modern art was ?quickly? assured, but he parted company with 'progressive' art by rejecting Cubism.
His interests lay elsewhere, in pursuit of what he famously termed 'an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of
troubling or disturbing subject-matter . . . something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue'. During the course of a long career, he was variously seen as an 'apostle of ugliness' or a light-hearted hedonist, and Matisse's trajectory clearly went in a different direction from his younger contemporaries, especially Picasso.
It was Picasso who referred to himself and Matisse as the North and South poles, and there was a world of difference between the Spanish rebel, for whom art had the fervour of an anti-bourgeois crusade, and the eminently bourgeois Matisse, whose goal was an aesthetic disinterestedness. Critics, too, were puzzled by Matisse and found him too elusive to be pinned down to any of the constituent schools cof modern art. Matisse's preoccupation with broad fields of bright colour and simplified, flat forms, his sequences of odalisques and still lives and his depictions of interior scenes from his villa in Nice were all highly decorative and encouraged the view that here was an artist who was sensual but safe, a hedonist avidly collected, as Roger Fry put it, 'by the more cultured rich'.
Matisse's world was one of
tranquillity and visual opulence, and its surface brilliance often obscured the artist's engagement with ideas. But tThe old view of Matisse as a rather gifted decorator has now given way, and we can see that while he may not have been so demon-driven as Picasso, Matisse was equally varied in his achievement. John Elderfield's purpose in mounting his exhibition was to argue the case for Matisse as a radical artist for whom painting was a series of epiphanies. He sees Matisse as the creator of a painstakingly constructed vision of the natural world and an artist who veered between realistic and abstract styles.
And Elderfield's book is extremely valuable for its documentation of the painter's career. Works have been grouped together chronologically with greater emphasis upon the revolutionary phases leading up to the First World War, though the later periods are by no means slighted. Each section is prefaced by a concise sketch of Matisse's development and a analysis of his activities. New documentary material has been employed, and this allows Elderfield to redate some works. In addition, there is a fascinating collection of photographs of Matisse at work, of his models, and of the stages in the creation of works like the Large Reclining Nude of 1935 or the Woman in Blue of 1937.
Elderfield has also prefaced the catalogue with a lengthy essay that aims at a reassessment of Matisse's art. His approach is refreshingly honest in its attempt to raise questions and provide answers. Elderfield draws upon biographical, psychological, formal and even literary analysis to illuminate the paintings, and his collage of elements brings out the intellectual core of Matisse's works. If there is a drawback to his line of enquiry it lies in his reliance upon literary metaphors which sometimes deflect attention from the primacy of the visual material. But the harmony between the organic and abstract patterns, the geometry underlying Matisse's compositions comes across well in Elderfield's account.
He is particularly good at tracing the counterpoint between the organic and abstract in Matisse as, for example, in his explanation of a late work like Plum Blossoms, Green Background. There, a relationship is established between a woman's face and oval pears on the table in front of her while the blossoms in the bowl and the foliate pattern on the wall have a similar resonance. The potential disorder of elements is subsumed by the artist into a brilliant juxtaposition of pure colour.
The plates of Henri Matisse vary in quality, but the use of colour is generous, conveying an idea of the textures of the two versions of the Fauve period Young Sailor or the famous versions of The Dance. The late paper cut outs reproduce well, and with them Matisse produced works at the end of his career as radical as his Fauve paintings had been forty years before. They seemed to resolve the conflict between drawing and colour that so obsessed Matisse, for they showed him a way to 'draw directly in colour'. The flatness of works such as the Blue Nude series proved ideal for serial reproduction and sustained Matisse's influence into the age of the poster.
'Reality,' as Wallace Stevens once wrote, 'is the product of
the most august imaginations.' Matisse's art reveals a perennial quest for the essential character of the natural world through its transposition of emotion and image into colour and pattern. Henri Matisse: A Retrospective fulfils its author's intentions by giving us a intelligent interpretation of one of the few figures in modern art whose vision of reality has altered our own.
NB Henri Matisse: A Retrospective continues at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until January 19th. Part of the exhibition then transfers to the Centre Pompidou in Paris early in 1993.