By Sahir Avik D’souza
“The revolt is too virulent, too frenzied to be ignored. I began to investigate these lunatics… Had they attempted to invent a new form of humor? Were they merely practical jokers? Or must we attempt anew to solve the old question: ‘What is art?’”Gelett Burgess on the modernist painters, “The Wild Men of Paris”, 1910.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954), a French artist whose lengthy life and, consequently, career spanned from the last decades of impressionist painting to the developments of modernism. He became well-known in the first decade of the twentieth century for being part of the Fauves (French for ‘wild beasts’), a group of painters whose work was characterized by the “use of bright, non-naturalistic colors” (“Fauvism”). Matisse’s twentieth-century paintings display a definite movement away from the rules of impressionism, what with the flatness of the figures and the “fragmented shapes and planes” (“Fauvism”).
Bernice Rose writes that Matisse was responsible for contributing a “new spatial proposition, the first space that broke totally with linear perspective and treated the picture plane as a flat surface to which the three-dimensional forms of the world were accommodated … Thus,” she writes, “the drawings mediate between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional and the real and the artistic on more than one level … Form in the paintings and drawings always moves both towards and away from reality” (23-24).
Matisse’s work was consciously new and unusual, often causing scandal (the term ‘fauves’ was not initially used favorably). He experimented with all the developing styles of modernism but is probably best associated with fauvism. In 1941, he was diagnosed with cancer. This left him bedridden for the last thirteen years of his life, making regular painting difficult. In this period, Matisse produced a significant amount of work using the medium of cut-paper collage.
“[P]ainting was hardly an exclusionary enterprise for Matisse … [H]is experimentation in other media was a necessary component to his overall goal of staying focused on the ways by which something was constructed”Professor Terry R. Myers in “Matisse on the Move”
Henri Matisse: The Reclining Nude (1938)
Like so many great visual artists, from Renaissance painters like Botticelli to filmmakers like Hitchcock, Matisse too found the female body fascinating. His interest in the female subject – which includes the nude – grew to prominence in his ‘Nice period’, the time in his life when he moved to and began working in the city of Nice. (He would eventually spend the rest of his life there.) He first visited Nice in 1917, and the next thirteen years saw him produce numerous studies of the female figure, often an odalisque (Dabrowski, “Henri Matisse”). His interest in the nude was to continue through the rest of his career. He drew, painted or made collages of many nudes. His signature use of bright colour is present in all the paintings.
What is the attraction of nude art? As one writer puts it, “Nude art is not only an expression of the human body. It is also a burst of sensations” (Araujo, “The Colourful Nudes of Henri Matisse”). The nude body allows artists to document the human body in imaginative ways. Modernist artists in particular began to find new ways to display the body – especially the female body, which gave them more ways to experiment or reinvent themselves.
In Matisse’s 1938 iteration of the reclining nude, for instance, we see that the woman’s right breast is rounded, but her left is sharply pointed, almost a perfect triangle. But then all the angles of her body, we see – her elbows, her knees, her hips, her feet, even her nose – are sharp and geometrically drawn. Yet Matisse chose to make one breast rounded. Why?
On looking up the drawing, I found that Matisse had painted the same model in the same reclining pose twice, once in June of 1938 and again in July of that year. The drawing from June displays the woman with the curves on her body we would expect. But the very same drawing made again next month (and the one this paper is looking at) shows her body as full of the sharpest of angles.
Art historian NF Karlins writes in an essay on a 2011 New York exhibition called Matisse and the Model that viewing these two drawings one after the other shows us how Matisse would “[nudge] himself in different directions” (“Matisse and the Model”). That, of course, was the essence of modernism – the search for the new, the unexpected, the radical. He was constantly experimenting, trying to find new ways to put forth his work. Perhaps this was why he decided to make it difficult for his audience to distinguish clearly between the two drawings (“this one is angular, this one has curves”) by having one rounded breast in the otherwise angular work.
One of the chief features of Fauvist art was its startling use of color, with scant regard to the natural tints of things. For this reason, one can never look at a Matisse painting and declare which object in it he saw as primary. To Matisse, “[t]he woman is not the main subject of the painting, as it happens in other works of art. Every element is equally important to make a wholly integrated image. To do so, he uses bright colors that merge each part of the painting” (Araujo, “The Colourful Nudes of Henri Matisse”). When we look at his 1935 work Large Reclining Nude, this aspect of his work becomes quite clear.
Henri Matisse: The Large Reclining Nude (1935)
The voluptuous nude woman takes up perhaps seventy per cent of the painting. She is painted in a solid pinkish peach colour. Relaxed and not shy, she has her right arm resting under her head (the better to bring out the curve of her breasts) and she is looking rather unconcernedly in the direction of the painter. She is lying on a bright blue surface of some sort, with a white criss-crossing grid pattern on it – a blanket? The bathroom floor? A bathtub? Behind her is a window with green grills. The sill is unabashedly red and on it is a small structure, which is perhaps one of the most interesting objects in the painting, and also the most unfathomable. Is it a potted plant of some kind? It consists of a curled brown object perched on top of a mass of yellow, under which hangs a small beige circle. If we interpret the blue spread to be a bathtub, then maybe this yellow-brown object is an early version of a loofah.
When I read about the making of this painting, I found that it had gone through several versions before Matisse arrived at this completed one. His model was a woman named Lydia Delektorskaya. In every successive version, Matisse made the painting a little more abstract, a little less three-dimensional. (We know of the stages of this work because Matisse made sure the various versions were individually photographed.) In early versions, once can see that Lydia is lying on a blue couch and the yellow-brown object is a vase of flowers! (“Pink Nude, 1935”; “Large Reclining Nude”) The transformation of the vase into colourful blobs is characteristic of fauvist art, “which typically featured recognizable (yet somewhat abstracted) forms” (Richman-Abdou, “What is Modern Art? Groundbreaking Genre”). The focus was on the artist’s personal visual interpretation.
When, in the last decade-and-a-half of his life, Matisse was confined to his bed, his work was largely magnificent cut-paper collages. He would cut sheets of paper painted to specific shades by his assistants and then instruct them how to assemble the pieces, based on sketches and drawings he made.
Henri Matisse: The Blue Nudes (1952)
The Blue Nudes (1952) are a series of four collages he made from blue paper cut-outs of a nude woman seated, presumably on the floor. The woman, her body all in blue, has her legs folded and crossed, and her right arm raised behind her head. Her left arm rests on her right ankle. The collage is deceptively simple. It took Matisse a lot of work, including sketches, and much cutting and placing of paper. As each version of Blue Nude shows, the precise arrangement of the paper cut-outs yielded different results each time. In Blue Nude III, for instance, the woman’s head is thrown back. Her head is forward in Blue Nude II. In Blue Nude IV, she has larger and more defined breasts.
Unlike the previous two works of nude art we saw, here Matisse makes the image very abstract. While it is clearly a woman, she does not have any facial features, nor any expression or emotion: she is a blue silhouette of sorts. We can only infer her state of mind from her body language. Her body is given no identifying features and, unlike the busy smudging in the Reclining Nude drawing, the pieces of paper that make up her form are placed plainly on a white background.
Finally, then, Matisse freed himself from the traditional confines of realism and was able to produce “coloured forms liberated from their enveloping ground [and] combined in a different and far freer more complex manner” (Rose, 21). Matisse himself wrote of cut-paper collages that they enabled him to “draw directly in colour … Cutting into raw colour reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptors … Scissors can acquire more feeling for line than pencil and charcoal” (quoted in Rose, 21).
Bernice Rose goes on to explain how this “relocation of the real in the constructed” (22) liberated the artist. Matisse could now create “a new spatial freedom” (Rose, 22). And that was a thoroughly modernist pursuit: the quest for freedom, the quest for a new creation, the quest for liberation. Henri Matisse, painter, sculptor, collage artist extraordinaire, was truly a modernist pioneer.
Sahir Avik D’souza is a student and writer based in Mumbai. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @sahiravik
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