September 16, 2010

Henri Matisse, 1914

View of Notre Dame, 1914, oil on canvas, 58 x 37 1/4 "

When I was in NYC last week, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the the exhibit "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917". The premise of the show was that it would illuminate, in a very different way, the work of this period, by looking at Matisse's studio practice, rather than "as a response to Cubism or World War I". The problem with this is that Matisse was very friendly with Picasso and other cubists at the time, and was influenced by them. And he was so profoundly shaken by the war that he tried to enlist in August 1914, at the age of 44. Also in 1914 were influential lectures by the philosopher Henri Bergson which explored ideas of perception; his friend Matthew Prichard wrote that Matisse
accepted Bergson's idea that the artist is concerned with the discovery and expression of reality.....He accepted also that a picture by Corot was meant to be looked at, while his own painting was meant to be felt and submitted to.*
The paintings of the period in this show are so intensely worked, so structural, so full of the evidence of working and reworking that we can't help but feel them as a physical presence. Before painting the View of Notre Dame above, he completed a more conventionally pretty view, with none of the power or energy of the more abstract version which gives us the essence of the monumental form in space.

Interior with a Goldfish Bowl, 1914, oil on canvas, 58 x 38"

Goldfish and Palette, 1914, oil on canvas, 58 x 44"

I love this period of Matisse's work, so it was great to see so many of these canvases again. I turned to my catalog of the great 1992 Matisse retrospective (available at reasonable prices, used) at MoMA to photograph paintings for this post. I was amused to find that the 5 paintings I chose were all painted in 1914, all but French Window at the studio in Paris on the quai Saint-Michel. What an amazing year Matisse had there! The two paintings above are very interesting to compare; the first was done early in the year, the second in the autumn. The move towards simplifying and dramatizing the forms in space is very clear. The decision to have a black vertical mass, subsuming table and floor and bringing light to table top and bowl is a very nervy one. There is a trace of the artist on the right, a thumb lightly emerging through the hole of a palette, saying "I am here, I perceived this, and made this."

Woman on a High Stool (Germain Raynal), 1914, oil on canvas,
58 x 38"

I found this portrait very moving, the figure tensely composed, a thin rectangle surrounded, pressed upon by gray space. The energetic handling of the gray makes it seem as though the air around the figure is more alive than she, held in as she is by strong black lines. I wonder if Giacometti was familiar with this painting; it seems to anticipate his concerns.

French Window at Collioure, 1914, oil on canvas, 46 x 35"

This remarkable painting, now easy for us to understand after years of looking at abstract art, was never shown in Matisse's lifetime. He painted it in the fall, while in the south of France for a short while, as the Germans advanced on Paris. Lovely colors of shutters and wall look out on utter blackness, a bare hint of railings hovers. Matisse was painting his heart.

* from Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Color, by Hilary Spurling, p. 148

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