We spent the second day of our long weekend in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were both eager to see the Matisse show In Search of True Painting.
I admire Matisse as a master of color and composition and for the way he sustained a long career. This exhibition explains some of the techniques he used to keep going. One of these was to work in series. The first major thematic series covered in the show the idea of a Golden Age of beauty and harmony. This is Matisse’s portrayal of a mythic and ideal arcadia, which dates back to the ancient Roman poet Virgil, and has been a continuing theme in Western art.
In his painting, The Gulf of Saint-Tropez, 1904, Matisse places his family at the edge of the water, the view of mountains across the water framed by trees. His broken brush work and intensely saturated colors show that he has been looking at Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne.
Matisse broke new ground as he reworked the same scene using the pointillist or divisionist technique of Seurat and Signac. In this painting, Matisse rotates the frame to a horizontal format and adds some nude figures, making the scene less grounded in the everyday world and more of a mythic scene. And he uses for his title a line from Baudelaire’s poem “L’invitation au voyage” – Luxe, Calme et Volupte (in English, luxury, peace and pleasure).
He did two versions of Le Luxe, 1907, working in the same format and size. He and his wife had travelled to Italy with the collector Leo Stein earlier that year, where Matisse was greatly impressed with frescoes of Giotto and Piero della Francesca. He may have considered Le Luxe I to be unfinished, as he titled it a sketch when he first submitted it. The second, Le Luxe II, is treated more like a fresco, painted thinly in distemper. This one shows the impact of the Italian visit. Matisse came to rely on the use of flat colors, and the overall design – the lines of the composition – to convey his emotional ideas.
Matisse continued with the themes of arcadia and the idyllic golden age over the rest of his life. He had distilled this them the previous year in his masterpiece, Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-06, now at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. He returned to this theme in 1910 for his large paintings commissioned by the Moscow collector Sergei Shchukin, Dance, and Music, now both owned by the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. And the dance theme appears again in the late mural masterpiece The Dance, 1932-33 again at the Barnes.
Another thematic series that kept him going was to paint views of his studio. Interiors with Goldfish, 1914, show goldfish bowl on a stand, open windows with balcony railings and more or less of what lay outside. Goldfish and Palette, 1914, shows the same elements from different points of view. Now we are closer to the fishbowl and looking at it straight on. The diagonals and curves of the balcony railing have become more abstract. These views often included his own paintings hanging or leaning on the walls, giving raked perspectives and cropped details of other paintings as elements of new works. Such views presented new and novel compositional opportunities that enlivened his work that allowed him to examine the same subject matter in a range of color palettes and moods, and with different painting techniques, such as thinly painted or heavily reworked with scraping and incising.
The exhibit ends with a selection of paintings from the end of his life when he was living in Vence on the French Riviera. These works embody a lifetime of Mediterranean light and color. Matisse’s use of line and composition are at their peak. His subjects remain the same – interiors with paintings on the walls, furniture, fabrics, architectural details (floor & wall times, windows) – now done with an economy of means that is truly breathtaking. His painted surfaces are BOTH windows to look through AND flat surfaces of texture and design. As always, an exhibition of Matisse leaves me with lots to think about and process into my own work.