In September 1933, Pierre Bonnard wrote a letter congratulating his friend Henri Matisse on the successful installation of the mural Danse at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. “I am delighted, as I was present at the birth of your work, understood it, admired it as I watched its completion,” it read; “Really, painting is ‘something’ only provided one gives oneself up to it entirely.”
Indeed, Matisse had to battle mightily for the “art of balance, of purity and serenity” that he sought. Already in 1912 one of Matisse’s interviewers referred to him as a “much-ridiculed man.” His decade in Nice produced magnificent, aggressively collected easel pictures such as Odalisque with a Tambourine (1925–26), an arrangement of warm and cool greens around a vermilion carpet upon which sits a geometricized model that could have made Picasso’s eyes water with envy. But these efforts only prompted critics to wonder whether all of those studio nudes emitting from his brush indicated a retreat from the full promise of modern painting, or even an artistic senescence. His rate of production in the late 1920s slowed to a crawl.
Then the collector-sage of Montgomery County got in touch regarding a mural commission, and the rest is history.
“Matisse in the 1930s,” originating at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and afterward headed to the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and the Musée Matisse in Nice, is an exquisitely canny idea for an exhibition. One is tempted to follow its travels, as each version will carry its own emphasis. Paris, for example, is expected to take a closer look at Cahiers d’art—the storied magazine/publishing house/exhibition space led by the Greek culture dynamo and Picasso catalogue raisonné author Christian Zervos—and its influence upon Matisse’s career.
The creative rivalry between Picasso and Matisse likely would have materialized anyway, but it remains true that Cahiers d’art egged it on from the sidelines. Zervos, having founded the magazine in the mid-1920s, initially championed Matisse. By the Forties he had become a partisan of Picasso and much else. Chara Kolokytha notes in the catalogue that “Zervos’s rage-driven texts from the post-war years—fueled by his ideological conflicts and personal ambitions—inevitably influenced the reliability of his criticism.” Matisse’s close association with such an unruly character might be self-evidently ill-advised, but for a time Zervos was a steady aficionado, running numerous profiles on Matisse’s accomplishments, lavish spreads of his paintings and prints, and passionate defenses of both the artist’s intentions and those of Fauvism as a whole. (History tells us that a critic’s good calls matter more than his bad ones. Kolokytha relates that a few issues in, Cahiers d’art settled on “imageless solid color surfaces on a neutral background that eventually became its signature covers.” Readers of The New Criterion will appreciate the wisdom of the choice. The catalogue, for the record, is a must-own.)
The Philadelphia Museum is focusing on the revitalization of Matisse’s career that resulted from Albert Barnes’s commission of a mural for the three-arch vault facing the top-floor banister of his veritable laboratory of Modernism. That this might have been more naturally a Barnes Foundation show does rather occur to the viewer, even if it’s hard to consider Danse truly in situ given that the original situ was Merion. It certainly looks fine at its new home at the new Barnes on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, but notches on either side of Danse that once accommodated columns at its intended location remind some of us of the controversy of the move. That said, the Barnes is hosting a top-flight exhibition of Modigliani at the moment (reviewed by Mario Naves below). In any case, the cavernous halls of the Philadelphia Museum allow a generously spacious hanging of a hundred-plus works, and they look terrific.
“Matisse in the 1930s” begins with a sampling of later Nice pictures, such as the aforementioned odalisque and the vibrant yet disturbing Woman with a Veil from 1927. The following section features two projects, worked on in tandem: the Barnes mural and illustrations for a collection of poems by Stéphane Mallarmé. Fairy in a Luminous Hat—Remembrance of Mallarmé (1933) is the sort of elegant, spare drypoint etching that might disappear among many other similar drypoints by the artist, and it’s natural to see the various studies for Danse as a wind-up for the main event on display at the Barnes. Of note here is that the artist, having reached a creative impasse around an explicitly and deliberately sensual body of work, took refuge in drawing, while keeping the effects and demands of illustration in mind. His work on the mural returned him to formal concerns that he explored in the 1900s and Teens, which had, among other things, been informed by Byzantine art, that is, the art of wall decoration. All the while he drew (literally and spiritually) from poetry. (As interesting as all of this is in itself, viewers of the MFA Boston’s exhibition of Philip Guston earlier this year could see the later artist on a trajectory of self-reinvention that hits all of the same beats—advancing through a lyrical phase via an interregnum of drawing, in an illustrative style, to a refreshed take on older concerns informed by the serious problem of architectural decoration, with poets as much on his mind as any painting rival. Guston thus spent the last years of the 1960s much as Matisse spent the last years of the 1920s. What one might make of this I’m not sure, but the parallel is too striking to let pass without remark.)
The Barnes project proved liberating. Matisse never abandoned observation, but the works he made thenceforth evince a freedom to invent, distort, and revel in flourishes for which he had never previously given himself permission. The progress of Large Reclining Nude (1935), on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art, is famously recorded in photographs showing how the dictates of the model gave way to the dictates of the rectangle over the course of numerous revisions. The result maintains the energy of both in a picture that still looks fiendishly contemporary almost ninety years later. Nude in an Armchair, Green Plant (1937), emptied of detail and painted thin, is nevertheless threatening to take over the room in which it hangs with its pale violet glow. In time Matisse thought nothing of eliminating a face or rendering an arm as a noodle if the composition demanded it.
In his last letter to Bonnard, Matisse wrote that “Giotto is the summit of my desires, but the road leading to an equivalent, in our age, is too long for one lifetime. Meanwhile, it leads through interesting stages.” Key points of that journey are on view in Philadelphia, and “interesting” is not enough to describe the thrill.