Posts Tagged ‘ Pablo Picasso ’

The Objects of Matisse

“Matisse in the Studio”
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
and Royal Academy of Arts, London

1. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table by Henri Matisse. 1947. Oil on canvas. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. All illustrations are of items currently exhibited by the MFA, unless otherwise stated. Click on any picture to enlarge.

One floor down from the Botticelli Exhibition, the Museum of Fine Arts is presenting a large exhibition of Matisse paintings and sculpture, Matisse in the Studio, through July 9. (The exhibition will continue, with slightly different objects, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from August 9, 2007 to July 9, 2018.) Taking in these two MFA shows on the same visit forces one to contemplate how vastly different the place art occupies today (or at least 75–100 years ago) from what it did half a millennium before that. From questions of who viewed it and where, to who prescribed the content and style, to how tradition and experimentation interacted and the space for each, to the importance of our understanding the artist’s intention, the social position and the aesthetic principles of art are nearly antipodal. There are certainly similarities. For example, over time both progressively dropped conventions that designed to make the canvas (or panel) simulate a window on a visibly “real” world. (Matisse, of course, began with fewer conventions and dropped more of them.) But I think in one respect the artists shared a point of departure—the relationship between the thing seen and the thing imagined. Botticelli imagined a scene and assembled the elements from memories. Matisse, by contrast, assembled things he could see in order the create a work of imagination. This was the result of a consequence of the conditions that prevented Botticelli from escaping the control of his patron, while Matisse, living in altogether different conditions, requires his viewer to see his art by first understanding the aesthetic rules of his own devising.

This may seem a fairly mundane (and perhaps forced) observation, but at least the second half of that dichotomy is the principal lesson drawn from the Boston Matisse show; namely, how grounded in a view of material reality Matisse’s paintings are. Or at least that’s how how he conceptualized his work. This seems to have been true throughout his career. This may be a surprising lesson for those of us who believe that Matisse’s approach was highly imaginative and fanciful, more like design than representation. The conclusion that he was a designer (or illustrator)  might be said not only of the late work (such as the cut-outs) but also such earlier work as Dance (I) (1909), and it would gain support by considering his side projects, such as his stage designs and his book illustrations. But, on the other hand, it is notable that Matisse never went in for pure abstraction; all of his work are based on things from the visible world, however refracted by Matisse’s imagination. This includes the late cut-outs, which are simply highly styled representations; even those so abstracted that we can see no likeness to their purported subjects, such as The Snail (1953), can be traced back though successive stages to a “seen” object.

The primacy of visual rather than cerebral stimulus for inspiration was noted early in Matisse’s career, and French cubist and art theorist André Lhote saw this as the main difference between Matisse on the one hand and Picasso, Braque (after abandoning Fauvism) and their followers on the other: “Matisse proceeds from sensation to idea, the cubists proceed from idea to sensation.” (Quoted in Flam (1986), p. 21).

Turquoise vase

2. Turquoise vase. (Bohemian? Turkish?) 19th century. Opaque glass. Musée Matisse, Nice. (Used in #1.)

Matisse himself agreed with this assessment. In fact, he went further. His intent was to copy nature as it exists. In a 1925 interview, long after his Fauvist period and after the period of his extreme abstractions (1913–17), both of which were disapproved of by traditionalists and art academic art instructors and therefore ridiculed by newspaper reviewers, he asserted: “I copy nature, and I make myself even put the time  of day in the painting” (Flam (1995(, p. 81). Notwithstanding adding a seemingly “realistic” detail, the question of course lies in what it means to “copy nature.” Even the 19th century French Realists, however much they wished to present verisimilitude, had the problem of translating the view of a three dimensional object onto a two dimensional canvas. Even so, Matisse held that it was the painter’s duty to “copy nature” on to the arbitrary substrate: “An artist must recognize, when he gets reasoning, that his picture is an artifice, but when he is painting, he should feel that he has copied nature. And even when he departs from nature, he must do it with the conviction that it is only to interpret her more fully” (Flam (1995), p. 42).

It is in this last part where the rub is. For so long as critics and reporters from the popular press felt the line to be drawn at “representational art,” Matisse consistently held that he was copying nature. But to him “copy” and “interpret” was different from “document” and “represent.” In response to George Besson in 1908 Matisse said that the role of photography to be “objective” and “give us documents.” Three years later in an interview with a Russian correspondent he said: “In my view the artist should not represent nature as it is in reality. We have photography for that” (Flam (1995), p. 44).  The distinction between “copying” nature (which he claimed he did) and “documenting” it depended on Matisse’s metaphysics which starkly differed from the almost all those involved in the modernist enterprise especially the predominant avant-garde in painting (but also in poetry, novels and music). Examinong how he treated “objective reality” allows the viewer to understand that metaphysical bias and see why the most advanced of his rivals always considered him a dottering conservative at best and a reactionary at worst.

The MFA show attempts a close study of what Matisse was looking at and how he translated it into art by placing against his works the very objects he was looking at or which inspired his apporoach to that work.  It begins with a selection of his early still lifes.

Embroidered textile

3. Embroidered textile. Kuba Kingdom, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th century. Raffia plainweave embroidered with raffia. Musée Matisse du Cateau-Cambrésis. (Cf. red surface in 1.)

Actors in the Studio

It was not until 1890, when he was 20, that Matisse first began painting. Till then he was a clerk in a law office in Saint-Quentin, in North France, placed there at the urging of his respectable bourgeois father. His dreamed of escape from that life had been music (he was a violinist), but during a long hospital stay following a collapse in 1889, he became interested in the hobby of his neighbor in the next bed, painting an oil reproduction of a chromo-lithograph illustration. His mother bought him a paint box with his own chromo illustration to copy and he found his career. His training, first part time in St. Quentin, then at the Académie Julian to prepare for the entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts, was stultifying, requiring him to  undergo the traditional approach of copying then-approved academic painters and cast models. Although he failed his entrance examination to the Beaux-Arts school (he would pass on his second attempt three years later), Matisse was able (through a plan devised by a friend) to attract the attention of its one forward-looking professors, Gustave Moreau, who invited Matisse to join his studio, which then included, among others, Georges Rouault and Albert Marquet, who would become Matisse’s life-long friend. From Moreau Matisse received not only solid grounding in technique (particularly metière—brushwork and touch), but also personal and professional encouragement. From his studio would come a group that would early exhibit with Matisse and also those who would form the nucleus of the fauves.

Moreau also firmly grounded Matisse in the masters.  This was no small favor, for the Beaux-Arts instructors preferred conservative mannerists to profoundly important figures no matter from how long ago. Matisse told Jacques Guenne in 1925: “Moreau knew how to distinguish and how to show us who were the greatest painters, whereas [Adolphe-William] Bouguereaux [France’s most successful academic painter and a teacher at the Académie Julian] invited us to admire Julio Romano” (Flam (1995), p. 80).

Chocolate Pot

4. Chocolate pot. French. 19th–early 20th century. Silver and wood. Private collection.

When Matisse began painting independently he was deeply steeped in the Dutch tradition. As Schneider points out, in both their vocabulary (books, oysters, lemons, crockery) and their syntax (perspective, modeling) the works of Matisse were oriented towards the Netherlands. And the first works we see in the Boston exhibition are his early still lifes together with one of the earliest items from his studio collection, a silver chocolate pot (#4).

It was not unusual for a 19th-century artist to collect objects for his studio. In fact, the very galleries of the MFA which are housing the current Matisse exhibit last year showed the works of William Merritt Chase (reviewed here). Chase himself was an extravagant collector, and his studio was a flamboyant showcase for his art as well as the subject of it. By contrast, Matisse, whose father tried to invest him with petite bourgeois values and who experienced privation in his early art career in Paris, resented collectors and avoided collecting studio objects; instead he used the Louvre as his studio (McBreen & Burnham, p. 16). When he finally began painting objects in his own studio, he used relatively inexpensive items. His collection was made up of tableware, vases, bowls, pots, jugs, small figurines and the like. Making a virtue of necessity, he employed the same object in numerous paintings. He later began collecting African, Islamic and Asian arts, ornaments and fabrics. Later in life he filled his studio with large plants as well as cages with numerous live birds. By the end he had become the ostentatious collector that he had not deigned becoming at the beginning.

When his collection was small and mostly domestic items, he developed a somewhat mystical relation with it. He took it with him wherever he went, even temporarily. He often wrote home requesting that additional items be sent. He explained this behavior (in a 1941 interview) as based on the need for his feelings to be “hooked” by the object. “To express that feeling you really do have to render the object” (Courthion, p. 145). In the middle of the 1890s he had become aware of modernist movements in painting, and he was beginning to respond to it in his own work. Evidently, the lesson he drew from his early encounters with Impressionists and Post-Impressionists was that the artist was to capture some inner truth of the objects (nature) he represented. Matisse seemed to believe that that truth communicated itself to the artist (or perhaps the artist was able to tease it out of the object) by some sort of non-visual relationship with the object which he described as “emotion” or “feeling.” In 1913 when his works were gaining slow acceptance (or perhaps, more accurately, a foothold) in American opinion through the Armory Show on Lexington Avenue in New York, this “[m]uch ridiculed man” explained to a patently dubious art reporter for the New York Times Magazine what he was doing in his work. He gave the example that if he painted a table he would “not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produced on me” (MacChesen, p. 12).

Matisse, Still Life with a Chocolate Pot

5. Still Life with a Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. ca. 1900. Oil on Canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Emotion” is probably not the right term for what Matisse was trying to express. “Affect” or “non-conscious response” might have been better choices. But he used the term regularly with his students. Gertrude’s sister-in-law Sarah Stein recorded him as telling his students in 1908: “To copy the objects in a still-life is nothing, one must render the emotion they awaken in him” (Flam (1995), p. 51), and “he showed them how tenderly he himself felt towards the taut compact volumes of an African wood carving, the generous roundness of a copper pot, the swelling tear-shaped body of a slender vase” (Spurling (2005), p. 21). It reminds me of the physical reactions of mid-century existentialists towards objects, best expressed by the Nausea of Antoine Roquentin: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” The realization produced physical revulsion. The underlying metaphysics of that emotion is entirely unlike Matisse’s; the existentialist believes that what-you-see-is-what-you get. That essential materialism undergirded almost all of Modernism from the Imagist poets, to the reaction against Pre-Raphaelites, to the Cubists and Futurists, to the Naturalist novelists and even their successors.

Joyce examined much the same problem Matisse was dealing with. What do we know exists based on what can be learned from the portals of our eyes? Joyce, through Dedalus, tenatively answered that there is nothing but the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” What-you-see-is-all-there-is. This sets Dedalus off on the theory of light of Aristotle, maestro di color che sanno, not Plato the the Idealist, who says what we see is merely shadows on a cave wall of things that exit outside. Dedalus says that what we see is real, not an illusion of our visual sense: “Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure.” This is not Matisse’s view, or at least not the view he wants his own viewers to understand.

(Years later Matisse would literally imprint his own very different metaphysics on that very novel. In 1935 publisher George Macy obtained Joyce’s permission to have a limited edition of Ulysses illustrated with line drawings by Matisse. Joyce sent Matisse details so that he could capture the “Irishness” of the episodes. Matisse, however, illustrated nothing in the novel, instead drawing scenes from the Odyssey, the Ideal for which Ulysses was only the image (Aragon, I:191). Two of his drawings concerned scenes of the Odyseey not even recapitulated in Ulysees. And the book was sold with Matisse’s autograph, not Joyce’s. The Idealist, at least in this one case, prevailed over the Materialist.)

Matisse, Still Life with Chocolate Pot (ink)

6. Still Life with Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1900. Ink on paper. Musée Matisse du Cateau-Cambrésis.

Matisse’s early still lifes show none of the contradictions among reality—visual impression—artistic expression that he was grappling to explain in 1908. In the 1890s he was assimilating the influence of the artists promoted by Moreau. His first still lifes was strongly influenced by Chardin, who was in turn himself influenced by the Dutch masters of the previous century (compare Matisse’s Still Life with Peaches (#9) with Chardin’s Still Life with Glass Flask and Fruit (ca. 1728)). Matisse had made four copies of Chardin’s work at the Louvre and never lost his admiration for his work. All of the early still lifes are studies of various textures and reflective surfaces using much of the visual language of Chardin.

During the years 1895–1902 Matisse began absorbing, and tentatively expressing, lessons from various advanced and modernist approaches. He travelled to Brittany where he experimented with seascapes that remind one of late Turner (seee.g.Seascape at Goulphar (1896) and Large Gray Seascape (1896)), but Matisse had yet to see any of Turner’s works. When he did in 1898 (but not the late Turner works which had not yet been exhibited), the response was an explosive use of color as in Sunset at Corsica (1898). His Notre Dame in the Late Afternoon (1902) seems to comment on the approach of Monet in the early 1890s in his series of paintings on the Rouen Cathedral, in that it ignores the church’s details in order to see it in relation to the light around and that it reflects. Instead of detailing the intricacies of light on the building’s surface, however, Matisse substituted flat planes of color. Moreover, he experimented with Neo-Impressionism (seee.g.Small Door of the Old Mill (1898)). But the most important figure he would confront was Cézanne.

At first Matisse explored the more obvious discoveries of Cézanne: how he deformed objects, violated norms of color harmony and changed approaches to facture and representation of volume. These can be seen in the 1900–04 sculpture The Serf and the 1900 oil Male Model, which plainly reveal how Matisse understood Cézanne and also that his engagement with him was deeper and years the Cubists would take up his influence. But, according to Flam, the most important breakthrough of Cézanne, the one on which would eventually influence Matisse’s approach to his work most deeply and for the rest of his career, was the creation of “non-denominative space” (Flam (1986), p. 20). With this discovery, the canvas (or whatever substrate) was no longer solely a window to a “real” scene. It was a place where pictured objects interact with each other and the viewer.

According to Flam, Cézanne reconsidered what painting was “about”:

In Cézanne’s paintings, especially after 1885, plastic elements begin to take precedence not only over description but also over denomination. Form is given to that which cannot be named. The spaces between entities are given weight and substance, yet the precise nature of the spaces remains ambiguous. They are not entities but forces. In order to permit these forces to function freely, Cézanne keeps the space in which they act open and “breathing.” The amorphous whiteness of blank canvas is used as the field of force in which the drawn and colored forces set down by the painter will act (Flam (1986), p. 20).

It would take many years for the implications of this to unspool in Matisse’s work, but once it gained a grip on his imagination, it would allow Matisse to attain new breakthroughs at an increasingly rapid rate. But none of this is apparent in the early still lifes selected for the Boston exhibition.

Matisse, Still Life and Heron Studies

7. Still Life and Heron Studies by Henri Matisse. ca. 1900. Watercolor and ink on paper. Private collection.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that by pairing objects from the studio with the works they appear in or influence we can understand what Matisse “saw” and compare it with how he “expressed” it. And the first of the experiments the curators propose is with the handful of still lifes Matisse painted (just as he was absorbing lessons of divergent modernists), all of them involving a silver chocolate pot. That pot, which was a gift at his wedding to Amélie Parayre in January 1898 is part of the exhibition. (#4).

It is difficult to understand what the actual item adds to our appreciation of the works. An ordinary item painted by Matisse in a quite straightforward manner in the works shown, it differs not at all from what one would have imagined it looked like just from the paintings themselves. The two most frequently heard questions from hostile museum goers in the modern art section are: What is this? And why is it made that way? (A question more polite viewers ask themselves quietly.) But when what is painted is obvious, seeing it really does not add anything. And with Matisse, unlike the Cubists or the Futurists or the Symbolists, except for the periods of extreme abstraction, say, the year 1916 or during his period of “plastic writing” or at the very end of his life when his paper cut-outs became mere symbols, it was usually obvious what he was painting. From 1905 onward the question usually was why he as painting it that way.

Matisse, Still Life with Chocolate Pot

8. Still Life with Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1900–02. Oil on canvas. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

The still lifes selected for the exhibit, however, do not even present a question about the manner of expression. Matisse was probably the first and still most important painter who requires a viewer to understand him, not on the basis of some prescribed aesthetic, but rather by intuition informed solely by our knowledge of his own development. But these paintings require no such knowledge. And perhaps that is what the curators intend for us to learn. In these paintings he is not using a language he developed, but rather borrowing from an existing grammar—the accepted “rules” commonly set out by the academy and used by the most successful painters of a time going back decades. Indeed, the paintings are so impersonal that the curators show us a painting by Matisse’s friend Albert Marquet (who would join him in the Fauvist wars and world remain a life-long friend), The Coffee Pot (1902), remarkably like Matisse’s early chocolate pot still lifes, not only in subject matter, but also in setting, lighting and color. It is not unlikely that they intentionally painted similar scenes to compare notes, especially if, as Grammont supposes, Marquet was the one who made the Matisses a present of the chocolate pot in 1898 (Grammont, p. 48). Or perhaps Marquet’s 1902 painting was an homage to or study of an earlier painting by Matisse also shown at the MFA exhibition, Still Life with Peaces, painted in 1895 (#9), using another pot. (Matisse did yet not have the chocolate pot.)

Whatever the circumstances of the creation of these early works, it’s hard to see how they differ from traditional still lifes of the 19th century. Nor do they show much of Cézanne’s innovations, except perhaps the still life owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (#5), which has the “unfinished” background that some Cézanne still lifes have, although this is is not a major part of Cézanne’s legacy.

Still Life with Chocolate Pot (#5) also shows how Matisse was expanding his palette at the time and using a wider range and brighter colors. But it is not representative of Matisse’s growth, even in still lifes, for others, not exhibited at the MFA, for example, First Orange Still Life (1899) (which, incidentally, also includes the chocolate pot), document his evolution more completely. It is true that his experiments at the time are most clearly seen in his landscapes and other outdoor scenes (even scenes outside the studio window). This seems true of each one of Matisse’s major breakthroughs, including his Fauvism of 1905, the extreme abstractions of 1913–17, and the beginning of the Early Nice period and the portrayal of luxury starting in 1918. Only his gradual return to the avant-garde, around 1930, began primarily with studio works. This means that the premise of the exhibition by definition deprives us of seeing his more revolutionary and influential works.

Matisse, Still Life with Peaches

9. Still Life with Peaches by Henri Matisse. 1895. Oil on canvas. Baltimore Museum of Art. (Not shown at MFA exhibition.)

What other still lifes of the time that are not exhibited here show more clearly than the ones that are is how he used objects in his collection to produce little dramas (in which he called the objects “actors”) by their arrangement. This can be seen in those works like  First Orange Still Life, Sideboard and Table (1899) and Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1902–04). All of these use a larger number of objects to produce an interplay among themselves, the thing one first observes about the works. Whether this is owing to Matisse’s beginning to internalize of Cézanne’s  “non-denominative space” or simply another attribute of Matisse’s study of Chardin, who often used numerous objects in his still lifes to create a set of rhythmic lines as part of the composition is debatable But the question probably should be considered in light of Matisse’s comments about how his objects were “actors.” Matisse had first explored the interplay of table objects in his grandly conceived student piece, The Dinner Table (1897), which Moreau praised for the realism of the objects. That painting showed the influence of Monet and the academics who ran the school’s show deemed it Impressionist so gave it no prominence in their student exhibition (Gowing, p. 18). The later still lifes would show the waning influence of Monet, the growing elements of Cézanne and Matisse’s own approach to his breakthrough—Fauvism.

So while it seems an unprofitable line of inquiry to examine his still lifes separately from his other work at the time, and especially to isolate the chocolate pot works from the other still lifes to see how it “spoke” to him, for sake of completeness I will mention one thing that is noticeable in these works: the odd placement of objects in the early still lifes. In both ## 5 and 8 the pot is placed on top of a book which sits on a chair or stool. The handle is in a different position in the two paintings as is the book. Both have a lemon on top of the book next to the pot. The 1895 still life (#9) also seems to have a lemon, although the predominant fruit are peaches. The setting of the pot in this the earliest of these three paintings is on a table, rather than a book, and the table has a glass of water with a spoon (to make lemon juice?). The objects in the two later paintings (##5 & 8) are arranged to draw attention to themselves. To what end is unclear. Is there some point to the stool and book rather than a table? Is this a private symbol? Is this what Matisse meant when he said the objects were “actors” as in a play? If so, it is a play whose narrative is known only to the author. The two drawings, Still Life with Chocolate Pot (#6) and Still Life and Heron Studies (#7), both have the pot among a trio of objects closely set. In the latter Matisse sketched a scene of the chocolate pot, a bowl and a cup and saucer repeatedly so that he could experiment with daubs of color on the page. The sketches seem as though mechanically produced in their regularity. Interspersed are two large sketches of wading birds. It is of course unfair to draw any kind of conclusions from a study beyond noting what elements the artist was working on. The most I can infer is that he was trying to brighten his palette on these conventional still lifes, a goal that he seems working towards in his Still Life with Chocolate Pot of 1900–02 (#8) and which seems to have finally achieved (at least within the conventional framework he set for himself in this period) in Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot (#10), when he repurposed the pot into a vase for flowers.

This last painting was evidently “advanced” enough to have attracted the attention of Picasso, sufficiently that he purchased it. While the pot’s use has been changed and its orientation different from the earlier ones (its handle points outward toward the viewer) it is not the use of the pot that makes this painting a departure but rather a re-imagining of how to present it. That one object dominates the canvas but the flowers pour forth a profusion of colors that accent the swirling wall and the solid reddish-brown table top. It is the development of his sense of how to use color is what makes this still life notable. By 1905 Matisse would take compositional approach one step further in Parrot Tulips (II). There we view a similar reflective container from a higher vantage. (The container is cylindrical, not jug-like as is the chocolate pot.) Orange and yellow impatiens bend outward around erect daisies. The shape and posture of the impatiens give the impression of motion, as though they are animals craning their necks to see out from the vessel. The feeling of motion is intensified by the surrounding ambiance: blue and green short brushstrokes encircle the object and flowers (the container reflecting them). It is not the disturbing swirls of impasto van Gogh used in the years after 1885. Rather it gives the sensation of excited euphoria. But we can’t be sure, although it is fairly certain that Matisse’s mode of expression here is a way of explaining how the things are as mediated by Matisse’s own intuition on one hand and his developing personal iconography on the other. We see in that painting (of which Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot is only the forerunner) the origins of the artist who, more than any other, turned painting and sculpture from media of communication where artist and viewer shared the basics of a common language and means of understanding, to a solipsistic endeavor to convey the unique inner life of the artist, using symbols and emblems and signs, which can be interpreted, if only vaguely, by tracing the artist’s use of them over his career and then engaging in amateur psychoanalysis or uncertain semiotics. Matisse would usher in the wave of self-referential painters the way Stéphane Mallarmé ushered in the wave of self-referential poets.

Matisse, Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot

10. Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1902. Oil on canvas. Musée Picasso, Paris.

While the still lifes in the first part of the exhibit seem to reach a dead end, in fact they continue to participate in Matisse’s experimentations in the Proto-Fauvist period. It is the purro and not the chocolate pot that seems the preferred “actor,” however. Between 1904 and 1905 Matisse executed two still lifes with purro  that document his growing confidence and the giant steps he was taking. The first, Still Life with Purro (I) (1904), was painted in Saint-Tropez and while it is made up of slightly more varied colors, the real direction it is point is towards reducing the three dimensional objects on the table to a flattened design, almost as though they were a pattern on the wall. They are in fact lined in a row, rather than as “actors” on a table. It is only a brightly colored cloth partly hanging from the edge of the table that reminds the viewer that the objects are in three dimensions. The second painting, Still Life with a Purro (II) (1904–05), painted from that same summer to sometime the following spring, shows the same objects in the same ordered arrangement, but the effect is completely different, for Matisse sprays the entire picture with splotches of wild colors which are reflected in the silvery objects (but not the cloth or the fruit). Matisse was on the verge of Fauvism, but the objects are still outlined and somewhat modeled.

Matisse’s migration to brighter and warmer colors is noticeable in all his paintings in the years leading up to 1905. But the breakthrough would come in landscapes and figure paintings at Collioure during his summer with André Derain. When he returned to Paris that autumn he refined the approach with a series of seminal portraits. These (and paintings of his fellow experimenters Maurice Vlamink and Henri Manguin) were exhibited in October at the Salon d’Automne and caused a sensation. (It has always surprised me how the first reaction of Parisians, during the time that Paris was the undisputed cultural capital of the world, to any new artistic innovation was to become unhinged and yet proto-Fascist and antisemitic innovations like the Action Française seem to have met with no significant public outrage and only grew in strength.) A critic wrote that the works must have been made by fauves—wild beasts—and a movement, complete with name, was born.

For Matisse, who unlike Picasso was unwilling to head up an organized artistic programme complete with followers and disciples, his formal participation in the movement was short lived. What he discovered in the summer of 1905, however, would guide him for the rest of his career; namely, that color could serve not just an element of composition; it could provide

the basis for it. It was no longer necessary to outline an object, fill it in with color and model the object by use of tonality. The object itself could be built by color, and the color could be pure and bright. Moreover, the brushwork need not be designed to smooth out the colors. It could be made up of short strokes or arabesque lines. And colors need not be mixed. That process can be left to the viewer if the painter uses short strokes or event points of pure different colors properly interspersed.

Matisse, Interior with Young Girl Reading

11. Interior with Young Girl Reading by Henri Matisse. 1905–06. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Because the genres that made up Matisse’s Fauvism period are mostly outside the scope of the MFA’s show, we see almost none of them. But there is the canvas Interior with Young Girl Reading (#11), which escaped exclusion by the presence in it of the same chocolate pot that we know from the early still lifes. The girl at the heart of the work is Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, who sits at a table with a fruit bowl and individual pieces of fruit on the table. The table is covered with a patterned cloth with dots or blotches of red that look something like rose petals. Behind the fruit bowl is the chocolate pot, and behind it is an unrecognizable pink-red object (perhaps a cup?) lying on the table.The girl is intently reading a book lying on top of a larger book on the table. Behind the table are what look like fences: on the right side of the canvas it looks like a metal fence, while on the right, behind the girl there appears to be a wooden fence. But we can see that there is a wall behind those objects with paintings hung on it and to the left there is what appears to be a table with vases and flowers. By resolving the left side of the canvas, what appeared to be a wood fence seems to be the side of the table, perhaps covered with a fluted cloth. The picture is thus divided into two spaces. In the front there is a relatively recognizable scene, one of domestic tranquility (to which the chocolate pot, and all its extra-visual connotations, adds a touch of winsomeness), and the other an ill defined space with partially recognizable objects in the midst of what looks like a pyrotechnical display of colors which renders it all indeterminate.  In all the previous fauvist paintings, Matisse used color (however unconventionally applied) to define form. Here the outburst of color is used to obscure space.

Matisse, The Large Woodcut

12. The Large Woodcut by Henri Matisse. Woodcut. 1906. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The obscuring of space around objects (or possibly the charging of it with energy in an analogous way to Cézanne’s treatment of space as the mediator of the force exerted between objects) that Matisse introduced at this time did not depend entirely on color, although color was the most dramatic way to accomplish it. The Large Woodcut (#12) was one of three sets of prints he made the year following his Fauvist innovations. (Although Matisse engaged in various forms of printmaking from 1900 through the rest of his career, his largest outputs were during the years when his outlook was radically changing—1906, 1914 and 1929. He made his prints by himself in his studio. He turned to printmaking, he said, for relaxation.) The figure in the print appears at first crumbled, and although after resolving the figure closely we see she is in fact sitting on a chair, perhaps a porch chair or beach chair with padding or a cloth over it, the impression of a woman cringing in something like a fetal position remains in the back our mind. The chair covering is indicated by dots (like the tablecloth in Young Girl Reading). The woman’s body and the chair divide the space into three zones behind her. What is below the chair is marked off with widely spaced radiating lines. Behind her head and above the chair is a small space filled with closely spaced horizontal lines. Above her body is a space that is marked by lines that outline her body until they reach the upper left corner where they converge into something like a starburst. The marking out of a surface by dots and the converging of lines in an area just behind the focal point of the subject place  the work in term of Matisse’s  progression squarely with in his immediate post-Fauvist period. Curator Helen Burnham selected this work from the museum’s holdings to show Matisse’s African influences (discussed in the next section). Her case is unconvincing:

The dots tighten and converge along the back, buttocks, and thigh of the model … while the staccato lines above her chest and stomach reverberate in waves of distilled force into the space around her. The use of a graphic vocabulary in this way, to provide meaning through innovative combinations rather than mimesis, was one of the things that Matisse and his contemporaries most admired in African art (Burnham, p. 78).

She offers no example for such graphic language in the African art in Matisse’s collection or elsewhere. Gauguin would have been a better example. But in fact this work seems to draw inspiration from the logic of Matisse’s current work with colors, the elimination of outline and the consequences they produce (or allow) for the treatment of space.

Matisse, Still Life with Plastic Figure

13. Still Life with Plaster Figure by Henri Matisse. 1906. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

The Boston show has one more piece from this Fauvism stage (aside from the famous self portrait (#18) which we’ll look at in the next section.) This is another still life placed within an interior with several objects, one dominating them all—Still Life with Plaster Figure (#13). On the table which joins the bottom of the canvas is a patterned tablecloth on which are set a variety of fruits and bowls as well as a white figure. Behind the figure is a version of Matisse’s own Flowers of the same year. The painting within the painting takes up all of the background except for a small strip of pale paint on the right side above the table. That strip is similar to the pale strip on the right side of the painting Flowers itself. It is at this stage that Matisse begins the development of his self-referential universe. To be fully equipped to decode work the viewer must be familiar with the evolving body of Matisse’s work. For example, if a viewer were unfamiliar with Flowers it would be difficult to make heads or tails of the backdrop of the still life. There are no overt signals that the background is another picture. even the strip of brown on the left side, which might indicate either a frame or at least a separation of the painting from what lay behind does not completely form a border with the picture but rather tapers out before it reaches the table and then disappears behind a bowl. Without the knowledge of what is behind the still life the entire picture is indecipherable, especially since Flowers itself is somewhat abstracted and the most representational part of the painting within a painting is obscured by the plaster figure in the later work. For those unfamiliar with the painting the background to the still life is undefined space with colors and streaks of light appearing without meaning. By contrast, the still life itself is visually straightforward. The fruits are not unusual, but the plaster figure is out of place. It is starkly white in a field of vibrant colors. It is looking away from the viewer as though out of modesty. (The figure is a rendering for The Standing Nude (#20) modeled by Matisse’s own 13-year-old daughter Marguerite (Flam (1986), p. 179; Burnham, p. 81). Its placement among the fruit and representation of flowers is the second aspect of Matisse’s beginning self-referential universe—his private iconography. Earlier in 1906 Matisse painted Still Life with Geranium Plant, a deceptively naturalistic looking still life with Cézanne-like brushwork and passage more advanced than what Picasso and Braque would be doing for two years (Flam (1986), p. 178). But what is important for the Plaster Figure painting is that the still life has two items that are unusual for a still life. In addition to the potted plant, jug, ceramic (?) object (the figure of a cat? this is where seeing the object painted would help) and four pink onions, the painting shows a terra cotta copy of Matisse’s own statue, the 1905 Woman Leaning on her Hands. The symbolism of the arrangement is layered: the female figure, though inanimate, is introduced to show the source of fertility of the living things in this nature morte. The life-giving figure is one that was created by Matisse as is also the composition he is expressing. The naturalism of the conception is no more or less real than Matisse’s expression of the female or his representation of the female he created within this composition he created. In the same way the plaster figure in the later painting animates the fruit and flowers that surround it, even though the flowers were a creation of Matisse. After all, the female figure that animates them was an artistic creation of Matisse, just as the model was a biological one. We are closer now to understanding the “emotion” that Matisse had with the objects he “copied.”

Matisse, Still Life with Lemons

14. Still Life with Lemons by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvas. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island.

Let us jump ahead for a moment to close out the role of the chocolate pot (and a similar looking container that takes its place) in Matisse’s still lifes. Plaster Figure and Geranium Plant show Matisse’s interest in clay modeling at the time. Matisse told Courthion many decades later that he generally took up modeling only when he ran out his thinking in painting along a certain line:

“I did sculpture because what interested me in painting was to bring some order to my brain. It was a change of means. I took to clay as a break from painting at the time I’d done absolutely everything I could in panting. Which means it was still about organizing. It was to put my sensations in order and look for a message that really suited me. When I found it in sculpture, I used it for painting. To come into possession of my own brain that was always the goal, a sort of hierarchy of all my sensations, so that I could reach a conclusion” (Matisse & Courthion, pp. 85–85).

The sculpture he was doing in 1906 was a sign that he was interested in leaving strict Fauvism for a new direction. When he painted the sculpted figures, he saw that painting was nearly the opposite of rendering in three dimensions because not only were painted figures and portraits flattened, space itself was rendered entirely ambiguous. This progress toward collapsing space into a flattened view coincided with a trip Matisse and his wife made in July and August 1907, where he saw the works of Giotto and the early Renaissance painters in Florence, Sienna, Arezzo, Ravena, Padua and Venice. The stylized treatment of perspective by the Italian painters of this period reinforced Matisse’s determination to proceed with his new experimentally acquired knowledge. A still life with the chocolate pot, one not on exhibit at the MFA, Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1909), was one of the first results of the new thinking. Matisse covers almost all of that work with a blue patterned fabric. Except for two features it would have been impossible to know that it was a fabric rather a simple design or to see on what shapes the fabric was lying. The three items on the fabric (chocolate pot, fruit bowl and vase) show the fabric must be lying flat. But since it covers the background higher those items, it must also fold upwards somewhere. That can only be seen in the outline of the chair on the right side showing that the fabric in fact covers a surface nearly at a right angle. Nothing else in the painting (shadow, creases, clear distortions in the patterning) exists to give us that information. Space has become entirely amorphous.

Matisse, Woman on a High Stool

15. Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal) by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvass. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Matisse’s Still Life with Lemons (#14), completed five years later, carries this innovation much farther. Our brain automatically turns these images into a three dimensional space when we first see the painting. But when we consider the relatios of the object to each other we find either that it is an impossible space or we are reconstructing the objects inaccurately. The drawing must be hanging on a wall, we assume. The lemons and the bowl of lemons must be resting on a table of sorts. But what is the significance of the red triangle and the blue background to the bowl? Is “tapis” (carpet) a joke or is it really set on the ground? If so, how does the ground become the wall holding the drawing? There are no cues for us to determine how the space is organized. The solid panels and geometric shapes of colors obliterate perspective and three-dimensional space itself. One is tempted to think of “tapis” as a multi-lingual pun. (In England, “on the tapis” meant “under construction”), but that is probably unlikely the intent. But there is another sort of visual pun—the picture itself is a picture of, among other things, a table container, but also of a picture of a table container. The picture of the vase is based on a drawing by Matisse’s 14 year-old son, Pierre (Flam (1986), p. 376). The same drawing shows up again in Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal) (#15) done around the same time. By including the representation of the drawing, is Matisse commenting on how his own composition employs childlike techniques for representation? Or was he commenting on the approach of the Cubists with their geometrical impositions on visually perceived space? Indeed the word “tapis,” though written in a childlike hand, corresponds to the Cubists’ penchant for including printed words in their works. Matisse even showed his Still Life with Lemons to cubists Juan Gris and Jean Metzinger and asked for their evaluation. This was at a time when the war waged by the Cubists against him (urged on by Gertrude Stein who felt she could not champion Picasso without denigrating Matisse) would only get more heated (although Picasso and Matisse had met each other in 1906 with as cordial a detente as two opposite, and competing, personalities could muster). So Gris and Metzinger did not give their opinion until years later when they remarked on a feature that only cubists would notice—the “extraordinary concordance between shapes of the vase and of the fruit” (Barr, p. 187).

Woman on a High Stool again appears in The Piano Lesson (1916) (not in the show), again showing the way in which Matisse’s work comments on itself and his life. In the later painting Woman on a High Stool becomes the pcture hanging on the wall to the right, but it does not have Pierre’s drawing of the vase. Instead, Pierre himself is seen practicing, dwarfed by the piano and the two works of Matisse and gated off from the garden his father would not let him play in for fear that he would hurt his hand and be unable to play the violin. Matisse made his son practice for two hours every morning starting at 6 a.m. Pierre’s expression conveys his fixed attention to this ordeal that he dreaded. This grim routine, sternly enforced by his father, took place (and was painted) while French troops were being sacrificed in the stalemate at Verdun 160 miles away (Spurling, pp. 183–85).And yet Matisse was making pictures containing pictures the original of which contained pictures, in an endless regression back into Matisse’s art and life. It is now easier to see what Matisse meant when he said he was expressing his emotions towards the objects he painted. Those emotions would not be revealed by looking at those objects so much as by studying the things that Matisse was mostly emotional about—his own work.

Seated figure

16. Seated figure. Loanga, Vili Kingdom, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Returning now to the end of the Fauvism period: There are several other works in the exhibit which compare an object from Matisse’s collection and his still lifes, but of the most interest are the “exotic” pieces he collected beginning in the early 1900s. Painters of Matisse’s generation, beginning shortly after the turn of the century, began seeking inspiration and spiritual energy for their art in non-Western traditions. The general Western European malaise of the time, the lack of belief in liberal self-government, contempt for bourgeois values and the hope that something new would grow up where something was torn down, common in all fields of art (and also frequently pronounced by both radical and reactionary demagogues as well) lead to a search for examples in places where these traditional Western values were not held. Many believed that African, Islamic and Asian cultures, “uncontaminated” by the enervated principles of the asthenic West, were where guidance and inspiration could be found. These cultures were thought “pure” in the “primitiveness.” This belief was the seemingly benign side of the West’s dealings with these cultures, which had spent nearly a century intervening and disrupting them in all respects that did not directly lead to their own self-interest. (As Tayeb Salih pithily put it in Season of Migration to the North: “They taught us English so we could say ‘yes’ in their language.’) And instead of representing “purity” or “primitiveness” the arts of the colonies were influenced by their contacts with the West just as their economies were. And dealers did their part to create a false primitiveness. Selecting only items that would appeal to Westerners, they often also changed them to more comply with Western prejudices. For example, they took the fabric dresses from the female figurines to sell them naked, because Westerners were sure of the “immorality” of the “primitive.”

Matisse, always attuned to the “new,” also became interested in the exotic. He began his collection of non-European art in 1906. He was considerably ahead of Picasso at this time in facing East and South. In fact, it was Matisse who drew Picasso’s attention to it. Gertrude Stein opined that when they first began to incorporate elements of African art into their works, they did so for opposite reasons:

Matisse, Still Life with African Statuette

17. Still Life with African Statuette by Henri Matisse. 1907. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

The effect of this african art upon Matisse and Picasso was entirely different. Matisse through it was affected more in his imagination than in his vision. Picasso more in his vision than in his imagination. Strangely enough it is only very much later in his life that this influence has affected his imagination and that may be through its having been re-enforced by the Orientalism of the russians when he came in contact with that through Diaghilev and the russian ballet (Stein, Chapter 3).

(Matisse anticipated Picasso in being influenced by “the Orientalism of the russians” through his first major patron, Sergei Shchukin, and his visit to Moscow in 1911. Picasso would not collaborate with Sergei Diaghilev until the 1917 production of Parade in Paris.)

The effect on his art was from African works at first, then Russian, Islamic and Asian art would help produce another breakthrough in Matisse’s development. But it did not happen right away. In fact, African was used at first, as the objects we have seen so far, simply as an element to form a grouping of things as traditional European painters had done for years. In Still Life with African Statuette (#17) Matisse used a seated figure he had bought (#16) and dropped it into a group of more familiar tabletop objects without much concern for its meaning, the art tradition it came from or any other consideration of what made the work a piece of art in its own historical and aesthetic context. It was used merely as a gadget, taken, as it so happens, from Africa, like any number of products taken by Europeans and repurposed for their own use.

We could speculate about the iconographical meanings the grouping held for Matisse; perhaps it was simply a notice that his art was about to go in a new direction, less concerned with traditional Western aesthetics. But there is something more interesting in the painting: the group is entirely suspended in space. Matisse fully achieved the “non-denominative” space of Cézanne. So long as it was used to frame  a comforting (because traditional) still life, it was not a particular threat, even if an African figure were dropped in the midst. Matisse had no intention to use this technique without integrating it into  changes heralded by the African figure. (As for the “non-denominative” space itself, years later Matisse met the widow Cézanne at a gathering in Nice. He asked about the works she still held, but she told him they could not be worth much because they were “unfinished.” Matisse allowed  that she was a bit dimwitted.)

Objects as Refractors

The time before his Fauvism breakthrough on the Mediterranean in the summer of 1905 was one of limited experiments and cautious deviations from the very tradition for which Matisse had a fundamental ambivalence. That summer he finally found a solution to what had troubled him for a long time—how to avoid making works by brushwork alone. The solution he decided on, however, unleashed a greater freedom and a more fundamental principle for him: that color was the principle element of composition. But even that discovery was minor compared to the inference to be drawn from all this; namely, that he could make fundamental departures from accepted practice solely guided by his own instinct and considered aesthetic choice. From then on each painting could be considered as a new departure, and Matisse threw himself into each one with a kind of emotional and sometimes physical abandon that left him emotionally depleted.

Matisse, Self-Portrait (1906)

18. Self Portrait by Henri Matisse. 1906. Oil on canvas. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

During the period from the summer of 1905 until he published his Notes of a Painter (Flam (1995), pp.  30–43, & (French at pp. 237–41)) in December 1908 Matisse sorted through his thoughts until he was able to confidently announce a manifesto stating how he personally viewed his approach to art. He was uninterested in presenting the fleeting moment, as the Impressionists aimed for. He aimed, rather, at the Essence of his subject (something that could not be expressed in words, only in his work). Essence was neither the passions displayed by a subject nor its movements; it was something deeper and more permanent. To express this Essence, he had to eliminate everything that was superfluous, for, as he said, an unnecessary detail distracted the viewer from a necessary one. So he was looking to achieve a work with the most economic of means to achieve a distillation of impressions (“condensation des sensations qui fait le tableau“). And we can see during this period and beyond how Matisse radically reduced every detail in his works. This process reached its logical end about 1916 with paintings such as The Moroccans, painted in his suburban Paris studio during the war, based on memories he had of his trips to North Africa in 1912 and 1913. Details, not only objects but also features of the objects that remain, have been so ruthlessly eliminated that the final work is nearly impossible to understand without guidance.

Head of Apostle

19. Head of Apostle (James?). French? ca. 13th–14th century. Limestone. Musée Matisse, Nice.

While Matisse explained why he eliminated details, he never fully explained how he saw what was the Essence he was trying to reveal, probably because he saw that process as outside verbal description. When Matisse began this process of radical economizing, he started with the human figure and portraits. And here can be seen what elements he emphasized and how he selected them by comparing these works with objects from his collection, Without knowing when Matisse acquired particular objects, it is impossible to say whether he “based” a particular work on a particular object (rather than selecting an object which illustrated a pre-conceived approach). But Matisse freely admitted that he studied and incorporated the influences of others. (“One would have to be very foolish not to notice the direction in which others work. … I have accepted influences but I think I have always known how to dominate them” (Guenne interview 1925 in Flam (1995), p. 81).) There is thus no reason to suppose that he was not influenced by the objects he owned, particularly when the object and a corresponding work shows such striking parallels as the Medieval head of an apostle (#19) and his famous self-portrait of 1906 (#18). The two works share similar poses and expressions. The deep wells in which their eyes were sunk, the resulting contrast provided by the cheek bones and the downward slope of the faces from the nose down caused by the frowning mouth are nearly identical in each. Matisse even surrounds the top of his own head with a blue background which corresponds, and provides similar effect, as the cap on the apostle’s head.

Matisse wrote that his work on figures and portraits had two stages. The first was the careful observation of the physical features of the subject. The second allowing  the “subtleties of observation” to take expressive form subconsciously—as he put it, such subtleties “rise up from fermentation within, like bubbles in a pond” (Flam (1995), p. 223). Matisse’s instructions to his students in 1908, before he wrote Notes of a Painter, show that he thought in terms of visual analogy, breaking the body down into forms like other physical objects. Sarah Steins notes have him saying:

This pelvis fits into the thighs and suggests an amphora. Fit your parts into one another and build up your figure as a carpenter does a house. Everything must be constructed—built up of parts that make a unit: a tree like a human body, a human body like a cathedral (Flam (1995), p. 47).

Matisse, Standing Nude

20. Standing Nude by Henri Matisse. 1906–07. Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.

He sometimes sounded mystical or like an esoteric engineer: “The mechanics of construction is the establishment of oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions” (id.) What comes through is that what he can visualize in a subject (himself as in #18) is

visually analogous to aspects of another object (as in #19).

With the introduction of African art into his repertoire of objects, he was able to conceive other visual analogies for aspects of a model or sitter. An early and famous example of this is the controversial Standing Nude (#20). There was no model for this work. Rather, Matisse based it on a photograph of a European (French woman), “evoking the idea of surprise or modesty,” published in the October 10, 1906 issue of Mes Modéles (shown as Fig. 50 of McBreen & Burnham, p. 70). Matisse used the pose, the general dimensions of the model in the photo and the towel. But another aesthetic was used in close modeling. Indeed, there is no hint of the modesty that the magazine claimed the photo embodied.

Although no figurine in Matisse’s collection directly corresponds to the treatment of Standing Nude, curator Helen Burnham says that the painting reflects the overall lessons of African art:

Divination figure

21. Divination figure. Senufo region, Côte d’Ivoire. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Elements derived from African sculpture combine to lend her a more complex presence. These include the exaggerated treatment of the body, with dark black outlines reminiscent of cavings in the world, conical breasts, the huge jutting head, and the sharp transitions between forms—shoulder to upper arm, shoulder blade, and buttocks—which emphasize her sexuality as well as her powerful physique and lend her an impressive monumental solidity (Burnham, p. 70).

This seems to me unconvincing; the rather banal (and Eurocentric) generalization of African sculpture seems a case of special pleading—an attempt to force (nonexistent) evidence to support a conclusion about what must have influenced Matisse. But there is a figurine from the Ivory Coast (#21), once in Matisse’s possession, that might support the claim. The emphasized features, the treatment of the body in blocks and “the establishment of oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions” as Matisse put it, all seem to match Standing Nude, except the features are much more exaggerated in the African figure. But it is likely that Matisse did not acquire the figure until several years after he painted Standing Nude, given the existence of a drawing he made of it (possibly at the time he purchased it?), dated ca. 1909–10. But if Matisse did draw inspiration from this figure, it shows that he only borrowed the superficial aspects of the work, ignoring its indigenous cultural significance. Among the Senufo people, such figures, known as tyles, are used by a secret society, the Sando, to intervene in the spirit world. They are said to be inhabited by ancestral spirits (madabeles) of the tribe, including the sacred primordial couple who generated them. Without any attention to the different principles behind non-Western art Matisse appropriated it simply for decorative purposes. But that is not surprising for a man who modeled his own portrait on a saint’s head.

Female ancestral figurine

22. Reliquary guardian figure. Gabon or Equatorial Guinea. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

It is with another ancestral figure, this one of the Fang people of the rain forests of central west Africa (#22), that the limits of inferring the influence of objects in Matisse’s collection on specific works, especially with only visual similarities to go on, is reached (and exceeded). The object is part of the rituals of Fang (and related peoples in the region) to maintain contact with a family’s ancestors and other esteemed among the dead. Families of these migratory people keep bark cylindrical containers to carry remains of their ancestors (usually a part of the skull). Atop the box is placed the guardian figure (eyema bieri). The figure itself is carved to resemble the ancestor whose goodwill the votaries seek. They usually have crests and holes where hair plugs or metallic adornments could be anchored (both seen on Matisse’s figurine). The figure is squatting with hands clasped showing both reverence for the ancestral remains and readiness to spring to their defense.

The curators see this figure as something of a model for two paintings Matisse completed in 1914 before war broke out. The first of these is of a prostitute, Seated figure in Violet Stockings (#23). Burnham rightly notes that artists of the time believed that “primitive art,” that is, the art of the places Europeans had colonized, revealed a primal simplicity because of their failure to develop as European societies had. (The rationale for viewing the art as “simple” and “primitive,” of course, was the same that Europeans used to colonize the same people.) She implies that Matisse viewed the African art he collected in a similar way (although he seems to have made no such statement). She quotes a statement by Apollinare, the apostle of “primitivism,” during an interview he had with Matisse: “African negro statuettes [were] proportioned in accord with the passions that inspired them” (Burnham, p. 74, quoting an article by Apollinaire in La Phalange, December 15, 1907). Europeans understood the “passions” of the “African negro” in purely hypersexual terms. Burnham thus sees it natural for Matisse to use such an object to visualize a model posing as a modern sexual being.

Matisse, Seated Figure with Violet Stockings

23. Seated figure in Violet Stockings by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvas. Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation Collection.

Burnham describes the visual similarities betweeen the Fang figure and the painting: “her rigid posture, elongated torso, and ovoid face–qualities that have been identified by Jack Flam as ‘the most direct use that Matisse ever made of African forms in his painting—are remarkably similar to those of the Fang reliquary figure in Matisse’s personal collection, lending her the imposing stature and abstract features associated by Matisse’s contemporaries with hierattic figures and idols” (Burnham, p.75). Of course the painting’s subject also participates in the modern with stockings and high heels and a modern chair.  Burnham concludes from these observations that Matisse intended “conflicting messages to coexist: prostitute and deity, intimate and stranger.” But even if Matisse intended to impose such a “literary” meaning or totemic quality to this painting (and he always denied doing any such thing), it would have been extraordinary for him to use this Fang object for that purpose. If you look carefully at the image from top to bottom (double-clicking on the image will produce a very large version), you see the following: The ovoid face is the result of a very large forehead, which the model in the painting does not have. The forehead of the statue has a hole for a helmet or hairpiece. The features of the face (allowing for the absence of the large stones for eyes that are typical for this kind of work) are complete with hatchings for eyebrows which join to form the nose. There are decorative incisings along the shoulders, but no “conical breasts” (which Burnham suggested was a feature of African art). As you scan lower you see that the hands are clasped and rather than sitting, the figure is squatting. But the most prominent feature is the male genitalia. So the figure is a man, not a sexualized female id. It would have been hard for a close observer like Matisse to miss such a detail (particularly, as we saw above, since it occurs at one of the junctions he taught painters to concern themselves with—the juncture of pelvis and thighs).

Bambara seated figure

24. Bambara seated figure, Mali. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection. (Not exhibited at the MFA show.)

This is not to say that Matisse did not use the overall body plan of this figure (or one like it) as a model for his paintings. Indeed, Woman on a High Stool (#15) seems much more like the figurine than the Steated Figure (#23) does, because the the facial features are delineated like the carved figure, her vase-like body (commented on by Pierre Matisse’s drawing on the wall over the table) is like his, the hair of both are pulled back and both are clasping their hands. But there is no hint of sexualization in the portrait of Germaine Rayal, just as there is no hint of sexuality in the statuette. That this second painting has none of the totemic significance ascribed to the first one by Burnham is some proof that the wooden object had no such significance to Matisse. Indeed, if there were a visual and connotative inspiration for the Seated Nude among Matisse’s African statuary collection, it is more likely to have been the Seated Figure from Mali (#24) (not in the exhibition) than the Fang piece. After all, the wooden figure is seated and it is a woman. It has the stiff upright posture that  was noted by both Burnham and Flam. It has the “conical breasts” claimed by Burnham to be typical of African representations of women, and therefore corresponds to the bare-breasted prostitute painted by Matisse. Plus there is more of a similarity in the extension of their arms.

My point is this:  Inferring the visual stimulus for a work based entirely on perceived similarities (and opportunity to copy) is an imprecise endeavor. To then import the “meaning” of the stimulus into the later work makes the entire enterprise more reliant on the intuition of the critic than the artist. Matisse, who invented more visual styles than any other artist in history, was essentially a machine for converting visual stimuli into works that prompted viewers to experience the world differently. He took cues from everything and everywhere. For instance, at Issy he studied the arabesques of the branches and limbs of the two lime trees he could see while he lingered in bed. More than likely that study showed up on one or more works, but we cannot say which, given how completely Matisse refracted vision through a spectrum of imagination, by means of physical objects (in the broadest sense). It may be interesting to compare one object to a work, but really the endeavor rises to no higher level.

For Matisse theAfrican art had a different purpose than either providing a new method of painting the figure or supplying a new “meaning” to his figures. It was more subtle and a more profound. Here is how Matisse described the effect it had on him when he first encountered African figurines at a curiosity shop on rue de Rennes:

I was startled just to see how it was constructed, I mean in terms of sculpture language—how close it was to the Egyptians. In other words, compared to European sculpture, which is always about muscles – because of the emphasis on describing the object – in the African statues the medium dictated the form, while the shapes and proportions were invented (Mattisse & Courthion, pp. 72—73).

The subtlety in which he applied this freedom is seen from what he took from African masks.

The Mask as Window to the Soul

The two major stylistic periods of Matisse’s career between 1906 and the end of World War I involved (i) highly fanciful and stylized mythical figures (like nymphs and satyrs) culminating in the famous Dance II and Music (both in 1910) and and the representation of those works as studio items; and (ii) the highly analytical and abstracting phase during the war. The first is not represented at all in the Boston show and the second only with a few items. There are a number of reasons: many are now located in the Hermitage which evidently still is not lending to the United States, most involve outdoor scenes and almost all involve subjects for which there was  no physical referent capable of being now displayed. But in among these two major stylistic innovations Matisse made portraits many of which suggest the influence of African masks and a representative number are included in the show.

The year 1907 represented a fork in the road in the development of modernism. Fauvism had essentially been played out. Many Fauvists, such as Derain and Braque, were moving toward what would later be called Cubism under the influence of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and began dividing the forms of their composition into overlapping planes giving the illusion of modeling in space. Picasso himself focused on ways of modeling the figure, while Matisse approached a composition as a unity with the figure rendered more abstractly and related to the rest of the work with more attention to formal concerns than yo those of three dimensionality. Indeed, Matisse’s figures were becoming flatter and colored with purer colors (straight out of the tube, as he told Courthion)..

Matisse, Portrait of Marguerite

25. Portrait of Marguerite by Henri Matisse. 1906–07. Oil on canvas. Musée Picasso, Paris.

In 1907 the rvialtry between Picasso and Matisse beyecame overt, each producing works seemingly commenting on the works of the other. Picasso’s younger acolytes (many of whom were more attracted to Picasso’s bohemian lifestyle and provocative and usually impromptu  verbal manifestos than his technical and aesthetic development) saw the professional rivalry in more personal terms than Picasso did. Nevertheless, the two masters agreed to an exchange of pictures. Picasso selected Matisse’s portrait of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Marguerite (#25). The picture itself is quite unlike anything Picasso was exploring at the time. It has an immature quality to it, something like the mannered work of those purposely affecting naiveté. The childlike title reinforces that perspective. But a closer look shows a departure for Matisse. If you look carefully at the brushwork (which you can do by clicking on the picture until you reach maximum enlargement), you will see that Matisse has abandoned his short quick strokes in favor of longer brushstrokes that tend to give the color a calmer, more sedate look. Moreover, the figure is outlined, and the figure is formally posed, looking outward rather than occupied in some activity unrelated to the portraiture.

At the end of 1907 Matisse gave his first published interview to Apollinaire and in that Apollinaire (possibly at Matisse’s prompting) writes that Matisse had processed the art of Egypt, Greece, Asia, pre-Columbia America and Africa into his own synthesis (Apollinaire, “Henri Matisse: (1907), translated in Barr, p. 102). There is little in the Marguerite portrait to justify that sweeping claim. But there is something decidedly mask-like in the portrayal of her face, and Picasso evidently felt that as well. Picasso’s use of masks in his work was entirely different from Matisse’s. For example, in Demoiselles d’Avignon he uses the mask as a substitute for the face (two of the prostitutes are “Africanized” by means of such masks—expressing the ethnocentric European view that the “primitive” was hyper-sexualized).  Matisse, by contrast, used masks to help him analyze features of the face or the face as a whole. Picasso must have felt this because he paired the painting on the wall with a strikingly similar Mukadj mask from the Punu region of Gabon (see 1910 photo of Picasso in his studio in McBreen & Burnham, p. 98). This pairing ought to have put to rest that Picasso acquired the work in order to ridicule Matisse’s talent as well as Spurling’s story that Picasso’s acolytes used the painting as target practice for their suction cup darts (Spurling (1998), pp. 379–80).

Matisse’s transformation of the face into a mask is brought to its extreme conclusion in the remarkable Portrait of Madame Matisse (1913), which unfortunately is not part of the exhibition. The pursed lips, semicircular eyebrows over black eyes the pale complexion and nose with what seems a metaliic tip all sit under a tight cap and atop a body derssed in conservative but fasionalbe suit. The seated figure is surrounded by the blue and green that make up her attire. The atmosphere punctuated by the mask-like face gives the impression that Matisse is expressing one of the many difficult periods in his marriage.

Matisse, Portrait of Sergei Shchukin

26. Portrait of Sergei Shchukin by Henri Matisse. 1912. Charcoal on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A different use of the mask is found in his drawing of his great patron Sergei Shchukin. Shchukin was the first and probably most important of Matisse’s buyers. A Russian textile magnate he developed a taste for modern art that would become insatiable. He had collected Picasso but soon came to believe that Matisse was the most important artist of the 20th century. Shchukin came to Matisse’s rescue at a time when he needed income to support his growing family. At fist the Russian would visit Matisse’s studio and buy the pick of Matisse’s new crop, sometimes, Matisse would complain, when the paint was still wet. Later he commissioned Matisse for large projects.  (Dance (II) and Music were the result of one such commission.) Shchukin pushed Matisse towards portraits and figure painting. In 1911 he brought Matisse to Moscow to see his house so that Matisse could plan paintings for him personally. Matisse was introduced to the cream of pre-Revolutionary Russia’s aristocracy. And Matisse used the occasion to make close inspections of the best collections of Russian ikons, which he woud incorporate into his own work (seee.g.Zorah Debout (1912)). He sustained Matisse in periods of self-doubt and continued buying work and having Matisse ship them to Moscow until the war ended the possibility of such shipments.

In 1912 Matisse made a drawing of his patron (#26) which was to form the basis of an oil portrait, which never came about. The drawing captures Shchukin’s ample and carefully combed hair, large forehead and nose and high prominent cheekbones. (For comparison, see Dmitry Melnikov’s portrait (1915).) The subtle distortions, however, have been traced by the curators to Gelede mask in Matisse’s collection (#27). The principal feature of the mask is that the skull is elogated ventrally toward the area around the mouth. This causes Shchukin’s prominent forehead to appear to recede and makes his lips appear to extend outward. The wide but compressed crescent eyes (shared with eh mask) seem sunken, also as a result. The mask also has diamond-shaped chiseling under the cheek bone which is reflected in the shadowing in the drawing to represent the hollowing of Shchukin’s cheeks. It is impossible to say how this study would have been used in the portrait but it is not much of a stretch to speculate that Matisse intended to give Shchukin a “non-European” look because Shchukin was a champion of his when the European art establishment looked on in disbelief and the press ridiculed him, but also because Shchukin supported Matisse’s quest to incorporate non-Western influences into his art, both expressly and more subtly.

Gelede Mask

27. Gelede mask. Yoruba region, Benin or Nigeria. 19th–early 20th century. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Shchukin’s collection (and his mansion) were confiscated after the Revolution, which became a public museum to show the works. Stalin eventually shuttered this repository of bourgeois art. After de-Stalinization, the works were divided between the Pushkin and Hermitage Museums. Shchukin was able to escape Russian to Paris, but by that time Matisse had become a more-or-less permanent resident of Nice.

The most important works influenced, however much indirectly and generally, by African art are the five sculptures of the model Jeanne Vaderin, known as Jeannette I through Jeannette V (#28). While Matisse admitted that he only worked in clay to organize his visual thinking as an aid to painting and while he rarely discussed his sculptures publicly, these five sculptures represent a progression that illustrates his own thinking about form and ended with probably the most profound sculpture of the pre-War 20th century, Picasso notwithstanding.  The first two were modeled from Jean Vaderin herself; the later three were based on the earlier sculptures. These five sculptures depart from conventional sculpture as practiced in the West since the Renaissance in two respects. First, although it is three dimensional art, sculpture in the Western tradition is designed to be viewed from one vantage point. Matisse’s five Jeannettes, on the other hand, are mean to be seen entirely around. It is not simply that the heads are modeled completely so that one can see the front, sides and back. Rather they are designed so that the thing represented looks radically different as you see it from different sides. Jeannette V seen from different sides gives astonishingly different impressions of what the head should look like. Second, Western art until then had been designed to allow the viewer to understand volume and surface texture by how the light reflected from it. Courthion put to Matisse a maxim from da Vinci to the effect that sculpture was inferior to painting because light, in sculpture, defines volume rather than the sculpture. Matisse replied: “My sculpture isn’t made for light as such. Nor is my painting, it’s made for a light that that I create by my own means, a light equivalent to the model that inspires it” (Matisse & Courthion, p. 51). None of the Jeannette heads reflect light in the way that a Donatello sculpture does; nor a Rodin, for that matter. And so they draw you in so that you examine the intricacies of the modeling. And when you are close enough you see that Jeannette V has been splayed before you: without hair, skull partially removed, one eye hollowed out. While Picasso was building a form from the ground up, using planes and angles and geometric principles to analyze what is volume, Matisse tears it down, eliminates the surface and bores to the interior. In the process Matisse lets us see a completely naked human, one without bodily integrity, and yet she retains her dignity, the Essence that Matisse was chasing while Picasso was exploring the Material.

Matisse, Jeannette I – V

28. (l–r): Jeannette I, modeled 1910, cast 1953; Jeannette II, modeled 1910, cast 1952; Jeannette III, modeled 1911, cast 1966; Jeannette IV, modeled 1911, cast 1954; Jeannette V, modeled 1913, cast 1954. Bronze. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Jeannettes would also play their role in the self-referential documentation of Matisse’s oeuvreJeannete III (or at least a plastic cast of the sculpture) appeared in the monumental Red Studio (1911), a seminal work for its compositional innovations, its iconagraphic importance, and for its promotion of the view that an artist’s world must be explored mainly in terms of his own psychological/aesthetic/historical experiences. Jeannette V can be found in Still Life with Plastic Bust (1916).

As for the reason these works appear in the Boston show, Flam suggests that the Bambara seated figure (#24) in Matisse’s possession (Flam (1986) p, 420) provided a source, or at least a way of uderstanding Jeannette V. Whatever the source of inspiration (and it seems rather obvious that it was the logic of the rules that Matisse had laid down for himself beginning with Jeannette III dictated the outcome), the result was an iconic, perhaps even prophetic, moment in 20th century art.

Door lintel

29. Door lintel of the treasure house, eastern Pende region, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Tinted hardwood,. Musée Matisse, Paris.

Two more notes from the show are in order. Matisse never really stopped treating the face as a mask or even using the mask as a frame, a portal, to the model’s face. Over time the ability to translate the principles of a mask onto the face of a model with the intent and effect of “only to interpret her more fully” became nearly automatic. Consider a lintel he acquired sometime after his early years in Nice (#29).

Now look how effortlessly the essence of the mask-like object informs the face of his last important model, Lydia Delectorskaya.

Matisse, Reclining Nude

30. Reclining Nude by Henri Matisse. 1949. Charcoal on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It must be more than the practiced hand of an eighty-year-old artist that can conflate an ancient eye mask into a drawing of a modern face. It seems to me the combination of two things: the ability to process visual stimuli into a variety of expressions and the ability to see a subject as made up of parts that are analogous to things one has encountered before.

Matisse, Large Face (Mask)

31. Large Face (Mask) by Henri Matisse. 1952. Ink on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As for masks, at the end of his life, he stripped them of everything but their essence: a few lines that suggest features, not hide them. The function of a mask is to reveal the true nature of the wearer, while at the same time hiding the external identity of the wearer. They can be used, just as robes, costumes, cosmetics, or other forms of masking, for nefarious purposes. Or they can be used to reveal the true identity of the wearer. It takes either an artist or a shaman to see the difference, and by the end Matisse thought he was both. However used, masks, like representations of faces, need only a few features. In his 80s Matisse had learned to strip everything but the essential from a mask/face (#21).

Objects as Props

Even before the end of  the war, Matisse began visiting Nice. The French Riviera in general had been a resort for over a century by that point and when Matisse came in 1917 it must have offered a welcome relief from the deprivation, fear and ennui of wartime Paris. Matisse’s yearly visits became longer and eventually he took up more or less permanent residence there for the rest of his life. For a painter the place offered bright sun, sparkling sea, scenic landscapes (Renoir, who lived nearby, said that the olive tees there sparkled like diamonds in the sun), frequent visitors, and even (at least to the mid-1920s) proximity to the center of French cinema production, which offered unexpected advantages (availability of textiles, fabrics and props from sellers who sprung up to service the industry and models which could be found among the hopeful actresses). The effect on Matisse surprised everyone (probably including Matisse himself). His art became flashy, emphasizing decorative effects as well as luxurious settings and eventually included a series of make-believe harem scenes with faux Turkish scenery and an eroticized “odalique” (chambermaid) usually posed at least partially nude. This art was at best pandering to a certain audience and at worst reactionary. The proof was that the 1920s became his most commercially successful period. Marcel Sembat, a government bureaucrat who spent his hard earned dollars on the avant-garde pieces to help keep Matisse afloat, was disgusted when Matisse had produced a work so retrograde, Odalisque in Red Culottes (1922), that the French government did not disdain to purchase it. Roger Fry, long-time defender of Matisse, attributed the popularity of his works in the 20s to their appeal to the wealthy (without directly saying that Matisse had sold out): “In their delight at such an etherialised expression of their own aspirations, the more cultured rich succumbed at last to his spell” (Fry, p. 11). To drive home the unstated point, Fry expressed a desire to see what new departure Matisse would have in the future.

The Boston exhibition has a larger sampling of this period than others, mainly, I suppose, because they include large numbers of objects that can be displayed next to them. But the most interesting work from this part of the show by far, it is quite arresting, is a portrait near the end of this phase, Woman with a Veil (#32).

Matisse, Woman with Veil

32. Woman with a Veil by Henri Matisse. 1927. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

With head propped on her hand and arm anchored on her knee, the model stares at the viewer with an emotional directness that almost all Matisse portraits lack. It is as though she is attempting to express something personal plainly; not as in most portraits where it is Matisse attempting to express something aesthetically. Her expression conveys a feeling deeply felt, one difficult to convey in words.

The model was Henriette Darricarrère. Matisse had spotted her in 1920 in the lot of Studio de la Victorine (the French Hollywood set up by Charles Pathé in 1919), where she was an extra. She had a dignified bearing and a neck that widened at the shoulders (something of a fetish of his, Matisse admitted). Though Matisse already had a regular model (Antoinette), he hired Henrietta for several engagements that year, and in 1921 she became his full-time model. Henriette was athletic and lithe but not delicately chic like nineteen-year-old Antoinette. John Klein (p. 226) says that she gave gravity to the artificial scenes Matisse created and sometime even introduced melancholy; “compared to Antoinette Arnoud, Henriette is more of an anchor than a balloon.”

Matisse and Model

33. Matisse and Henrietta Darricàrrere. ca. 1920. (Aragon, I:88.) Not in MFA exhibition.

Matisse had drifted into portrait painting back in Paris not long after he came to the end of his severely analytical and highly abstract period in 1916 with such works as The Moroccans and Bathers by a River (a painting he first began in 1909, took up again in 1913 and again in 1916–17). Beginning that same year Matisse began painting portraits of friends (notable among these is The Portrait of Sarah Stein). Soon he hired professional models to sit for him. The Boston show has the well known picture, now owned by the Guggenheim in New York, of his first favorite, Lorette, The Italian Woman. His work with her began in November 1916 and lasted nearly a year. While The Italian Woman continued (though less severely) the abstracting trend, stripping out anything thought superficial to the concept (Lorette even wore an inappropriately skimpy outfit for the winter in Paris), over time his work with her became more naturalistic, or at least more traditional. This can be seen in Lorette with a Cup of Coffee (#34), which is included because the curators were able to obtain the the table in Matisse’s collection which holds the cup. Matisse painted Lorette 50 times in the course of one year.

Matisse, Lorette with a Cup of Coffee

34. Lorette with a Cup of Coffee by Henri Matisse. 1917. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago.

Of Matisse’s first regular model in Nice, Antoinette, the MFA has no examples. But for the period from 1917 to 1921, two trends can be identified. First, Matisse was gravitating towards a less severe approach and one more attuned to popular conceptions of fashionable living. This was evident in the costume design he carried out for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe‘s production of Song of the Nightingale in 1920. (Stravinski’s opera was produced as a ballet for this London performance.) That trend would continue to an almost absurd degree in the 1920s in Nice. Second, Matisse left domestic scenes behind and took up the female model once again. This female, however, was a modern woman, not the traditional embodiment of male desire. She was painted mostly clothed and with a new 20th century importance. Women had done their part to win the war, and they felt their growing self-regard. Society also became more open to female poaitions outside the domestic sphere. Matisse often pictured the new woman with bobbed hair, smart (rather than “elegant”) clothes and high heels. He had no difficulty in fitting Henriette into the “new woman” roles because she was not simply a body. She was an accomplished violinist (she would perform a concerto for a regional orchestra which Matisse not only attended but also had given her encouragement and steeled her against her stage fright) and was competent at the piano. She and Matisse would perform duets (Matisse on his violin) for his amusement. (His stays in Nice became longer, and his wife’s reasons not to join him multiplied.)

Matisse, Moorish Screen

35. Moorish Screen by Henri Matisse. 1921. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ending his fifth decade of life, Matisse seems to have been revitalized by the young models he hired.  Aragon, who spent much time listening to him reminisce, heard him give many explanations for how he chose his models. One was as though he were a Romantic poet: “It’s always love at first sight for his models” (I:8). Another, quoting Matisse, the imperious genius: “The model is a springboard for me—it’s a door which I must break down to reach the garden in which I am alone and so happy—even the model exists only for the sake of the use I can make of it” (I:235). But from his conduct and his treatment of Henriette in oil (and ink) this recollection seems the most apt: “He choses his model with particular care. Of one girl, he made as many drawings as there are stars in the sky, and commented regretfully that when she left he would be deprived of one whole source of inspiration” (I:27–72). But she was more than just a source of inspiration (although for Matisse  that was nearly all that was important); she was part of the family.

In the summer of 1921 Marguerite visited her father. She became a fast friend of the amiable model. Matisse had them both take part in scenes for him.  The most famous, Moorish Screen (#35), had Henriette standing before a fireplace talking to Marguerite who sat before her in a chair. Beneath both their feet is a Persian carpet and behind them a North African haiti screens (of which the exhibition has several examples from Matisse’s collection) which add intricate ornamentation. These props together with the patterned carpet to the right and the decorated wall paper suffuse the interior with a vibrant emotion. Only those things associated with recognizable persons, the white dresses of Henriette and Marguerite and Matisse’s open violin case, do not participate in the shimmering of the opulent visual surroundings. They, oddly, represent the structural elements of the image, the things of no imortance. Opulent design was the thing of interest. Aside from their working together as models, Matisse delighted in their company, driving them along the coast to see sight or to take them to entertainments.

Matisse got to know her family, and her brothers became part of Matisse domestic interiors. It was as if they supplied a need that he had now that his children had left and his wife was too sick or too indisposed to live with or visit him in Nice. It was not a sexual desire she fulfilled but rather a familial one. The paintings that she and her brothers appeared in were similar to the ones he painted of his own family. She appeared playing the piano alone (Henriette Playing the Piano (1923)). In another she is teaching one brother the piano (The Piano Lesson (1924) while the other reads a book next to them, perhaps an oblique reference to the painting in which his son Pierre trapped behind an enormous piano, appears like a prisoner while his discharges his required daily piano practice (The Piano Lesson (1916)). And there was one in which the brothers played checkers (Pianist and Checker Players (1924)), much like his own children did in the family portrait requested by Shchukin (The Family of the Artist((1911)).

Matisse, Odalisque with Green Sash

36. Odalisque with Green Sash by Henri Matisse. 1926. Oil on canvas. Baltimore Museum of Art.

But above all, Henriette was the one who allowed Matisse to paint his series of staged odalisque paintings. Antoinette had posed in turbans and even Marguerite had tried them on for her father. But it was Henriette who could appear sultry in the silk pants and unfastened or see-through blouses with a sensuous nonchalance. Just as some actresses are said to be loved by the camera, Henriette was loved by the brush, at least Matisse’s. She was elegant and lithe with an expressive face and a body that captured and reflected light in ways that intrigued Matisse. And the harem scenes not only made Matisse relevant among art buyers again, they made him more popular than he had ever been.

Brasero and Tray

37. Brasero and tray. Ottoman region (Turkey or Syria). 19th century. Painted copper, brass and wood. Musée Matisse, Nice. (Used as a prop in ## 36 & 38.)

Although there was precedent for this kind of work in the French pictorial canon—Ingres, for example, painted Grande Odalisque in 1814, and it was a significant work for it marked his break with Neo-Classism. But it is more probable that the source for the idea was inspired by the filming of La sultane de l’amour nearby, a film became France’s first movie hit. As is customary in the commercial film-making industry, a success  spawns countless offspring and soon the Studio de las Victorine was set up with Moorish palaces and prospective actresses lining up to join the celluloid harem. France’s Hollywood even attracted film makers from abroad including Rex Ingram, who made the blockbuster Garden of Allah (1927) there (Spurling (2005), p. 243). Matisse was intrigued by the make-believe that the film industry produced and even set up his own “theatrical” studio where his Turkish seraglio tableaux vivants would take place. He filled that theater/studio with fabrics, rugs, curtains, pillows, brass and copper containers of all sorts. He even rigged a pulley system that allowed for rapid “scene change, although it is unclear to me why that would ever be necessary for an oil painter. Matisse paid considerable attention to the details of all the plots, and the pictures were firmly set in the “real world,” not the non-determinative space he once used. Whatever the outside world thought, Matisse believed that each of these paintings were experiments in color and design, not a retreat from the formal advances he had staked out in Paris and Issy.

Aragon looking back believed that Matisse’s paintings of both Antoinette in 1917 and the Odalisques of Henriette, especially Nude on a Blue Cushion (1924), reflected a different, possibly unknown to Mattisse, aesthetic drive; namely, the motivation to conquer Innes’s 1814 Portrait of Madame de Senonnes (Aragon II: 110). It is true that Matisse tends to make the faces of these two models much more ovoid over time, but you, of course, can compare for yourself. For what it is worth, Aragon submitted drafts and proofs of his “novel” to Matisse, who evidently did not contradict this observation. And Matisse always admitted his early and continued fascination in this particular work by Innes. But the fact was that Matisse is on an altogether different project, one that he attempted before and one in which Henriette with her physical abilities and attributes were essential, and one that would have astounded his friends and enemies alike.

Matisse, Reclining Nude, Back View

38. Reclining Nude, Back View by Henri Matisse. 1927. Oil on canvas. Private collection. (To be shown only in the London installation of this exhibition.)

Matisse’s white whale was to create a modern recreation of Night, one of the two large allegorical figures on Michelangelo’s Tomb of Guiliano de Medici. Given how Matisse worked with clay, the project would involve many, long and painful sittings given the physical contortions required to mimic Michelangelo’s original. This was not solely attributable to Matisse’s notorious habit of repeatedly remolding clay before he settled on a final structure. The deeper problem was Matisse’s opposition to the Renaissance aesthetic. Matisse held that the masters of the High Renaissance sculpture, derived their idea of form from a deep understanding of anatomy. Matisse, on the other hand. claimed that he would work to understand anatomy, but once he understood it, he discarded the rules and proceeded only on the basis of his feeling (Aragon, I:81). As he said: “The model, for other people, is a source of information. For me, it’s something that arrests me” (Aragon, I;85). But this rather glib analysis does not explain how he would use a model to show him the anatomy of a Renaissance original (based on its creator’s own understanding of anatomy) and from what source the “emotion” would come. After all, the original would have to be part of any appreciation of the work; Matisse could not retreat to his own solipsistic defense of the final work (however much it differed from Michelangelo’s) or else why use a model at all?

In the end it took four years after he began the project in earnest in 1925 to complete it, two of those years after Henriette left. The result, Large Seated Nude, was another masterpiece of 20th century sculture, probably Matisse’s best. But along the way he and Henriette created another masterpiece out of the Odalisque paintings: Decorative Figure on Ornamental Ground (1926). Because the work is not part of the exhibition I will not analyze it here, except to note that in it Matisse resolves several problems for the last time: how to render solidity in two dimensions, how to anchor a figure in a decorative field, and how to relate two dimension decoration in the same work as a three dimensional object.

Mboom mask (Kuba)

39. Mboom mask, Kuba Kingdom. Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Wood, textile, shell, pearls, seeds, copper, and mixed media. Musée Matisse, Nice.

So returning to Woman with a Veil (#32), can we make a pausible guess at what Henriette is trying to convey?  Spurling speculates that her only bespeaking her physical exhaustion (which is why she is propping her head with her hand). In Spurling’s credit account, Henriette had collapsed the previous year while modeling, perhaps for Night. On the debit side, the unique combination of elements for Matisse seems hardly called for to paint a tired model.  Schneider notices the similarities to the rendering of Michelangelo’s other Medici tomb—that of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. In the sculpture of the Duke himself, the figure has his forearm on his knee, his hand to his mouth, a pensive pose and a shadow on his forehead from his hemet (Schneider, p. 528). The curators of this exhibition see the portrait as heavily influenced by an African head in his collection, the the Mboom mask from the Congo (#39). In favor of that interpretation are: the veil-like band covering the figure’s eyes, the headpiece and the white streaks trailing from Henriette’s neck which possibly invoke the patch hanging from the mask’s necklace. It seems to me, however, a much too fraught occasion for the foregoing explanations to fully account for the image. If the expression were not enough, she is wearing a veil which could merely be a part of her Turkish costume, but never was before and her posture and direct gaze is hardly the pose of someone simulating the modesty the veil would suggest, so I think we are warranted in considering the connotations of a veil in the West. I therefore conclude (or would like to think in any event) that both were grieved by their parting, knowing that they had not only formed a familial bond, but also made some unusual pictures together, and two masterpieces. I tend to agree with Flam that Matisse  employed  something like Picasso’s language to treat this final portrait. Not Picasso’s vocabulary, because Matisse was not familiar enough with it, but perhaps the phonemes of some words of that vocabulary. These include: the direct engagement between the subject and the artist/viewer. The passive setting of the figure within the space of the canvas. The cross-hatching of the shawl, suggesting a nod towards an analytical approach to the figure. The fracturing of the face into planes by the veil over the eyes. “It is almost as if, from the expression of such intense sorrow Matisse instinctively turned towards the vocabulary of Picasso, the better to express an emotion that was common to Picasso’s art but so foreign to his own” (Flam (2003, p. 148).

After Henriette left him, he tried to continue his theater art, but he quit it not long after his wife joined him in Nice. Soon he left for Tahiti, with no real purpose. He only engaged a full time assistant (who would reluctantly become a model later) in the mid-1930s. That engagement lead to a crisis in Matisse’s marriage, not, however, because she believed that Matisse was sexually unfaithful to her, but because the assistant had assumed the role of manager of Matisse’s studio (a role that Amélie had considered her own since their marriage more than 25 years earlier). Matisse fired the assistant, but Amélie left him for good anyway. Fleeing the Nazis Lydia Delectorskaya returned to Matisse because she had no place else to go. Lydia, who had escaped the Russian Revolution before first coming to Matisse, experienced her second world-changing upheaval with Matisse. She would remain his companion, studio manager and nurse for the rest of his life.

Objects and their Metamorphoses

Pewter jug

40. Pewter jug. Northern France. Late 18th century. Engraved pewter. Musée Matisse, Nice.

What followed Matisse’s decade long engagement with his conservative staged pieces, Matisse gradually returned to exploration of the frontiers of modern art beginning around 1931. For the first decade he experimented with the abstract realations between a figure and the field. After that (the demarcation can be set at 1941 when a series of operations left his bedridden) his art became increasingly preoccupied by the use of lines themselves. The development during this period was not as rapid as at the early part of Matisse’s work, but it involved many individual pieces and many variations on the basic theme he was develping. Instead of tracing it, let me focus on one aspect that becomes apparent given how the exhibition isolates its selection to those related to referents they are able to display: In the last two decades of his life, Matisse developed the visual acuity to see the variety of ways an object could be visually transformed and the technical competence (mainly through the fluent use of brush or blade to made graceful lines) to fit that transformation into an overriding design of the work. I’ll give three examples.

Pewter Jug

41. Pewter Jug by Henri Matisse. 1917. Oil on wood. Private collection.

At the transition between Matisse’s severe period and his early Nice period Matisse executed a still life (#41) which featured a pewter jug (#40). The composition used the curves of the belly of the jug to emphasize its volume. But those curves also carried over to the folds of the cloth drooping on the table (which looks something like long fingers). We can see the jug partially, as diffracted by the glass (and the water in the glass). The curves also provide a visual cue for us to look at the plate containing the glass as well as two pieces of fruit. The fluted edge of the plate is a flattened version of the pattern of the grooved jug and the folded cloth. Although this contributes to the decorative effect of the composition, the forms are modeled and we see them in three dimensions.

When Matisse took up this jug again, he used it as an accessory in two highly decorative and very stylized portraits of a woman in a chair next to a small table that holds the jug which now functions as a flower pot. In the MFA show the portrait is Purple Robe and Anemones (from the Baltlmore Museum of Art); at the London show the portrait will be Yellow Odalisque (#42).

Matissse, Yellow Odalisque

41. Yellow Odalisque by Henri Matisse. 1937. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art. (At the London show only.)

In these two pictures (which share the same elements and approach to composition), the figures are considerably flattened consistent with the tendency of his works at the time. Both pictures are a riot of boldly renderded decorative effects, with the emphasis on lines whether (nearly) straight or curved. The thickness of the lines as well as the pure (untinted or modeled) colors make the effect jump out at the viewer, although the treatment of the figures makes them two dimensional. This is almost the reversal of the functions of line, color and modeling of Matisse’s early still lifes.

The show collects a handful of the drawings Matisse made of this jug as either part of a still life, a prop to a figure or studies of the [arts of the jug al leading up to his 1941 oil Still Life with Magnolias, which unfortunately is not shown at the exhibition. But these stages show how Matisse was able to progressively re-conceptualize his use of the jug from the 1910s to his migration towards design in the late 1930s and early 1949s.

Matisse Chair

42. One of the photographs Matisse sent Aragon showing the Baroque chair that “bowled” him over set among various of the other items we find in his paintings. (This photograph is not at the show, although the actual chair is.)

The second example involves a highly ornate Baroque chair that Matisse bought in 1942. He immediately wrote to Aragon about his excitement over the purchase. “I have at last found the object for which I’ve been longing for a whole year. It’s a Venetian baroque chair, silver gilt with tinted varnish, like a piece of enamel. You’ve probably seen something like it. When I found it in an antique shop, a few weeks ago, I was quite bowled over. It’s splendid. I’m obsessed with it. I am going to bounce on it gently when I come back in the summer from Switzerland” (Matisse to Aragon, 20/4/42 together with a sketch of the chair). The chair is highly decorative. The seat and back are made up of two halves of a cockleshell. (Remember the chapter in Ulysees where Dedalus contemplates the “modality of the visible”? The women with dog he encountered then are “Cocklepickers.”) The arms were snakelike animals with their head resting on the seat. The legs were also highly wrought. Matisse was so excited for the chair, and how it interacted with the other highly decorative items in his flat at Cimiez that he sent Aragon eight photographs of the seat in different settings (e.g., #42).

Matisse, Interior in Yellow and Blue

43. Interior in Yellow and Blue by Henri Matisse. 1946. Oil on canvas. Musée national d’are moderne, Paris.

Whatever excited Matisse about this object he did not explain. Perhaps it was a symbol of luxury and comfort that existed before the Nazi occupation of France. It seems entirely unlike any of the art he was exploring them (or even at any time before in its career). It violated his basic rule of art: that it should be stripped of everything that was not important. This chair is nothing if not an object in unnecessary detail. Nevertheless, it became a subject for a series of drawings (four of which are in the show) where the chair dominates the paper. In two, he draws the chair facing forward holding a vase of flowers, and the long stems combine with the lines of the back of the chair to make it look as though the flowers are exploding out of a the shell that is the chair. In another the chair sits slightly behind the ornate table we see in his photgraph (#42). The table holds a large vase without flowers. A stool behind the chair holds a vase of flowers.

That drawing was the basis for the painting Interior in Yellow and Blue (#43). The scene is not entirely flattened, but the perspective employed is quite “primitive.” And the figures themselves are only represented by outline. The canvas is divided into three fields: two solid blue and one solid yellow. The bottom blue field (a tabletop?) has lemons, a plate and a glass. The fruit is colored as is the glass; the plate is white and outlined. The only other objects colored are the leaves of the flowers in the vase on the stool. The work is a prime example of his increasingly “empty” figures set in fields that that are merely color panels.

Matisse, Rocaille Chair

44. Rocaille Chair by Henri Matisse. 1946. Oil on canvas. Musée Matisse, Nice.

All of the foregoing become mere preludes to his Rocaelle Chair (#44). The chair is no longer an object acting with other objects or acting as a prop to a model. It has become the subject and indeed occupies the entire canvas by itself except for a small bouquet of flowers on its seat. The cockleshell seat and back is ignored and the carved design of the leg reduced to a functional component; the only “ornamental” aspect of either the chair or of the painting are the snake arms, although the snakeheads are not fully delineated. If one did not know what the chair looked like, it is possible that the reptilian nature of the appendages would go unnoticed. They do provide, however, the arabesques running from the bottom left side to the right top half which are the principal design feature of he work. Aside from white, there are only three colors: the green of the arms (and leaves of the flowers), the golden yellow of the seat and back and the dark red of the background. This chair has undergone a complete metamorphosis from a rather tasteless rococo armchair, to an object in a setting, to a subject in its own right.. And not simply a subject, but a monumental one, so much so that it cannot be fitted into the canvas. It is as though Matisse had concluded, by using the methods he formerly did of human models, with multiple canvases until he discovered the “correct” pose, that he finally reached the essential artistic core of this object.

Calligraphy panel

45. Calligraphy panel. Chine, Qing dynasty. 19th century. Lacquered wood with gilding. Musée Matisse, Nice.

The final metamorphosis I will note is in reality more of a general transmogrification of  his means of communication. It is immediately apparent from the first viewing of any of his very late works (whether cut-outs or drawn figures) that Matisse had decided to so radically reduce his means of expression that it became solely the outline of the objects he placed on the field. All expression by the artist would be by color and the line.


46. Acrobat by Henri Matisse. 1952. Ink on paper. Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.

When you compare the wooden panel with the panel Chinese ideograms which he mounted on the wall above the head of his bed or the Arabic script contained on a wall hanging in his studio with one of the simple line drawings which converted an athletic pose into an ideogram itself (#46), it is clear that he saw, at the end of his life, that his works should have the directness of writing and like writing dispense with all lines that are unconnected with the most economical form of intellectual communication. Matisse had traveled so far in this direction that it requires the written word, the title of the piece, to allow us to decode it at all. But once we know the subject, we see that all of the information that was intended to be conveyed is present. In the end, he happened on the most parsimonious definition of art: intellectual communication. All the attributes (style, grace, beauty) have to be derived from the information the artist communicates. It is no longer a question of the artist mediating between an external reality (however conceived) and the expression of the intellectual content he intends to convey. This not only is the most radical version of modernism possible, but it also contradicts much of what Matisse said he was trying to achieve from 1908 forward.

The response to any concern over seeing that Matisse eventually betrayed his earlier manifesto is something Aragon declared in his edition years after Matisse died (and therefore had no ability to comment on): “When a great painter speaks,  we must retain much of what he says. But also, when he judges himself, we must know how to close our ears to his words firmly though respectfully” (Aragon I:75).

Final Thoughts about the Installation

The career of Matisse is far too diverse to adequately explore it in a single exhibition unless it is the size of the 1992 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The MFA attempts to find an organizing principle that allows one to see the entire range of his career on a much smaller scale. The theme selected, Matisse’s studio works or practices, is almost absurdly overly broad because Matisse was essentially a studio painter his entire career (except, curiously enough, for his seminal break-through during the summer of 1905; and his Morocco trips). Even in Tahiti he painted indoors. But whether indoors or just outside his home, he made everything a studio:

“Every place the family ever lived in—cramped Paris flats, disused convents, borrowed houses in Bohain and less Lesquielles, seaside lodgings in St-Tropez, Colliuure and Cavalière—became primarily a studio. At Issy Matisse regularly produced nature works in the garden, the living room and upstairs in his bedroom (his wife’s dressing table with its hatpin stand and ring saucer was the subject of a majestic dual response to Cézanne and Cubism, The Blue Window)” (Spurling, (2005), p. 176).

It doesn’t particularly help to try to restrict that universe to those paintings for which the curators were able to find studio referents (for reasons that I mentioned throughout the review).

Nevertheless the sheer number of items included and its sampling from each stage of his career ensure that the exhibition justifies (and indeed requires) several viewings. Matisse showed us so many different ways of seeing things, and carefully studying them gives us many different ways of seeing Matisse and modern art in general.


Aragon, [Louis], Henri Matisse: A Novel trans. by Jean Stewart (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972). 2 volumes.

Barr, Alfred H., Jr., Matisse, his Art and his Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951).

Bock-Weiss, Catherine, Henri Matisse: Modernist against the Grain (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).

Burnham. Helen, “African Art and the Nude” in Matisse in the Studio ed. by Ellen McBreen & Helen Burnham (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017), pp. 67–93.

Carlson, Eric Gustav, “‘Still Life with Statuette’ by Henri Matisse,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 1967), pp. 4-13. (JSTOR)

Elderfield, John, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992). (Internet Archive)

Flam, Jack D., Matisse, The Man and his Art, 1869-1918 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

Flam, Jack D., Matisse on Art (Rev. ed.: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Flam, Jack D., Matisse and Picasso: The Story of their Rivalry and Friendship (Cambridge, Mass: Ion Edition/Westview Press, 2003).

Fry, Roger, Henri-Matisse (Paris, Editions des Chroniques du jour; New-York: E. Weyhe, 1930).

Grammont, Claudine, “The Object as Actor” in  Matisse in the Studio ed. by Ellen McBreen & Helen Burnham (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017), pp. 45–65.

Gowing, Lawrence, Matisse ((New York: Oxford University Press, 1979

Klein, John, Matisse Portraits (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2001).

Kramer, Hilton, “Matisse as a Sculptor,” Boston Museum Bulletin, Vol. 64, No. 336 (1966), pp. 48-65. (JSTOR)

MacChesen, Clara T., “A Talk with Matisse, Leader of Post-Impressionists,” New York Times Magazine, March 9, 1913, p. 12. (NY Times) (ProQuest)

McBreen, Ellen & Helen Burnham (eds.), Matisse in the Studio (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017).

Matisse, Henri & Pierre Courthion, Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview edited by Serge Guilbaut; translation by Chris Miller (Los Angeles, California: Getty Research Institute, 2013).

Rubin, William, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern  (New York  Museum of Modern Art, 1994).

Schneider, Pierre, Matisse (New York: Rizzoli, 1984).

Spurling, Hilary, “How Matisse Became a Painter,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1084 (July 1993), pp. 463-70. (JSTOR)

Spurling, Hilary, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869–1908 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).

Spurling, Hilary, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005).

Stein, Gertrude, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (©1933). (Online edition by University of Adelaide)

Looking for the future without a plot

L’Inhumaine (1924)
directed by Marcel L’Herbier

Trinity College’s Cinestudio opened its seventeenth annual April in Paris retrospective of Francophone cinema from around the world. This year’s theme is Portrait de l’Artiste, and each film examines the character or body of work of a fictional or real artist. The festival concludes next Saturday evening with a screening of the Sengalese film Sambène! with director Samba Gadjigo in attendance.

The treacherous Djorah de Mopur (Philippe Hériat) visits Clair alone in L'Humaine.

The treacherous Djorah de Mopur (Philippe Hériat) waits in the garden for Clair in L’Humaine.

Today a new 4K restoration of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 silent film L’Inhumaine (first seen in the United States under the title New Enchantment in 1926) was screened. Supposedly many of the screenings which took place in France after its premiere in December 1924 ended in fracases or physical dustups, but ever since the example of The Rite of Spring in 1913 riotous audiences have been used as badges of approval for avant-garde works, so I would take that assertion with a grain of salt; it is perhaps more metaphorically than factually true. Either that or Parisian audiences exercise a more pugilistic approach to arts criticism than I have ever personally experienced. (I did back in the 1970s see a well-heeled New Yorker stand on his seat in the orchestra section of the New York Philharmonic to loudly boo Pierre Boulez for having the temerity to conduct a Ligeti piece. The gentleman, however, was polite enough to wait until the conclusion of the piece to voice his opinion and didn’t seem to engage anyone else in fisticuffs, but perhaps that’s because everyone in the orchestra section agreed with him.)

Clair's modernist mansion.

Claire’s modernist mansion.

Leaving the theater after L’Inhumaine, I didn’t want to punch anyone but I did wrestle with myself. But before getting into the weeds with this film, there is one thing that I don’t think anyone will disagree about. The 4K restoration of the film (supervised by Lobster Films with the support of a number of French cinema preservation organizations) is absolutely superb, and I suspect the film now looks better than it did when first theatrically shown, for it is entirely free of scratches, particles and (except for one time that I could notice) skips. It even restores at least some of the experimental color washes and tints that, surprisingly, audiences of the day saw. It now is possible to appreciate the beautiful sets of Fernand Léger and the architectural designs of Robert Mallet-Stevens as well as the elegant costumes and intricate garden design of Claude Autant-Laran. The restoration also makes some of the experimental techniques like the double exposures more clear (even if it does nothing to explain their significance). It also makes plain why some of the things must have been stunning to see on screen for the first time, such as the view of the forest with streaking sunlight as seen from a speeding car or the aerial view of the car on the serpentine roadway. The art direction and cinematography (by Georges Specht in one of his last efforts) produce stunning still photos. In fact, in light of the problem I am about to highlight, it might have been better if the film had actually been a series of stills, something like La Jetée, nearly forty years later.

The problem with the film is that the story is utterly jejune. This of course is a matter of taste and degree. And yes silent films make intricate plot nearly impossible  and character development quite difficult. The absence of sound and the film technology of the 1920s simply would not allow for anything that remotely approached naturalism. That is why the better silent films of the era tended either to be expressionistic (where the exaggerated actions of the characters was consistent with the style of the film) or historical epics (where “what happens” is already known and the film just furnishes the visuals). The problems of the story in L’Inhumaine are of an entirely different level. Above all, it seems that no one was concerned to make a story that was even within the realm of plausibility, whatever narrative assumptions it asked the audience to make. One expects to suspend disbelief when approaching any form of fiction. But once a story establishes a framework one expects everyone to act within those rules and not have the rules change just to get to the end.

Claire (Georgettte Leblanc) entertains her bizarre collectiono f gentlemen callers at the dining table set within an artificial duck pool.

Claire (Georgettte Leblanc) entertains her bizarre collectiono f gentlemen callers at the dining table set within an artificial duck pool.

In this case the story is about a wealthy and famous diva, Claire Lescot (Georgettte Leblanc), who gives performances of modern music (the “modern” is written in one of the notices for a concert, just so we know she doesn’t sing Bizet or some other tripe—as if her house doesn’t make that clear enough for us) and who attracts a large number of diverse and ardent admirers. She, however, is jaded to the point of disinterest in everything, especially common humanity (hence the title; she says she is interested only in “superior beings”). She entertains the group of men in her house, a monument to post- or neo-cubism, dining at a table in a wading pool with ducks swimming around, at the same time a French version of a jazz quintet frantically plays. They are served by uniformed servants wearing masks with permanent smiles (so affected by ennui Claire requires that everyone constantly smile; she herself smiles to avoid having a genuine feeling about anything). One young man, Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain), a Swedish scientist, is late for her fete, and although he is the most ardent, she treats him unkindly for his tardiness. He tells her that he will kill himself if she refuses him. (There really is no time in this film to develop emotions, they appear full blown the first time we learn of them, and then they drastically change when the plot or moral requires it.) She replies that his life must be worth little if he can so easily dispose of it. (This quotation is considered by the director so significant that there is a flashback to it later on.) After she walks away, she has a servant deliver him a small pocket knife to taunt him. He leaves in great distress, drives away at high speed in his road car and for all we know drives off a cliff into the river.  (Einar’s apparent suicide coincides quite cleverly with the climax of a performance Claire gives back at the party.) When the guests discover that he drove off the cliff, the party breaks up, and Claire tortures herself and after what seems a more than sufficient time, faints.

The next day the news of the suicide is published in the newspaper. We see men throughout the city in great emotion over how “inhuman” the diva was (although the article does not really explain what she supposedly did to drive him to suicide). She must decide whether to appear at her scheduled concert that night. Wladimir Kranine (Léonid Walter de Malte), the Polish “humanitarian” who tried to convince her to join his movement to enlighten members of his cult in Mongolia (you see how it gets harder and harder to suspend disbelief?), decides to show the world how inhuman she is and engages a group to disrupt the performance. She decides she owes it to her audience to go on. She sings. The performance is disrupted, but she holds her head up with dignity, finishes the performance, and as the card says: her triumph is complete. (We nevertheless wonder what is she triumphing over? Common humanity? Ordinary emotions? Parisian audiences who seem to break out into fights any time something “modern” is performed?)

Now, let me stop here to remark on the concert scene because it is another one around which legends have grown. The episode is filmed in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The story goes that L’Hebier invited fashionable Parisian society to attend, and the following actually were part of the audience (although of course not discernible on viewing): Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Erik Satie, René Clair, Léon Blum, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. I must say I am dubious about the claim. I should also say that this might be a good point for those who worry about “spoilers” to opt out of reading, although even if you read my summary, when you see the film you will still be surprised that I am not joking.

Einar, now shown not to be dead, shows Claire that there is nothing under the sheet. It was all her (and our) imagination.

Einar, now shown not to be dead, shows Claire that there is nothing under the sheet. It was all her (and our) imagination.

Claire is told that she must look at the “mutilated” body, because the law requires two witnesses. That will take place the next night. (Throughout the film, many things are scheduled for the next day, and then a title card immediately announces that the time has come.) The body is not in a morgue (where an unidentified body would be kept; it doesn’t seem that the requirement of two witnesses to identify a body was strictly enforced or else Parisian custom with unknown dead bodies was extremely lax) but for some reason was taken to a table in his home/laboratory. It turns out, after much emoting by Claire, however, that he really isn’t dead. He just wanted to test her feelings. (She is not offended by this. Perhaps it shows that he is a “superior person.”)  Then he shows her his laboratory and tells her that tomorrow night (again a day’s delay) he will show her something that will cause her to give up her planned round-the-world journey. The next night she arrives and is shown a machine that allows her to sing and her voice is carried “wirelessly” around the world (although listeners must use very bulky speakers to hear, and one is left to wonder how the aboriginal woman shown listening to one acquired it). But the amazing part of the machine is that a screen allows her to see the people listening to her. She is so engrossed she loses track of time (depicted by the rapidly hands of a clock) and nearly misses her concert performance scheduled for that very night. After the performance (which Einar did not accompany her to) she leaves the theater and gets into a cab. But her treacherous suitor, Djorah de Mopur (Philippe Hériat), who would rather see her dead that give her up to the rival from Sweden, tricks the driver, puts an Asian snake (!) into the back seat, then drives her off. The snake bites her. He continues driving as she pounds on the window separating them, weakens and then dies. He drops her body off at Einar’s lab, and then drives off (without so much as giving his name or license number).

With Claire’s dead body, Einar now has the opportunity to use one of the two devises he showed her earlier: one a machine labeled Machine de mort (although why he was using a death machine is not explained) and the other a machine that brings things back to life. As for the second machine, he told her he had been afraid to use it before. Now he must. There is a series of rapidly cut shots, including something like the “It’s alive!” exclamation of Frankenstein, and then she revives. The movie concludes with her exclamation that she has come back to serve humanity. (There is no follow up about Djorah de Mopu. Possibly because in these pre-Code days, there was no concern that a criminal might escape justice. Or maybe the snake, which seems to have be left in the car, got him.)

Einar brings the dead body of Clair into his laboratory.

Einar brings the dead body of Clair into his laboratory.

Under ordinary circumstances it is often difficult to discriminate between an avant-garde work destined to point the way to the future and a ridiculous failure. (This must be the question which inspires so many Parisian fist fights.) The brief highlight above makes a pretty good case for the ridiculous. That case is bolstered by the actors, who emote so excessively that one winces to avoid laughing. The musical accompaniment could decide the case one way or other other. If a score by Raymond Scott, for example, accompanied the film, I have no doubt that the audience would be rolling in the aisles, as they say. As it was L’Herbier commissioned Darius Milhaud to write the score, and he used mainly percussion instruments. Unfortunately that score was lost. The movie really needs music, however. It is after all about a singer, includes scenes of a jazz band playing furiously, has a concert episode, and features a futuristic machine that allows Claire’s voice to be heard around the world. In the screening today, there was a piano accompaniment by Professor Patrick Miller of the Hartt School. While Professor Miller’s version kept the action moving and provided the necessary “seriousness” to the movie, I suspect that Milhaud’s version probably revealed something of what L’Herbier was driving at. For instance, it might provide some insight into why some of the shots seem to go beyond the time that even the slowest witted viewer needed to digest them. Perhaps these lingering shots were designed to allow musical commentary.

As it is, I cannot convince myself that the plot has anything that should speak to us, either directly or symbolically. And this faillure really dooms the work as art. The story has so many plot solutions provided by the scientist (machina ex deo rather than deus ex machina) or things that are introduced by convenience (how did Djorah de Mopu happen to have a lethal Asian snake? Didn’t they require those things to be declared at customs in those days?) that the plot fixes including the big science fiction laboratory seem designed explicitly simply to allow modernist imagery. Perhaps L’Herbier was saying that the art of our age (or his age, modernism is a century old after all) doesn’t need to rely on stories of humans interacting in some sort of psychologically believable way. And it certainly may be true that a film can be about things that aren’t driven by human psychology, such as films about animals, or alien creatures, or non-living things, or even random visual stimuli. I think, however, that it is not just me, perhaps it is the result of the evolutionary construction of our brain, but when we see a story of humans, we expect it to comport with our understanding of how humans behave. This is not how L’Inhumaine proceeds.

Yet with the absence of the musical score commissioned for the work and even given (or perhaps because of) a thoroughly hokey plot, many of the images stay with you long after leaving the theater. I’m not sure that it’s enough to expect from a film (although Hollywood has decided that is the most one is going to get these days). And do we really get anything more when we visit an art exhibition? So maybe in a very specific category of films, say those that stimulate our visual cortex in ways that serious visual art movements do, this might be considered a very successful movie. Otherwise this film is of historical interest only.


America’s Greatest Composer

In a few days it will be 40 years since Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington passed. (He died on May 24, 1974. He didn’t get to live to see Nixon resign.)

There is nothing magical about these anniversaries, of course. It only occurred to me because I have been thinking about the state of American music for a couple of days. I won’t reveal my thoughts here, for fear of being dismissed as an old crank. But I can suggest that it would be difficult for anyone to make the case that someone other than the Duke can claim the title of America’s greatest composer.

There’s no doubt that Carter, Wuorinen, Babbit, Varese and Ives made important music that we will study for years to come. But America has never produced art music, in the European tradition, as a natural matter. In terms of vital, organic and innovative music, America has only produced jazz and blue grass. Blue grass, however, has never been written in a wide enough variety of forms to be considered a serious art form. Jazz, however, has had quite a number of original composers, something of a perceived anomaly for a music mostly known for improvisation covering pop music. It is true that it is difficult to isolate a jazz “composer” (such as, for example, Monk, Gillespie, Mingus and Coltrane) from an “arranger” (such as Henderson, Basie and Evans). But there is no doubt where Duke Ellington stands on that divide. For more than forty years he produced one marvel after another, which he not only wrote, but arranged and conducted.

It’s difficult to pick a period that best displays his genius. But “periods” he certainly has, as assuredly as Picasso did. From the “Jungle Music” of his Cotton Club days, to the “classicist” of the 30s and 40s (with the Carnegie Hall music), during which time he had the outstanding performers Ben Webster on sax and Jimmy Blanton on bass, which RCA Victor used to sell its compilation of Ellington recordings. The ’50s were a difficult time for Big Bands but Ellington used it to write one of his most startling pieces, “Satin Doll,” which was never better interpreted than by his own quirky original piano treatment. The 60s saw him attempt “serious” compositions/arrangements with suites (including a version of the “Nutcracker”) that did not stack up to his earlier efforts. But at the same time he was exploring the avant-garde. Possibly the best of these efforts was Money Jungle with Coltrane and Mingus. The efforts of the 60s paid off with a renaissance in the 70s, when he himself was in his 70s. And it was listening to an album from that period that got me thinking in this vein. The album was Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

That album ostensibly offers a “fusion” with what Ellington calls “oriental” music. You can safely ignore the Duke’s explanation; in fact it’s somewhat embarrassing to listen to. I have never understood the thinking of the A&R flacks at Columbia Records, who seemed to relish self-indulgent and often patronizing blather. But once you get past the first 10 seconds or so of this album, you will find the music undeniably superb. Admittedly, the effects are largely owing to block orchestral forces and the open voicings of the brass at climaxes. But pitting block forces was the mainstay of someone as orthodox in Germanic art music as Bruckner. And if you object to open voicings, then you probably have no interest in big band jazz anyway.

That said, if you have a half hour, it could be spent in many worse ways than listening to Afro-Eurasian Eclipse:

Bierstadt Comes Back East

Albert Bierstadt photographed by Bierstadt Brothers, ca. 1875. (Carte de Visite. Smithsonian Museum of Art.)

Albert Bierstadt photographed by Bierstadt Brothers, ca. 1875. (Carte de Visite. Smithsonian Museum of Art.)

The reputation of Nineteenth Century American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) differs depending which camp you belong to. Art critics and art-for-art’s-sake connoisseurs generally find his work derivative, lacking a personal artistic vision and even in compositional and technical fundamentals. Painter John F. Weir, for example, described his large canvases as “vast illustrations of scenery … carelessly and crudely executed … .” Contemporary English critics (when Bierstadt showed his works in London) found his bright colors in bad taste. Later in the century, as art became mrs of a calling than a profession, Bierstadt’s reputation as an aesthete was harmed because he had quite intentionally, and astonishingly successfully, sought after popular acclaim and pecuniary fortune.

On the other hand, historians of American culture (particularly those who incline towards American exceptionalism) as well as collectors (wealthy patrons then, mostly museums now) hail Bierstadt as something of  visual discoverer of the American West and as something of a second generation seer of Romantic American Transcendentalist—one of those who saw in Nature America’s promise and, as Robert Hughes claimed, who produced the “paintings that did the most to promote the image of the Manifest Destiny … .” Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser (curator of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum) puts it a bit more prosaically: “Bierstadt’s depictions of the little-known scenery of the American West appealed to the new industrial upper middle class, who valued their great size and virtuoso workmanship as well as their celebration of America’s seemingly limitless natural resources.”

Among the Sierra Nevada, California by Albert Bierstadt (Oil on canvas. 1868. Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Among the Sierra Nevada, California by Albert Bierstadt (Oil on canvas. 1868. Smithsonian American Art Museum)

If you know Bierstadt at all, you probably know him from these oversized landscapes of the west, such as Among the Sierra Nevada, California at the Smithsonian, which is representative of his dramatic (and sometimes flamboyant) landscapes. This one is actually better than representative. E.P. Richardson (the late director of the Detroit Institute of Art) noted that “When his big dramatic pictures do not come off, they are dreadful. when they do, they have an excitement for us still after one hundred years: what must they have meant when all this was really new, to the eyes of his own time!” The Sierra Navada canvas at the Smithsonian is one of the very best, but when seen in small reproductions today, it has a commercial, even kitsch quality to it, like something in a chain hotel hallway. But on first encountering it, its massive size (it measures 72 x 120 1/8 in. (183 x 305 cm)) makes the apparent burst of light from the center top of the image appear transcendent. If it had been made 300 years earlier, the Lord of Hosts would have appeared in the middle of it. That light, just over the shoulder of a snow-capped peak in the center background, dramatically illuminates the cliffs on one side and the trees on the other, both of which tower over a line of deer in the foreground. The first impression is of coming over a hill as the sun is breaking from behind cloud cover to reveal a pristine valley of unsurpassed beauty. You can imagine this painting’s appeal to wealthy Eastern industrialists who wanted to make a dramatic statement about  their own importance (and wealth), by having such a work  grace the wall of their estate. And so, in this case, it did. This particular Bierstadt was acquired by William Brown Dinsmore in 1873 and installed in “The Locusts,” the family estate in Duchess County, New York, before it ended up a national treasure.

Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1863. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1863. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

On seeing more of these works, it’s hard to shake the conclusion that Bierstadt had stumbled upon a lucrative and methodical way of prying loot from the overlords of the Gilded Age. The pictures seem more and more alike the more one sees. Take an earlier painting at the Met, Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak. The picture is slightly larger than the last one (73 1/2 x 120 3/4 in. (186.7 x 306.7 cm) and the sky lacks the dramatic cloud cover. But otherwise, there is still the same burst of light in the center, and there is a row of ungulates in the foreground. (This picture, however, is not of pristine countryside; there are structures by Native Americans behind the animals.) There is no obvious source of the spotlight in the center. It can’t be the sun, since the shadows of the figures are not consistent with light in that space. But the light, however unexplainable, serves the same function as the sun in Among the Sierra Nevada: It opens up and spotlights the most physically dramatic aspect of the landscape, in this case a waterfall. And once again, it is perfectly suitable for sale to those most likely to pay the highest price.

Mount Corcoran by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvass. ca. 1876-77. Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mount Corcoran by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvass. ca. 1876-77. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Let’s look at one more example, Mount Corcoran, which hangs at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. As with the other two, there is a central body of water, in front of a mountain range. In this case there is only one animal, a bear (?) apparently seeking a drink. Once again the light peaks through the clouds, although this time, the shadows show the source of the sunlight. The picture, like the other two has geological uplifts and trees to cradle the central focus, the lake. And as with the other two, that lake is fed by a waterfall from the mountains in the central background.

The odd thing about Bierstadt’s marketing of the paintings was that despite the fairly uniform overall composition of the landscapes, he insisted that the paintings were not works of artistic imagination, but rather accurate renderings of specific places.  This evidently mattered to his customers, who believed they were purchasing views of nature rather than works of genius. The desire for verisimilitude was so strong that it even deceived sophisticated collectors. Mount Corcoran was sold to William Wilson Corcoran with a War Department map showing the location of the purported mount. When the gallery’s curator several days later discovered that the mountain was a fiction, Bierstadt was unapologetic, claiming that he named the peak.

It’s one thing for an artist to hit on a formula and stick with it for money. Picasso, after all, spent most of his last three decades amassing a fortune that way. Of course, Picasso had a substantial body of work and innovation (among the greatest in the history of art) before 1940. What was Bierstadt’s body of work before the Western Canvasses? The exhibition entitled “Albert Bierstadt in New York & New England” at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut (through March 2) gives a good sample of his early, and Eastern work. In fact, to my knowledge it is the only show that has every tried to examine his non-Western works in any systematic way. Before looking at the works in this exhibition, however, it’s probably best to give some biographical context.

Albert Bierstadt in trick double photograph by Charles Bierstadt. (From Carte de visite album of Edward Anthony. Photograph dated 1861. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Albert Bierstadt in trick double photograph by Charles Bierstadt. (From Carte de visite album of Edward Anthony. Photograph dated 1861. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Bierstadt spent his early life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, after his family emigrated in 1831 from Solingen, a city in the Rhenish provide of the Prussian Kingdom, especially know for its blacksmith (and whitesmith) industries. Albert’s father took up the trade of cooper in the new city, a hub of maritime activity. Albert’s two brother became successful photographers, although they first had to escape their apprenticeships to useful trades. Charles (the oldest) set up shop at the Niagara Falls and Edward (two years younger than Charles and 6 years older than Albert) had a studio in New York City and also took photographs during the Civil War, based from a tavern in Virginia. Edward and Charles would later form the firm of Bierstadt Brothers, which, holding a patent on a new form of stereoscope, had considerable publishing success. (One exhibit at the Mattatuck show shows a book of the Biernstadts’ stereoscopic prints with a viewer cleverly built into a flap on the book’s cover. Both brothers would Both these brothers would play a role in Albert’s career, by providing photographs form which Albert could paint landscapes in his studio and also by producing engravings of Albert’s paintings.

The cooperage business must have become relatively prosperous, because there is no evidence that Albert was ever shunted off to an apprenticeship. He was allowed to develop (almost certainly alone) his talent for making crayon drawings, and in his early 20s for oil painting. He gave drawing lessons for his support. His advertisements promised to show pupils how to make creditable drawings after the first lesson (“good pictures at their first attempt, far superior to their own expectations”). That is perhaps the first clue to the entrepreneurial inclination that guided his (and his brothers’) art.

Captain William G. Blakler by Chester Hardin (?) (Oil on canvas. ca. 18-5. The Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.)

Captain William G. Blackler by Chester Hardin (?) (Oil on canvas. ca. 1830-35. The Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.)

Bierstadt’s pictures evidently impressed locals enough to sponsor his trip to Germany for intensive art education. Bierstadt had exhibited several times, had sold paintings to locals and even produced exhibitions for others, he twice produced George Harvey’s watercolor show using a magic lantern, which dissolved pictures into one. (None of his work before traveling to Europe seems to have survived, however.) As a result of Bierstadt’s local fame and probably to enhance his own reputation as a leading citizen and wealthy patron of the arts, Captain William G. Blackler provided the funds for Albert to travel to the Rhenish province to study in Düsseldorf with Johann Peter Hasenclever, an artist of some modest renown. The choice of master was probably not based on any familiarity with his works. In fact, an artist less sympathetic to the what would become Bierstadt’s signature style would have been hard to find.

Evening Society by Johann Peter Hasenclever. (Oil on canvas. 1859. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Germany.)

Evening Society by Johann Peter Hasenclever. (Oil on canvas. 1859. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Germany.)

Hasenclever specialized in the intricacies of human relations and his gaze was always fixed on small social groups. He was not particularly interested in the beauty of nature, whether delicate or grandiose. Light was used to model the human form, not cause the heart to flutter at the first gaze at a dramatic landscape.

Bierstadt sought out Hasenclever mainly because he had a connection—Hasenclever was Bierstadt’s mother’s cousin. But when Bierstadt arrived in Düsseldorf, he learned that Hasenclever was dead. Not daunted, Bierstadt applied to American painters Emanuel Leutze (recently famous in America for exhibition of his Washington Crossing the Delaware Fame) and Worthington Whittredge (who would later return to American to be part of the Hudson River school of painters), asking their recommendation for him to study with the landscape painter Andreas Achenbach. They reviewed the work he had brought as audition pieces from America and concluded he had no talent. To preserve his self-respect, they told him Achenbach did not take students.

Study for Sunlight and Shadows by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1855. Newark Museum, Newark, N.j.)

Study for Sunlight and Shadows by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on paper mounted on canvas. 1855. Newark Museum, Newark, N.j.)

None daunted, Bierstadt bucked down to a life of an anti-social hermit (to avoid the expense that sociability would entail) and studied for several months at Whittredge’s studio. He then went off on his own to be among the Westphalian peasants to draw. When he returned in the fall, Whittredge marveled at his accomplishments, particularly admired “one very remarkable study of sunlight on the steps of an old church which some years afterwards was turned into a picture that gave him more fame than anything he had painted.” Wittredge was as impressed by the amount of work Bierstadt had produced as by its quality, especially given that he was essentially untutored.

Whittredge was right to single out the study for Sunlight and Shadows; it represents the peak of a style that Bierstadt would abandon when he fixed on his popular style. It examines the effect of sunlight, filtered through the leaves of a tree (not seen). The light and shadows model the statues and columns and gives a sense of real place, a solidness that isn’t conveyed in his gigantic western landscapes, even though those paintings deal largely with views of massive rock structures. It has a visual intricacy to it that his later works would shun in favor of flamboyance.

Sunlight and Shadow by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1862. de Young Museum, San Fransisco, California.)

Sunlight and Shadow by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1862. de Young Museum, San Fransisco, California.)

The study was not improved upon by his principal painting on the subject, which he completed seven years later. The principal difference is that he added the tree that produced the shadows to the composition. The tree, however, has an unreal quality to it, stylized, like the trees in many of his epic canvases. The second painting also has a peasant woman sitting on the stairs leaning on the pedestal of the foremost statue cradling a sleeping child. The figures were undoubtedly added for a touch of sentimentality, but as in almost all Bierstadt’s work, the face is obscured and the people play essentially an ornamental role. The romanticism that the figures injected into the study of light, however, is what attracted its first acclamation. Reviewing an exhibition of the work submitted to the annual April show at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1862, the critic of the New-York Evening Post (at the time a respectable newspaper) called the work “probably the most perfectly satisfactory pairing the artist has ever produced.” He especially pointed out the “old woman sated on the step of the church, which a sleeping child on her lap” which made the “whole work” “one of the happiest delineations of noonday repose which we have ever seen.” Bierstadt by this time had finger on the commercial pulse and used that knowledge to his advantage.

Bierstadt remained in Europe for four years, including extended stays in the Bernese Alps and in Italy. He return din the late summer of 1857 and set about establishing himself. He set up a studio in New Bedford and advertised for students to learn monochromatic painting. (He got four.) He converted his European studies to oils and showed them in his hometown, Boston and made his first submission to the National Academy of Design. (It was a picture then called Lake Luzerne, which now cannot be identified.) The New York papers gave his work missed reviews, and one, The Crayon, though commending his “command of landscapes,” remarked on his tendency shown from this beginning to use large canvasses: “The same ability on a smaller scale would be more roundly appreciated.” That painting was one of the centerpieces of a show he mounted in New Bedford he called “An Exhibition in Painting,” which in addition to 14 of his own works, included paintings of Frederick E. Church, Thomas Cole, J.F. Cropsey, Emanuel Leutze, and Andreas Achenbach.

His interest in visual devices (like the Magic Lantern) led him to tinkering with the stereograph camera.  He conceived the idea that its use in the American West would allow him to create landscapes that would be commercial valuable in the East. So he decided by the end of 1858 to join Colonel Frederick West Landler’s annual survey of western routes and native relations for the Overland Trail. He intended to specialize in wild scenes and “picturesque facts of Indian life.” His trip lasted through most of 1859. He met the party in St. Louis and travelled through the territories as far away as to what is now Wyoming. When he returned he took up residence at the new (and soon to be famous) artist Studio Building on West 10th Street in New York City. He was also able on his return to reduce his brothers from their failed work working business. (During his trip the valuable wood inventory in their shop had been destroyed by fire.) They became photographers and stenographers thereafter.

Beirstad worked on his Western canvases in his New York studio, but me with only moderate success over the next few years. His contributions to the National Academy Exhibitions went unnoticed. His first found no buyers and he gave it away. He tried his hand a war photography. In the fall of 1861 under pass from General Winfield Scott he and Leutze and his brother Edward visited the area around Washington, D.C. Back in New York he converted his sketches and photos into paintings. He even did a sprawling landscape showing the bombardment of Fort Sumter (in a distance from the Charleston harbor, as he imagined it perhaps from Harper’s Weekly illustrations of it).

The Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1963? Union League of Philadelphia.)

The Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Albert Bierstadt. (Oil on canvas. 1963? Union League of Philadelphia.)

Not having mastered how to render the human form, much less a figure in motion, Bierstadt’s combat pictures were unconvincing and his landscape approach was unable to capture the drama, horror or tragedy of the conflict. In any event, Bierstadt was not interested in the Union cause. In 1862 he was beginning to receive critical attention (with his Sunshine and Shadow), and proposed another trip West. In 1862 he was beginning to receive critical attention (with his Sunshine and Shadow), and proposed another trip West. Evidently he was planning to go with Harvard paleontologist Alpheus Hyatt, when the latter graduated the following Spring of 1862. Bierstadt went to Washington to obtain a letter of recommendation to present to U.S. Army forts in the West. He prevailed on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to write a letter to the Secretary of War requesting that the U.S. “Govt. should do every thing possible to promote” Bierstadt’s expedition. It did not produce a result from the War Department. Bierstadt blamed Sumner. He expressed his contempt for the government’s excessive preoccupation with the war (which was not yet being fought for emancipation) and for Sumner in an outpouring of self-pity and racist bile to Hyatt: “I think if  Sumner had taken a little more interest int h matter in the outset we should have got what we wanted, but he seems to be so much absorbed in the Paleontology of the nigger that he forgets there are other fossils in other parts of the U.S. …” He cancelled his plans, and instead travelled to New Hampshire’s White Mountains to paint.

The next year Bierstadt was drafted in the call up of 1863. He paid the bounty to provide a proxy and thus avoided military duty. (Hyatt enlisted.  He would later become an eminent naturalist.) He decided that his fortune lie in another Western trip. This trip, which took place in 1863, was designed only for sketches and studies, no stereography. This expedition to him to Denver, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Yosemite, Portland and the Cascade Mountains. It was the landscapes that emerged from this trip that ensured his fame and fortune. These were the ones where he married his personal “luminism” to dramatic scenery. Over time it would become cliché, but before then he earned an astonishing amount of money. In 1965, he married and went on a 2-year honeymoon. When he returned he and his bride moved into the mansion he had constructed, Malkasten, in Irving-on-Hudson in Westchester County, New York. The estate had 35 rooms with a studio 60 feet long and with 35 foot tall windows overlooking the Hudson River. His father-in-law would build him another house in Waterville in Oneida County, New York, and Bierstadt would take temporary lodgings and studios in San Francisco, Paris and elsewhere. More than secure financially, Bierstadt would spend the rest of his life attempting to outdo the critical acclaim that Frederick E. Church had achieved. He would not succeed at this.

That is enough biography to put the Mattatuck exhibition in context. The show is a fairly small one, consisting of 17 paintings (and some stereographs in a glass case). The exhibition was organized by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill New York, and curated by Annette Blaugrund (former director of the National Academy Museum). It consists of a representative grouping of Bierstadt’s works depicting scenes in New England and New York. The paintings range from shortly after his return from Europe in 1858 to 1886, when he had established his reputation (and his style had become ossified).  It focuses on landscapes that were not central to his ambition or his reputation, and thus show what his underlying craft was composed of. And when we no longer confront the intentional dramatic and the idiosyncratic uses of light, we can draw some conclusions about the art of Bierstadt.

The first thing that strikes one looking into Bierstadt’s early work is that there is no painting about the place he came from. New Bedford was the center of the New England whaling industry, the industry that his family depended on as was growing up. He never completed a painting about whaling vessels or the men involved in them, or the trades that supported them. In fact, there is no work about New Bedford at all. Bierstadt was always looking for the exotic, as those the place were the thing of interest, not the artists’ view of it.  When one looks carefully at what he finds interesting in his early pictures, one finds that he is harkening back to something, not in the landscape but in some image which looks similar to the vista he is painting.

Autumn in the Conway Meadows Looking toward Mount Washington by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1858. Estate of Price Family.) * indicates that the work is being shown at the Mattatuck exhibition.

Autumn in the Conway Meadows Looking toward Mount Washington by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1858. Estate of Price Family.) * indicates that the work is being shown at the Mattatuck exhibition.

The earliest paining in the exhibit is a good example. Autumn in the Conway Meadows is ostensibly about a specific place in New Hampshire. But on close inspection, things are out of place. First, the deer do not appear to be the white-tailed deer that inhabit the area. The buck’s antlers are too large and not branching. Rather they look more like deer common in Europe. Bierstadt’s inattentiveness to animal form is common. Around the same time he painted a historical painting he entitled Gosnald at Cuttyhunk, 1602, which can be seen at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford. The same deer are there, closer to the viewer, and it is even more obvious that they are not North American animals. Not only does the buck have the same non-native antlers, the doe does not have the characteristic white tail. Even in his Western pictures which were supposed to illustrate the “wild,’ his portrayal of animals is odd. The antelope are too long and the bear (for example, in Mount Corcoran, above) are too rounded, pig-like. Is this because he added the animals from some sketch he took of other work? That conclusion is strengthened when we look at the nearest mountain in the background of Autumn in Conway Meadows. There we see a distinctly looking European castle, one that doesn’t exist in New Hampshire. What was it doing there? Did Bierstadt not think the scene as it existed was interesting enough? Or was the castle simply part of what Bierstadt thought when with a distant mountain in a painting?

View near Newport by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 185. Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H.)

View near Newport by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1859. Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H.)

The curiousness of his compositional sameness can be seen in the exhibit’s View Near Newport. Much as that painting evokes a particular place at a particular time, so much is it odd to compare it to an earlier work said to depict Capri, Fishing Boats at Capri, which hangs t the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Not only is the point of view the same, with rising landmass to the (viewer’s) left and an ocean to the right, but also the ocean cuts the same kind of semi-circle into the land and holds the same sail-boats off in the distance. And the overcast sky is almost identical. The earlier painting in Boston, completed in 1857, presumably was based on sketches from his time in Italy. It also has many figures on shore, something that he eliminated over time. But how could such different places have such similarities to a supposedly realistic landscaper? It is of course not a crime to paint a landscape that really doesn’t exist, but why assign specific locations to them? Why purport to be showing what really can be seen? Was it simply because art consumers did not accept the artist as a creator? Or was it that Bierstadt was more comfortable repeating compositions and elements?

Mount Ascutney from Claremont, New Hampshire by Albert Biertstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1862. Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts.)

Mount Ascutney from Claremont, New Hampshire by Albert Biertstadt.* (Oil on canvas. 1862. Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts.)

The show’s selections are all thoughtfully made and all produce questions to those who thought they knew Bierstadt. Even when easy truisms are presented, the show has enough context to shower doubt on them. At the center (temporally) of the exhibition are two views of Claremont, New Hampshire. One was pointed in 1862 (owned by the Fruitlands Museum) and another in 1868 (owned by the Berkshire Museum). That segment of Bierstadt critical opinion which holds that his work reflected some debt felt understanding of the country urged that the earlier one presented the Norther, Union cause as the one of peace and harmony and the later one reflected on the riven condition of our national fabric as evidenced by the broken trunks in the foreground. Even if one were ignorant of Bierstadt’s cavalier attitude toward the war to suppress the slaveholders’ rebellion, the juxtaposition of the two paintings demonstrates the absurdity of the distinction.

Connectiuct River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas as 1868. Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.)

Connectiuct River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on canvas as 1868. Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.)

The two views, six years apart, were not meant as a comparison. Bierstardt makes no reference to the earlier work either run composition or title. The fact that there are broken branches in the foreground of the later picture no more signifies a social comment than the broken tree in the (viewer’s) left mid ground in the earlier landscape. In any event, the cattle seem not less concerned, even if the grass is higher in the second painting.

Among the other works at the exhibit are four of the 200 or so studies for the large painting Emerald Pond, perhaps the only significant omission of an exhibition of Bierstadt’s Eastern paintings (which is now held in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virgina). Bierstadt painted this one monumental work of the East once he intuited the nostalgic appeal of a view of the pond to the wealthy vacationers at this White Mountain resort. The care he lavished on composing the work with its intricate studies , shows that despite the fact that Bierstadt’s primary goal was popular and financial rewards he was nonetheless a consummate craftsman in attaining his goals.

Autumn Woods by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on linen. 1886. New York Historical Society.)

Autumn Woods by Albert Bierstadt.* (Oil on linen. 1886. New York Historical Society.)

The last (chronologically) painting of the exhibit is his Autumn Woods (1886), normally seen in the New York Historical Society. The work shows a central lake surrounded by trees of flaming bright-colored foliage. It is the stylized ending of his mechanical production of landscapes. When the painting was shown in London, critics carped at the bright colors as though it were an offense against taste. The London Post‘s correspondent assured everyone that North American trees turned brilliant colors in the Fall. Like most journalistic critics, the Post‘s correspondent had not given enough reflection to the subject—verisimilitude was not something Bierstadt value (or even should have valued). The real question was whether the departure from verisimilitude was motivated by aesthetic or commercial considerations. The Mattatuck exhibit will give a good basis for making an informed decision.

The Mattatuck show runs until March 2. For those unfamiliar with the museum, rest assured that it is a serious, although small, one. If you Bierstadt is not enough to bring you to Waterbury (a city plagued by both de-industrialization and more than its share of political corruption), consider that the museum has an extensive selection of the Whitney’s Alex Katz works. There is no catalog of the works in the Bierstadt exhibit, so you must see them in person, if at all.

In addition, the area (which includes Hartford and the Five College towns of Western Massachusetts) has an extensive collection of the Hudson River School (of which Bierstadt is lumped, for reasons that involve collectors’ and curators’ preferences). If (as I suspect) you will not board Metro North to experience this footnote to art history, I hope to give shortly a summary of the art to be found there.


Nancy K. Anderson, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (New York: Brooklyn Museum/Hudson Hills: 1990).

Sarah Cash (ed.), Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945 (Manchester, Vt: Hudson Hills Press: 2011).

James Thomas Flexner, The Wilder Image: The Painting of America’s Native School from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer (Boston: Little, Brown: [1962]).

Gordon Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West (New York: Harrison House with Harry N. Abrams, Inc: 1975).

Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. (London: The Harvill Press: 1998).

Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser & Amy Ellis, Maureen Miesmer (eds.), Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press: 2003).

Peter E. Palmquist, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide: A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, ©2005).

 Edward P. Richardson, Painting in America (New York: T.Y. Crowell: 1956).

Pierre Reverdy’s New Year Thoughts

Pierre Reverdy by Amedeo Modigliani. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1915. Private collection.) Click to enlarge.

Pierre Reverdy by Amedeo Modigliani. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1915. Private collection.) Click to enlarge.

The great French Cubist poet Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960) is enjoying something of a small revival owing to the publication last October of the NYRB Classics anthology edited by Mary Ann Caws. The poems are translated by some fourteen different translators. Their approaches to the work (diction, structure, emphasis) are widely different, but all emphasize the conceptual meaning of the words. Those meanings seem discordant, somewhat arbitrarily associated. In fact, the translations often give the impression of sterile lists artlessly assembled by a dispirited cataloger. Fortunately the collection contains the original poems facing each rendering, so you can see for yourself how the poems hang together through sound. Unlike casual musings that they might resemble, the poems have intimate and patterned phonemic relations, rhymes, near rhymes, phonic similarities and dissonance, that make the poems something of sound-webs. Of course, it is that aspect of poetry that only rarely is amenable to translation.

Illustration by Georges Braque for Reverdy's Les Adoises du Toit

Illustration by Georges Braque for Reverdy’s Les Adoises du Toit

Ever since the Impressionists, European poets had taken cues from new movements in the visual arts to define styles of poetry (and often to form self-proclaimed literary movements). At the beginning of the twentieth century the profusion of visual schools produced a corresponding number of poetry or other literary trends. Many of the literary movements had only notional relation to the visual schools they named themselves after. And while it is often difficult to see much differences in principle between literary Dadaists and Surrealists, Vorticists and Imagists, among many other movements, Cubism, at least as practiced by Reverdy, seems to have had a well-conceived conceptual basis. This is how Kenneth Roxwell (an American Cubist poet himself) describes it:


Gris’s portrait of Reverdy accompanying the poet’s reproduced script

Juan Gris was Pierre Reverdy’s favorite illustrator, as he in turn was the painter’s favorite poet. No one today would deny that they share the distinction of being the most Cubist of the Cubists. This is apparent to all in Juan Gris. But why is Cubism in poetry? It is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architecture. This is quite different from the free association of the Surrelaists and the combination of the unconscious utterance and political nihilism of Dada. (Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems, ed. by Kenneth Rexroth (NY: New Directions: 1955), pp. v-vi.)

Reverdy was more than just an imitator of painters, however. He remained life-long friends with the leading French painters through his life.

Photograph taken by  Brassaï after a performance of Picasso's play El deseo pillado por la cola. Standing from,left to right: Jacques Lacan, Cecile Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, Luoise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, Zanie de Campan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir, Brassaï. Sitting from left to right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jean Aubier.

Photograph taken by Brassaï in 1944 after a performance of Picasso’s play El deseo pillado por la cola. Standing from,left to right: Jacques Lacan, Cecile Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, Luoise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, Zanie de Campan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir, Brassaï. Sitting from left to right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jean Aubier.

Numerous painters repaid the attention bestowed on them by Reverdy by painting his portrait.

Reverdy was not simply a poet of abstracted images. Nor did he arrange disembodied fragments into a narrative. Rexroth argues that Reverdy’s approach was distinct from other collectors of fragments, such as Eliot, who, for all his fragmentation, proceeds linearly, much in the tradition of Apollinaire.

[In “Apollinairian” poems] the elements, the primary data of the poetic construction, are narrative or at least informative wholes. In verse such as Reverdy’s, they are simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction. Eliot works in The Waste Land with fragmented and recombined arguments; Pierre Reverdy with dismembered propositions from which subject, operator and object have been wrenched free and restructured into an invisible or subliminal discourse which owes its cogency to its own stric, complex and secret logic.

Poetry such as this attempts not just a new syntax of the word. Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself. Its restructuring of experience is purposive, not dreamlike and hence it possesses and uncanniness fundamentally different in kind from the most haunted utterances of the Surrealists or Symbolist unconscious. (pp. vi-vii.)

Rexroth’s critical edifice is probably a bit too elaborate to support the poems themselves, but it is true that you can almost feel an underlying non-verbal, and decidedly non-linear, logic to the verses (particularly if you revert to the French).

So we come to the day. The poem below suggests the various mixed thoughts we seem to entertain when we for some reason continue to celebrate the changing of the calendar as though it signifies some new chance (despite our own repeated experiences). Here’s to a decidedly Cubist New Year.

Tard dans la nuit . . .

from Les Ardoises du Toit (Paris: [for Pierre Reverdy]: 1918)

by Pierre Reverdy

La couleur que décompose la nuit
La table où ils se sont assis
La verre en cheminée
La lampe est un cœur qui se vide
C’est une autre année
Une nouvelle ride
Y aviez-vous déjà pensé
La fenêtre déverse un carré blue
La porte est plus intime
Une séparation
Le remords et le crime
Adieu je tombe
Et cest un coin
Des bras qui me reçoivent
Du coin de l’œil je vois tous ceux qui boivent
Je n’ose pas bouger
Ils sont assis
La table est ronde
Et ma mémoire aussi
Je me souviens de tout le monde
Même de ceux qui sont partis

Late at Night

[translation by Kenneth Rexroth]

The color which night decomposes
The table where they sit
In its glass chimney
The lamp is a heart emptying itself
It is another year
A new wrinkle
Would you have thought of it
The window throws a blue square
The door is more familiar
A separation
Remorse and crime
Goodbye I am falling
Gently bending arms take me
Out of the corner of my eye I can see them all drinking
I don’t dare move
They sit there
The table is round
And so is my memory
I remember everybody
Even those who are gone

[Text note: I followed the text and the irregular indentations of the 1918 edition. Reverdy, after all, was employed for a while as a typeset proofreader, so I presume he knew what he wanted with respect to page layout. The French text above is different from the version Rexworth uses in this respect: Instead of Adieu je tomb / Et chest un coin / Des bras qui me reçcoivent as in the original text, Rexroth has it: Adieu je tomb / Dans l’angle roux des bras qui me reçcoivent.]

The poem reminds me (in some non-rational way) of a Gris painting soon to become part of the permanent collection of the Met. And even if it doesn’t remind you of the poem, perhaps it’s festive enough in its own right for the occasion.

Figure Seated in a Café by Juan Gris. (Oil on canvas. 1914. Part of a donation of a Cubist collection from Leonard Lauder to be installed in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) (1914)

Figure Seated in a Café by Juan Gris. (Oil on canvas. 1914. Part of the vast and recent donation of Cubist paintings from Leonard Lauder to be installed in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

100 Years Ago Today: The Russians Claim Ballet for Modernism

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

One hundred years ago today, on May 29, 1913, occurred one of the defining moments of modernism: the premiere of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The riot that took place to greet Stravinsky’s score and Nijinsky’s choreography is often used to show how violently New Music or Modernity in general was an offensive shock to an unsuspecting public. The fact is the “riot” was almost certainly staged by a faction with a preconceived agenda, and it likely represented nothing other than the expression of self-satisfied “patrons” who were offended that the theater was not catering to their narrow views on entertainment. I saw something of the same thing back in the early 1970s when Pierre Boulez was routinely heckled in New York for daring to introduce pieces that were not at least 75 years old. On one occasion a gentlemen in a dinner jacket stood up on his folding seat to better offer up boos at the premiere of a Ligety piece. He undoubtedly felt that he belonged to the honorable tradition that goes back now 100 years, a tradition where wealthy arts patrons act like children in the name of preserving artistic traditions. (Or perhaps he simply hadn’t yet learned that Leonard Bernstein was no longer the musical director of the New York Philharmonic.)


Nicholas K. Roerich, ethnographer, mystic, philosopher, lawyer and artist, designed the sets of Rite of Spring from his research into Russian folk history. This painting shows the first scene, “The Kissing of the Earth,” which depicts a sacred Slavic guessing game with dancing in the Valley at the sacred hill. In the score this part is titled “L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth).” (

The actual “riot” in Paris in 1913 was shabby enough, according to the New York Times cable report (which translated the title of the work as “Consecration of Spring”).  It apparently amounted to hissing and some shoving. The affair was summarized by Alfred Capus (who would go on the defend the “purity” of French culture as one of the “immortels” ) in Le Figaro. Capus claimed that the production itself was nothing more than an attempt by the Russians to flatter the “idle rich” of Paris into paying double ticket prices and then insult them with “the last degree of stupidity.” He was referring to the stupidity of the ballet, not the Parisian idle rich. The Times correspondent noted that since “M. Capus’s article there have been disorderly scenes at the Champs-Élysées Théâtre …” (The writer also noted that management learned to quell the disorders by turning on the lights; Parisian upper crust, unlike those of 1970s New York, were not willing to be seen acting the boor and settled down.)

Roelrich's design for the second part, "The Great Sacrifice." which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead.

Roelrich’s design for the second part, “The Sacrifice on High.” which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead. In the score the part is called “Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice).” (

The vulgarity of the riots notwithstanding (their intensity and significance undoubtedly increased as the memory of the witnesses grew older), there was no better place or time for Modernity to throw down the gauntlet. If anywhere, Paris had for decades been the center of advanced ideas. In fact, the taproot of Modernism goes back to the Paris of the 1860s and 70s with Baudelaire and the Impressionists. And poetry and art had made significant leaps in those areas since then. 1913 was also the year that the first installment of Proust’s great experiment in memory, autobiography and art, À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), would be published. Even in music Debussy was working his way out of the prevailing Romanticism. Nowhere else were there such combustible elements waiting for an ignition to explode.

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

New York, of course, was a backwater at the time, looking to Europe for all its cultural instruction. It generally did not criticize its betters. The New York Armory Show, which opened in February 1913 and put together the largest collection of Post-Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists ever seen outside of Europe, offended mainly cranks and was embraced, as these kinds of things usually are in New York, by self-satisfied financial and business elites as a sign of their enlightenment, particularly inasmuch as more than 160 pieces were purchased. This was much the reaction when Mahler conducted in New York a few years before, although he remained in safe territory by not straying far from Mozart and Beethoven. Perhaps because it married business, finance and industrial enterprise with design, architecture, in the form of office skyscrapers, would become the first quintessentially American art form. If so, 1913 was a signal year in New York arts, because the newly completed Woolworth Building became the world’s tallest structure.

London’s musical scene, at least as far as English composers went, was barren at the time. In art it had never really assimilated Impressionism, much less Post-Impressionist advances, dominated as the London art scene was by Whistler’s legacy. Theater appeared ready for a change, but the only real avant-garde was taking place in poetry and fiction. Yet the various proclamations of Ezra Pound, including the introduction of the Vortex (which would take place in 1914), seemed to spark debate mainly in high-brow literary and cultural journals. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 to mainly indifferent reviews. Joyce would begin writing Ulysses the following year and it only later dribbled out in a small literary journal in the United States, but when it finally attracted notice, it was more as an example of modern smut rather than modern sensibilities.

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on March 31, 1913. (Die Zeit, April 5, 1913 from Wikipedia.)

Visual expression in Berlin and Vienna was still primarily in the design phase; Expressionism was only in its tentative beginnings. Much of music there was exploring the end of chromatic Romantic music and (still) the implications of Tristan (which fittingly enough had its premiere in Vienna rather than Paris, because of the ridiculous antics of the Jockey Club in Paris at the perforance of Tannhäuser in 1861). It is true that Schoenberg (Schönberg then) had broken more or less completely from diatonic tonality with his second string quartet (of 1907/08), Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, op. 15 (1908/09), his Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909), Erwartung (1909) and most dramatically in Pierrot Lunaire, op. 12 (1912). But these pieces were not well known in the big capitals, although Sir Henry Wood performed the Five Orchestral Pieces (the most conservative of these works) to disapproving audiences in London in September 1912. Just weeks before the Rite of Spring premiere, Schoenberg himself reprised his Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9 (1906) and debuted two pieces by his students, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1909/10) and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, op. 4 (1911/12), as well as a more conventional new piece by his father-in-law, Zemlinsky’s Six Songs after poems by Maeterlinck, op. 13 (1913). Webern’s work produced taunting laughter and Berg’s both taunts and fist fights. The disorder was so great that Schoenberg did not attempt to finish Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The outbreaks were greater and the violence more genuine (the concert produced one more lawsuit than the affair in Pairs), but the event (now known as the Konzertskandal) never became The Case in Point of the clash of the New with the Old, possibly because much worse would befall Schoenberg and his students in the future (and not just humiliation), or because Austrian thuggery, more than a little tinged with virulent anti-semitism, would become much more the rule than the exception not too much longer in the future, or maybe because then as now the music of the Second Viennese School was not considered “serious” in the way that upper class consumers of classical entertainment demand.

Non-representational painting and sculpture was bubbling out of many other corners of Europe, but it would take a while to fully comprehend how radical and permanent a departure this would signal.

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

So if a Modernist bomb was going to be ignited, Paris was the perfect place to light the fuse. It seems likely, however, that neither Stravinsky nor Nijinsky intended to light a fuse (at least in the way that Ezra Pound kept trying to do in London), and Stravinsky seemed genuinely hurt that the work was not appreciated on the merits. And much of the fireworks had to do, not with the merits of the music, but rather with French xenophobia. Capus was plain in his contempt for the Russians (the Russians, he wrote, “are not entirely acquainted with the manners and customs of the countries they visit …”). But it also had to do with the French belief that they defined ballet. (The Times piece noted that Parisians admitted that Nijinsky was “a wonderful dancer,” but “they add that he knows little about stage setting.” The reporter from this observation labelled the Rite of Spring performance a “failure.”)

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

The French believed that they invented and perfected the art form. And even if they didn’t invent it, ballet was certainly central to French art music and performance from the beginning. Jean-Baptiste Lully, himself a dancer, had organized one of the oldest ballet schools, and the choreographer for Lully’s operas, Pierre Beauchamps, established the standard positions for classical dance and  invented the written notation for recording choreography. And while the Russians had a ballet company in the mid-eighteenth century, that was still nearly a century after Lully had founded the Paris Opera Ballet. (Diaghilev himself produced his first French performances of the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera Ballet.)

So all of this was enough to offend French hauteur, but was the event really revolutionary?

First, the company.

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by  August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen).

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by
August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen). Click to enlarge.

The Ballets Russes, as a money-making enterprise, was not revolutionary, although it would increasingly look to the future. Its founder and impressario, Serge Diaghilev, a Russian critic turned performance producer, was educated, urbane, forward looking and a risk taker. He had ideas how ballet should be presented, and it involved using the latest in art, choreography and music. More important, he was willing to raise and spend money to realize his vision. The Ballets Russes would soon number among its set and costume designers giants in the world of art (including Picasso,  Matisse, Braque and Rouault). Its choreographers would become the definers of Modernity in dance (including Nijinsky, Massine and Balanchine). And of course Diaghilev championed the composers of modern music, at least programmatic music. The company not only employed avant-garde artists, it influenced the arts outside of ballet.

The pairing of Nijinsky and Stravinsky was the ignition for the bomb. Nijinksky was an incendiary dancer. His performance in the Ballets Russes production of L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), choreographed by Nijinksy himself in 1912, was expressly erotic and, as a dance, was itself controversial. Diaghilev had commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate a Chopin piece for the Ballets Russes in 1910. After that came Firebird and the more conventional Petrushka. Nijinsky would choreograph Debussy’s score Jeux, an eccentric ballet about tennis and (possibly) homosexuality, and that odd piece would immediately precede Rite of Spring, which would be the first time Nijinsky choreographed Stravinsky. The combination of the two Russians proved too much for the French audience.

The ballet was based on the great Russian political belief that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic comunal harmony with nature. (

The ballet was based on the great Russian political-religious mythos that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic communal harmony with nature. (

But there was a third Russian involved. Nicholas Roerich, a polymath whose tastes ran to mysticism and Russian folk history, designed the sets and costumes. His settings were based on his own scholarly recreation of Russian folk past, which was undoubtedly influenced by the great Russian politico-religious mythos first championed by Pan-Slavists of the middle of the previous century, whose central tenet was eventually adopted (to a greater or lesser extent) by thinkers as diverse as the Socialist Alexander Herzen and the reactionary Dostoevsky: The myth held that in some remote past, before the rot of Western Europe corrupted Russia, and even before Orthodox Christianity, the Russian folk lived in a kind of blissful communal state whose economy was governed by principles of common ownership as radical as anything proposed in 19th century Europe and that Russia’s “salvation” would come from that past, separate from all outside influences.

The hidden ideological motif of the performance was therefore a look to the future in the ancient. (In Russia’s case the myth system was a surrogate political language arising from the fact that political repression prevented any real political discussion.) This would not be the only modern work with that subtext, but the particular mythos embedded in the Rite of Spring may have been the one with the longest pedigree of promotion by one country’s intellectuals.

The music.

To recreate the ancient, Stravinsky stripped his score of everything that could be considered modern sophistication. There was no irony, no subtlety and no self-reference. Rhythms were strictly defined and metric. In parts rhythmic patterns were so clearly defined by accented notes that it carried through the section even against loudly articulated counter-rhythms. In other parts the march-like rhythm is so strongly felt that it gives an impression of  exultant euphoria. The forward-driving propulsive effect is achieved through steady crescendos. Climaxes come with rapid crescendos and often with instruments filling a larger and more densely packed range.

All of these things, far from being “new,” are many steps back from the prevailing overly refined Romanticism and Post-Romanticism of both Paris and Vienna. The instrumental tonal color was somewhat novel. In many places it is the strings that act as the time-keepers and the woodwinds and brass convey the melody. The introduction is played by a solo bassoon in an extremely high register creating a odd and ethereal mood, much like the beginnings of spring, arising from the melting snows. Other unconventional instrumentations occur, but this hardly placed the piece out of the mainstream of European art music.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant "harmonizations." Click to enlarge.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant “harmonizations.” Click to enlarge.

The stripping down and simplification was necessary for Stravinsky to undertake and highlight what was in fact his true achievement: dispensing with traditional harmonization. The first critics recognized this experimentation as the most radical. When the ballet premiered on Drury Lane in London on July 11, 1913, the New York Times correspondent sent a cable summarizing the overnight responses of the critics. The consensus was that the music “apparently has no relations whatever to the ordinary rules of harmony and leaves Strauss and even Schönberg behind …” In fact, Stravinsky was not trying to develop new rules for harmonization, but rather dispensing with the ordinary concept that harmony arises out of the melody and instead radically extended the concept he first tried out in Firebird of a sort of ditonality: using unrelated harmonies, or even different keys, against a melody. The melodies were simple enough. They were both “catchy” (Schoenberg’s unachieved desire that cab drivers would hum the tunes of modern music in the future) and grounded in folk music. The “harmonies” were not simply, or even at all, chromatic, they were unrelated to the melody, except through some intuitive (and evidently not rule-based) concept of Stravinsky. (Stravinsky’s instinct in this piece proved true, because many works thereafter, for many years, contain quotes and snatches of the melodies or angular “harmonies.”)

Because it’s nearly impossible to explain music without examples, and because Anthony Newman is insightful and clear, it is useful to hear his  explaination of how Stravinsky used musical “archetypes” with “wrong note” harmonization to create his exotic effects:

The video unfortunately breaks in the middle of a musical example and continues here:

It’s a fair bet that almost everyone reading this encountered the Rite of Spring first either as an audio recording or in the concert hall without the dance. As a disembodied piece of music even today it is jarring on first hearing. But even accounting for our immensely more degraded (or enhanced, depending on your viewpoint) sensibilities, it does not strike one as something a full-scale riot would ensue from. In fact, in hide-bound, conservative London, while it was not a hit is any sense, the New York Times correspondent reported that the first reception was greeted with “a mixture of applause and hisses, although the applause won finally.”

What really offended the French, and what made the piece one of the advanced posts of Modernity, was the combination of the music with the dance.

The Choreography.

Drawing of Marie Piltz in the “Sacrificial Dance” from The Rite of Spring, Paris, 29 May 1913, in Montjoie! (magazine), Paris, June 1913 (Wikipedia).

If you have only encountered the work as a concert piece, you lose altogether its programmatic aspect. The music is clearly program music; it is not organized as a piece of “absolute” music. So a listener needs to know what the music is “about.” It undoubtedly helps to see one of the 200 or so different productions that have been mounted since the original. But modern versions tend to (wrongly) emphasize the outlandish and promote a supposed modernist take by, for example, using naked or nearly naked dancers or appealing to an erotic undertow in the music. It took Millicent Hodson’s tireless choreographic archaeology to recreate what Nijinsky designed. The Joffrey Ballet then nearly a quarter century ago put on the nearest approximation we are ever likely to see of the “intention” of the creators, and it was a stunning eye-opener.

Even today the movements of the dancers can be described, as the New York Times London correspondent did in 1913, as not involving “dancing in the ordinary sense of the word.” It is more like an architecture of movement, where geometric patterns are achieved by groups of dancers using angular movements of legs and arms and posture. The dancers introduce themselves by emphatically stomping on the stage, as though to test whether the earth has returned solid from its capture by winter. One figure, the old lady conjurer, is characterized by an extremely bent body and small shuffling steps. Groups of dancers arrange themselves as you would think ancient tribes did. Celebrations and mysteries are performed according to ancient rules, the antiquity of which provide their justification.

No attempt is made to display virtuosity. Instead, groups move as integrated units in simple and repetitive motions. The secret game to pick the sacrificial victim is repeated with small variations, just as is the music highlighted by pizzicato strings, until one is selected. She briefly shows her grim deference to custom, then her terror, and then her grief in the only solo dance of the performance. She finally succumbs to the communal rules and forfeits her life to ensure that the tribe endures for one more year.

It is extraordinarily effective and had to have come as an electric current to those looking forward to seeing divas performing en pointe. It is difficult to understate how this piece represented a decisive break with the past. You owe it to yourself to see the original:

The Effect.

All together, the piece delivers a shocking, visceral and powerful emotional jolt. And, yes, even if the riot was largely preconceived rather than spontaneous, the French had a right to see in it the revolution that would come. The Future, as the Twentieth Century would tell over and over, was in our ancient past. The New is what we originally were. And whether it came from pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, African masks, Egyptian poetry or Russian folk myths, we are forced to confront what we are by looking to our original fears and aspirations. And a large part of what we are is determined by the Irrational.

Modernity was a way of looking at things that radically departed from not only Romanticism but also the Age of Reason. At a time that science was pursuing a method that validated concepts by trying to eliminate the random, biased and irrational, art proclaimed that we could never escape the irrational, and in fact held out that by celebrating it we help excoriate it. (That, after all, is the original purpose of rites, then religion, then philosophy, then psychoanalysis, and so forth, throughout the progression of history.)

But Modernism was not an unqualified success. In politics, for example, “Modernist” movements that looked to the Aryan or Roman past produced untold suffering and sorrow. Modernism did not automatically bring with it a moral compass and it often sat precariously between progress and vicious reaction. Not all who felt uneasy in Paris that night 100 years ago were necessarily overly privileged snobs who played the connoisseur. There might have been some among the original Parisian viewers who, at least subconsciously, felt the actual (not just artistic) terror of the Modernist revolution at at hand. After all, not much more than a year later France and all of Europe would experience the first consequences of modernity’s political quest for the essence. Those sacrifices were not one at a time as in the ballet that night, and no one had time or interest in experiencing the terror and grief of each victim. It would cost more lives than anyone ever expected or, indeed, could have conceived, but it was just the beginning. That, however, is a different story.

Destroying the Old is not always the way forward. But that was not what Modernism was about. And in any event, there was no choice. The world was changing and art had to reflect that reality or become irrelevant.

It did not become irrelevant. So today we should at least acknowledge that 100 years of the modern have revealed things that the Ancient Order never could have conceived. Many of those things we can celebrate.