12 September 2015

Henri Matisse: A Corner in the Artist's Studio

"He certainly very clearly expressed something.  Some said that he did not clearly express anything.    Some were certain that he expressed something very clearly and some of such of them said that  he would have been a greater one if he had not been so clearly expressing what he was expressing.  Some said that he was not clearly expressing what he was expressing and some of such of them said that the greatness of struggling which was not clear expression made of him one being a completely great one.' - excerpt from Matisse in  Selected Writings Of Gertrude Stein Random House, New York: 1946.

Here, in one short yet elliptical paragraph, Gertrude Stein explains how, after a great early success, the painter Henri Matisse decamped  to the suburbs of Paris, away from the slings and arrows being hurled at him by his former friends, the Cubists and Pablo Picasso in particular.
It was Roy Lichtenstein who made me see this. Specifically, his painting Artist's Studio (1973), recently on display at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City.  It is a typical example of Lichtenstein's method of reinterpreting a painting (in this case The Red Studio by Henri Matisse) but it made me look at Matisse's original from a different angle.  Arguably the best known painting Matisse ever made, The Red Studio is a picture of his studio at Issey-les-Moulineaux,  For those who guessing games, The Red Studio, provides  the occasion for speculating  about the paintings within the painting, hanging on the walls and stacked on the floor. But be warned, as Matisse cautioned the puzzled visityors to his studio: "That (red) wall simply doesn't exist."
Lichtenstein, a Pop artist of the 1960s and 1970s  was a controversial figure and still is, eighteen years after his death.  Trying to describe what  Lichtenstein did when he painted is still debatable.  Did he copy, borrow, imitate, or steal from other artists?

But what he does by focusing on the lower left part of Matisse's painting is an homage the work of a very different artist -  Emile Galle (1846-1904).  A master glass designer whose name is synonymous with Art Nouveau, Galle's experimental glass-making techniques were applied to exemplary shapes like the goblet and the carafe on Matisse's table.   But what of that orange object with the green vines winding around it?  Matisse's contemporaries would have recognized it as one of  Galle's utterly unique pieces with the evocative name:  La main aux algues et aux coquillages (The Hand with algae and seashells).  

If Lichtenstein make me look at something familiar with fresh eyes, Matisse made me think of something we often overlook, namely that styles, periods, and movements in art are conveniences for sorting things out in ways the artists themselves may not have needed.   Likely there are many admirers of Matisse  who do not admire  Art Nouveau.  But Matisse was, himself, a decorative painter, and he may have been attracted to Galle's three-dimensional representations of (then) new discoveries in evolutionary botany.   It was perfectly possible to be a Fauve (wild beast) painter and a strict bourgeois at the same time.  And as for the  Cubists back in Paris, their triumphalism would be overtaken when a new generation of young American artists found their way to abstraction through the paintings of Henri Matisse.

1. Henri Matisse - detail from  L'Atelier Rouge (The Red Studio), 1911, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
2. Emile Galle - La Main aux algues et aux coquillages (The Hand With Algae and Seashells), 1904, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.


Hels said...

It seems that Matisse owed quite a lot to the Stein family. Not only did Gertrude Stein introduce Matisse and Picasso to each other, Gertrude's salon was where the artists ate, drank and examined art in their early years in Paris. And probably the 3 Stein siblings and their two Cone cousins became THE major patrons of Matisse (and Picasso) early on.

If only Picasso had also been generous to Matisse.

Jane said...

Hels, from all accounts, Picasso was the Miles Davis of painting - totally self-centered.