Matisse's Broken Circle
In the historical analysis of abstraction in modern art proposed by Frank Stella in his 1984 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, published in 1987 as Working Space, Matisse is practically a nonentity. Stella presents art history as a chronicle of progress articulated in the recurrent problem of pictorial space. The challenge met by the early abstractionists was that of exploiting the flatness of the picture plane; for later generations it became that of generating dimensionality rather than merely illustrating a surface. Caravaggio is the first hero in the chronicle because it was he who responded to the enfeeblement of pictorial space in mannerist painting by creating what Stella calls projective space, the deepening of the isolated image in a painting without a correspondent illusionist deepening of scenic elements. The modern heroes are Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich, who redefined abstractionist space in ways that pushed beyond the spatial redefinitions of Cubism and, as a consequence, prepared the way for a new generation of problem solvers Hofmann, Pollock, and de Kooning. Picasso's presence in this story is an ambiguous one, because the inventive extensions of his cubist work were followed by a retreat from the dynamic abstractionism to which the cubist work was leading him. Matisse's role, in Stella's scheme of things, is as a negative adjunct to Kandinsky's efforts to consolidate for abstraction the pictorial expansiveness of Expressionism. Had it not been for Kandinsky's rescue efforts, the exuberances of Expressionism "would have hardened into the compressed planes of Picasso, Malevich, or Mondrian, or would have simply dispersed themselves into the turpentine washes of Matisse."
Matisse's peculiar absence from Stella's long and detailed argument is especially odd because in some historical accounts his work represents the contest between representation and abstraction, with the latter winning out toward the end. His investigations of line and color, from the early apprentice work, through the dissonant colorism of the fauve period and the sunny decorative essays of the Nice period, up to the murals and paper cutouts of his last years, constitute (the argument goes) an exemplary career that demonstrates how the dissipating energies of representationalism yielded to an inevitable emergent abstractionism. Stella seems to have the reverse of this in mind, that Matisse was evading the most pressing formal question of his age by practicing an art that was lethargically dispersive and that thinned out pictorial space to an almost etherealized representationalism. Blended into Stella's passing remark is Matisse's notorious description of his ambition in Notes of a Painter, the theoretical statement written in 1908 when he was thirty-nine: "What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art [that would have] a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue." I don't think any modern artist has suffered so much praise and vilification for any confession as Matisse has for his "armchair" defense; and the significance of the facts of his career, including, of course, his own commentary on it, is more radically determined by the historical perspective of the viewer than the career of any other modern painter. For Pierre Schneider, Matisse's most astute, comprehensive, and exasperating commentator, that career was a constant struggle to negotiate the contrary demands of image making and representation, abstraction and realism, East and West, the Eternal and the quotidian, religion and the world. For Frank Stella, so far as the rich, crooked vein of abstraction is concerned, Matisse is practically irrelevant.
I do not share Stella's advocacy, and I am not persuaded by Schneider's argument that Matisse's art recapitulates and advances nearly all the religious and formalist questions of representationalism since the Middle Ages. In trying to account for what I feel to be the almost nightmarish tenacity of Matisse's images, I am less concerned with his place or "role" in one or another historical reconstruction of modernist experience than with the specific unprogrammatic ways he chose to answer to his materials, his subjects, and his religious sensibility, all of which he shares with certain crucial predecessors. I take him to be a painter whose "evolution" or development is beside the point, whose career is a tidal attentiveness, constant but shifting, not to historical "problems" but to emergent consolidations and dissolutions of forms. He was, with Picasso (though without Picasso's theatricalism), the most self-aware artist of the century. He knew how his images might be, and indeed have generally been, received as immediately available occasions for joy without consequence. But acted out over his long life was a less serene, and certainly less consolatory, drama: the will to joy straining against the distances of eros.
If we need a historical matrix to clarify Matisse's activity, we can find it in the Renaissance controversy between drawing and color: disegno versus colorito; Florence, where cartooning or drawing was the essence of imitating nature accurately, against Venice, where artists like Giorgione and Tintoretto often painted directly on the canvas without preliminary drawing. In his superb book Painting in Cinquecento Venice, David Rosand frames the quarrel by citing Vasari's definition of painting as "a plane the surface of which is covered by fields of color . . . which by virtue of a good drawing (buon disegno ) of circumscribed lines define the figure." Though he was an apologist for Florentine values, Vasari accurately represented Giorgione's view that "painting only with the colors themselves, without any preparatory studies drawn on paper, was the true and best way of working and il vero disegno ." Drawing as the discipline of nature impressed upon the working imagination held a tremendous appeal for Matisse, but so did the textural immediacy of emotion expressed in color.
A historical matrix is not determinant, however; it is an illustrative, explanatory pattern that might help us see into the life of forms as it is lived out and expressed by an artist. Matisse's relation to Italian art was the ostensible subject of Matisse et l'Italie, an exhibition in Venice that included nearly sixty paintings, a dozen or so paper cutouts, over a hundred drawings, and sixty-three sculptures, most of these materials on loan from the MusÃ©e Matisse in Nice. The exhibition drew fire from the Italian press because of what some writers found to be its dubious premise and lackluster, thematically incoherent content, and others felt it to be an instance of art-as-spectacle boosterism. In his catalogue essay, Pierre Schneider concentrates mostly on Matisse's documented encounters with and imitations of Italian art, his occasional use of Italian models and subjects, and the nebulous matter of Italian influences on his work. He reports what Matisse saw during his two extended trips to Italy in 1907 and 1925 and speculates about what Matisse may have absorbed from the examples of Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto and from the Byzantine mosaics. (Matisse's son-in-law, Georges Duthuit, an expert on mosaics, went with him on the 1925 trip to Sicily.) Matisse's curiosity about certain Renaissance artists is evident enough in the copies and adaptations he made of Pollaiuolo's Hercules and Anteaus and Hercules Battling the Hydra, and in the drawings Day (1922) and a nude from 1935, which were modeled on Michelangelo's figures from the Medici tomb. His interest in the mosaics achieves its fullest expression in the paper cutouts of the late period, especially The Bees, where the image likeness is indistinguishable from the brilliant, clustered particulars of paper "bits." But Matisse's remark in a letter in 1941 that he always had to cope with the "eternal conflict between line and color" suggests that the shaping impulse in his career was not a progressive, developmental, historically determined one but rather one of struggling emergent form answering to the forms of nature as they are felt by the artist. In a sense, a great artist is never directly influenced by any other artist and is certainly not the creation of historical necessity. Other practices, exempla, and problems are chiefly enabling occasions by which an artist can look more deliberately into the skeins of what is, momentarily, inexpressible.
The peculiar spatial stress in Matisse's painting resulted from his compound need to analyze (or atomize) and to fuse. In the 1914 painting Marguerite in a Feather Hat, gobbets of color define the subject's face and costume: pink cheeks and nose ridge, slate jaw line, yellow forehead, black choker with golden bits. Pasty white outlining isolates each color patch. The atoms of color in the composition are pushed apart, islanded by the lines of force created by the contouring. There is not much tension among the colors; they are not poised to snap back into place. The painting is not a pictorial field in jeopardy as it is in Giacometti's paintings and in some of CÃ©zanne's late work. Matisse's forms are placidly rotund, unperturbed by the tentative distensions they constitute. But it is an image of separation and estrangement, and of nostalgia for an impossible coherence. That same year he produced Head, White and Rose, where the color compounds are arranged in vertical red, black, and cream stripes. Spearing down through the draped, steely colors are the V's and triangles that structure the drawing. The draftsmanship disciplines the pudgy colorism into rigorous schematic planks. The color has not been built or dressed on the drawing; it has been welded to it, and Matisse boldly lets the seams show.
The disegno element is, almost from the beginning of Matisse's career, a sculptural modeling. In early paintings like Male Nude (1893-95) and Seated Old Man (1893-95), he was working to convert volume and mass into contour. He was trying to realize in the draftsmanship of those paintings the muscularity we see in the actual sculptures he executed between 1900 and 1910. (In The Serf, for example, the planes fold and buckle into sharp ridges; the slave's back, with its big rocky lumps, is overmuscled with work, deformed by exertions.) The bulked-up, contracted musculature and heavily creased definition of the Male Nude become, in the painting of the old man, flaccid expansions. In his copy of Philippe de Champaigne's Dead Christ (1895), the anatomy is assembled in blocks of drawing and streams of paint; shoulder joint, rib cage, kneecap, all seem modeled in advance, then mounted on the canvas. It is painting as joinery, not as florid, plastic emergence. It is also patiently accumulative, a characteristic of Matisse's productions generally, even the colorist ecstasies of the fauve period. The dead Christ is not just an exercise in anatomy or historical revisionism. Working within the conventional formal restraints of a "copy," Matisse at the very start of his career is making an image of religious feeling. I cannot follow a mind like Stella's that celebrates Caravaggio's innovative use of "projective space" as if this formal quality could be dissociated from the drivenness of Caravaggio's religious imagination, which wanted a more violent plasticity of the picture surface precisely to accommodate the wild desire to be summoned, chastised, wracked, saved. When Matisse remakes a Dead Christ, the expression of religious temperament is more compelling than its initiating formal source in Mantegna's famous canvas. Matisse's dead god is in a state of repose. The flesh seems about to stir or twitch; it is not the death of a singular nature. Consciousness has been only momentarily adjourned. Matisse's Christ is a conquered deity, not one who has languished into death. In the darkest, plummiest patch of flesh, where light barely surfaces, a pursed smile hovers on the god's face.
The religious imagination is a respondent, form-making act of consciousness back toward and into that which it believes has shaped it the force of otherness. It replies to the givenness of existence by reshaping the forms of nature into the forms of work. It desires a complete expression of particulars, which are absorbed but not disintegrated into a welded whole, an allness. It assumes and is aware of a reality greater and more inclusive than individual consciousness, and it allows that awareness to shape its products. It seeks fusion even while it sedulously practices analysis and individuation. In such terms, Matisse's career was the most sustained and variegated exercise of religious imagination of our time. Even more than CÃ©zanne and Giacometti, and in a more methodical and self-conscious way than Van Gogh, he practiced painting as an expansive ceremonial of consciousness. And the eternal conflict between line and color was for him a medium of erotic desire. The presiding precursor of Matisse's enterprise was Giotto. Matisse's remarks about him arc over the long middle period of his career. In Notes of a Painter he wrote: "When I see Giotto's frescoes in Padua, I'm not worried about knowing which episode from Christ's life I'm looking at, but I immediately understand the feeling triggered by them, because it's contained in the lines, in the composition, in the colors, and the title serves only to confirm my impression." He saw in Giotto a comprehensiveness, an integral completeness, that was both preliminary and summative, which possessed the preparatory definitions of cartooning and the conclusive exaltations of color fields. Matisse had already described in 1907 the two preoccupations that sheared off from Giotto's unities as Sienese primitivism and spirituality (disegno ) and Venetian physicality (colorito ). Giotto remained the model of achieved completion and must have come to seem even purer as Matisse worked his way, decade by decade, through all the formal consequences of the breakup of that unity. As late as 1946 he writes to Pierre Bonnard, "Giotto is the peak of my aspirations. But the journey toward something which, in our time, would constitute the equivalent is too long for one life." In that statement seethes his own awareness of the inevitable incompleteness of the task he had set for himself. Modern unities equivalent to those achieved by Giotto were clearly impossible. What he could do, however, was make art out of the desire for such completions.
Some of the pieces on display in Venice demonstrate the small, discrete operations by which Matisse conducted his investigations. The pigment in the orientalized Poppies (1908) is buoyant, airy; the drawing matters less than the gestural coloring. Drawing with the brush, Matisse is trying to fix in a momentary "Japanese" way his feeling for the brevity of that natural existence. (He often said that he painted not subjects but the emotion stirred in him by subjects.) In Still Life with Negro Statuette (1908-9), the dusty red patch of ground on which stand a green-black flask, a jug, and crimson statuette, seems rubbed or burnished into the sooty primed canvas. The friction of color against the support ignites a kind of drawing. Neither of these has the frontal, heavily colored presence, however, of the 1909 portraits of Matisse's son Pierre and of Nono, the daughter of one of Matisse's best friends. The drawing of Nono's chin, jaw, and high, constrictive collar is an entrenchment, a held line that determines and restrains a muscular, physical coloring. The red of Nono's lips, like the creamy yellow bow in her hair, is explosively ornamental against the constraints of drawing. Pierre's chalice-shaped head with its liquid flesh tones suggests immediately the vivacious ethereality of Botticelli's youths, but the drawing is so thickly banded and the color so voluminous that the delicate veils of drawing in which Botticelli and other cinquecento Florentines encoded Neoplatonic idealizations are reduced to a more physical, less idealized Venetian concentrate. In Notes of a Painter Matisse says that he was interested in painting the human figure more than still life or landscape because the figure "best permits me to express my almost religious awe toward life." For him the image-making activity was steeped in immanence, in the saturated immediacy of color fields whose stressed elasticity was governed and contested by line.
The contractions and expansions of this process are starkly apparent in the many drawings exhibited in Venice. In Seated Nude with Drapery in Her Lap (1924), the shoulders, neck, upper arms, and head look like cutaway views of sinew and muscle tissue, while the breasts and abdomen are literally more fleshed out, dressed, corporeal. The Portrait of a Young Girl (1920), by contrast, shows a more finished and conventionalized exactitude of anatomical detail. In the 1923 Nude Standing before a Mirror Matisse's attention is concentrated almost entirely on the colorist quality of the shading and not at all on anatomical delineation; it is a study of light changing the flesh into a negative image of itself. The smudged gray substance of flesh in the figure before the mirror is contained by a white nimbus. In the mirror that figure is blanched, unfleshed, defined entirely by the strong outlining. The darkest surface in the image is the mirror that mediates the definitiveness of the drawing and the "colorism" of the charcoal shading.
Important artists of the past century have had to live out in their work some version of the fall from the innocence of realist representation. Pierre Schneider has noted that from 1917 to 1919 Matisse was intensely interested in Renoir's painting because Renoir was really the last painter for whom a picture was a representation rather than an image. Matisse was looking for a guide to the recovery of "the innocence which makes realism convincing," says Schneider. "It was a vain hope: once it has been lost, there is no way of recovering innocence. Once the gap between what is seen and what is painted has been laid open, the artist can no longer pretend that he is not a prisoner of painting; once he has made the transition from representations to images, he cannot turn back." In Matisse's case it was not so much a transition as an interrupted circuit, a now snapped fictive loop that had once connected nature to consciousness to expressive forms. Matisse had no nostalgic illusions about lost innocence. Of his portraits and nudes he once said, "I do not create a woman, I make a picture." A painter makes forms on surfaces, he does not create; he forges images, he does not counterfeit nature. If those images represent anything, they represent the state of emotion infused in the artist by his subject. Emotion is the inwarding of the subject; Matisse sought a fully respondent image for that complex of emotions initiated by the subject. This aspiration is quite different from the one practiced by Giacometti, who acted out his own fall from innocence. Giacometti wanted a retinal purity and accuracy of representation. For Matisse, the process was heightened by his own peculiarly intense and certainly unorthodox religious sensibility. In 1951, three years before he died, he closed the parenthesis opened by his 1908 remark about religious awe: "All art worthy of the name is religious. Be it a creation of lines, or colors: if it is not religious, it does not exist. If it is not religious, it is only a matter of documentary art, anecdotal art . . . which is no longer art."
The Italian Woman (1916) has the formal rigor and aloofness of a devotional image. In this, as in most of Matisse's female portraits, there is a mysterious grace that transcends the quotidian norms of courtesy. The female image enacts attention but not curiosity: the visage, the representational presence, does not invite us into the formal life of the image, as it does, for instance, in the glamorous hungers of de Kooning's women, or the pliant curiosities of Modigliani's. Matisse's female images are recessive, self-withholding, largely because figuration is given over so entirely to formal invention and variation. Only Picasso rivals Matisse in this, but Picasso's imagination was more imperious, colonizing, and acquisitive, Matisse's more inquisitive and elusive. In The Italian Woman the black bow-sweep of nose and browline a form Matisse worked throughout his life: it reappears even in the large, architectural, brush-and-ink Acrobats and Plane Trees of his last decade is drawn with iron severity. It's a figure of erotic refusal. But the painting also makes one of the shattering gestures in Matisse's career, though like his other extraordinary gestures like, most of all, the plasmic throbbing ground of Red Studio and Harmony in Red it's executed with unsettling quietude. The fall of black hair drawn like a half-keyhole over the italienne 's shoulder thins and lifts outward in a winged opaque yellow-green veil covering the clearly visible shape of the arm beneath it. The painting generates this second plane, a second "flatness," with no coy trompe l'oeil effects. The figure of the woman streams from the peeled surface, which is itself an extension of the picture's primary surface. The drawing of the figure mediates that pressurized confluence.
Most of Matisse's female portraits present an image of worldly consciousness on the far side of surprise. The italienne 's stern countenance is an extreme case. The grace of his female figures lies in their fullness of consciousness as it meets the world in a casual, cunning repose. The quality of surprise abides instead in the image making, and it is the awe that survives the fall from innocence. In The Italian Woman it takes the form of the picture plane's second skin. In the 1937 Odalisque hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the blue-and-purple wallpaper stripes behind the figure are squeezed directly from the tube in ridged pigment chains, percussing the decorative order of the image. And the woman's ornaments a hairpin, white flower, rings, bracelets, anklet are likewise built up with squibs of paint. The already intensely colored image of an odalisque is thus decorated with its own materials: the ornamental value of the paint is indistinguishable from its expressive use.
Woman with a Turban (Portrait in a Moorish Chair) (1929-30) is an answer to the Laurette paintings of 1916-17, with their marshy greens soaking large areas of the canvas, and the ripe, full-fleshed face of Laurette an image of voluptuous patience. In the later work Matisse evacuates the very space that he had made vibrate with color in the earlier paintings. The image suggestiveness of corporeality has been violently retracted. The faintly sketched woman and her chair seem an afterimage; the conventional signs of corporeality have been reduced to minimal gestural drawing. All except for the ends of the moss green turban that flare out behind her head like mismatched wings. That image of flight, of the leavening of substance, is the most sensuously present element in the picture, and it harmonizes lurchingly with the green floor and wainscoting that surround the phantasmal figure. Matisse thus grounds, domesticates, binds that sign of flight in the composition. This is one announcement of the end of innocence. And yet the decorative ornament, the turban, carries a celebratory charge. That suggestiveness becomes all-governing in the blue nudes of his last years, where the carefully segregated forces of drawing and color, of emotion and emblem, are melted into cropped color fields; in Blue Nude II we can see the seams, the memory of the task worked through after the loss of innocence, where the sculpted sheets of color have been tacked or stitched together to make an image of a contrived whole since nothing could ever be whole or complete again.
Matisse's nebulous, instinctive religiosity ("I always let myself be guided by my instincts") expressed itself as a cult of eros. The dialectic stress between color and line, the dramatic readjustments of the elasticity among elements in a picture, the compulsive enjambments of colorist jubilance and the structural asceticism of drawing, were all practices of that cult. Cult is not too strong a word; it delivers the force and inflexibility of Matisse's discipline of work. To the question in the self-interview in Jazz of whether he believed in God, he replied, "Yes, when I work." Eros is the god force described by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium . Ever since Zeus cut humans in two ("like a sorb-apple halved for pickling or an egg sliced with a hair") we have been guided and driven in our choices by erotic desire, which is the felt need to reunite our original whole nature, "to make one of two, and to heal the state of man." Matisse, we know, wanted his art to be of a comforting, healing kind, but that intention is inseparable from a poetics of divisive expectation.
The large canvas of The Joy of Life hanging above the staircase in the Barnes Foundation is Matisse's most complexly detailed image of erotic desire. Nude figure clusters in the bottom half of the picture make a platform or pedestal on the center of which is displayed the circle of six dancers. There is no depth to the image; the compositional elements are displayed on the canvas as upon an arras. There are a shepherd piping to his flock, two recumbent females facing each other on the grass, a musician, and two pairs of lovers in near embrace, one member of each pair resisting or turned slightly away from the greeting of the other. Out from these figures grow trees that form the canopy of the upper hemisphere, enclosing and framing the dancers. Each figure enacts an episode or disposition in the tidal stirrings of eros: the deflected or postponed bonding of the lovers; the perfected language of music replacing imperfect speech; the ritual preparations of desire of the female fastening a garland while another crouches to gather more flowers. The drawing asserts the circumstantial enthrallments of desire, while the color images assert the stilled sensuousness of flesh Matisse painted the body's eager fullness as both a desired and desirous thing. The separate figures are particularized renderings of the condition summarized in the core group. As in the Dance paintings in the Museum of Modern Art and the Hermitage, each dancer in The Joy of Life suffers a different erotic quality induced by the spinning movement. One leans away as if bullied by centrifugal force; another pitches into the turn, its leaning angular shape a figure of self-abandonment; another turns in contrapposto, upper body toward the center of the ring, feet turned away, as if negotiating lashing counterforces.
In each of these paintings, however, the circle of the dance is broken, or incomplete. The pitching figure leans toward the welding spot that would unite the dancers in a closed ring, in the image equivalent to Plato's original human beings: "The man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round because they resembled their parents." In The Joy of Life, the dancer's outstretched hand melts into the oblivion of the color ground. In The Museum of Modern Art's Dance (First Version), the ground is divided into two monochrome fields, dense royal Titianesque green and blue. Upon those holy ceremonial fields are drawn figures caught up in the movement toward union in which the god announces himself, when the individuated self disintegrates into the allness of the fused ring.
Matisse's expressions of desire are not heated or satyric. He is, as Clement Greenberg once said, a cold painter. But if his tone is cooler or at least more temperate than Picasso's or Modigliani's, his images of desire are more insinuating, for he painted that broken circle not as a tumultuous, sensational event, but as a normal, ritualized, droning, piercing fact of existence. The huge gray solitudes of the dancers in the Barnes Foundation lunettes viewed from below they look like celestial forms stirring toward union refuse to allow the eye to gather up the entire form or to linger on any detail. For all their billowing, voluminous color, the dancers are elusive, almost frailly so, a sweeping afterthought of color left behind by the velocity of the drawing. They are erotic partners enacting the graceful but arrested expectations that Keats expressed in "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve." Each figure strikes a position of receiving or giving familiar to us both from images of the Graces in Renaissance painting and from the contentious earthbound rituals of modern dance. In Matisse's rendering we see a dance pose or attitude in a purely mobile, fluid state. It is an image of the agitated, repetitious anticipation and fanatical attention of erotic attractions. But the most personal expression of that kind of fanatical attention is the Nymph and Faun with Flutes (1940-43). The faun looms over the reclining nymph, calling her to wakefulness by the language of his music. His song is a representation of the desire to close the distance between them; the entire scene is an image of intensely delayed union. The numerous versions of this scene that Matisse produced are his most autobiographical works, because he was presenting his vision of his own faunish musical activity as a maker of images.
Less starkly autobiographical are the many domestic interiors where completion of an interfused domestic community is rendered in the direction of the gaze. Attention is the medium of relations among things. "I paint not things," Matisse once said, "but the relations between things." In The Music Lesson (the version in the Barnes Foundation) the boy at the piano reads music while his teacher looks over his shoulder; both gazes converge on that shared language. Near the piano a male figure sits smoking, reading a book. On the piano, the violin so familiar in Matisse's interiors lies exposed in its case, and there is also a score by Haydn. On the wall hangs a woman's portrait; the painting, product of the artist's attentive desire, is integrated as decorative artifact into the larger scheme of attention. A large window opening onto a garden frames a woman embroidering in a chair, and beyond her an "exterior" artifact, a recumbent statue gazing down upon itself. Each isolated patch in the image refers us to others; the interior and exterior spaces, the private and the public, the space of culture and that of nature, converse in the objects. Illusionist depth is collapsed so forcefully that these attentive postures we bear witness to both the activities of consciousness and its formed products are stood upright like elements in an icon. The degrees of attention range from the clarities of music to the coarse delights of what I take to be a dime novel being read by the seated male. The piano lesson and the embroidery are, like the painting and statue, idealizations of an object of desire. Each discrete solitude is an extension of consciousness toward something else, the most ceremonialized being the picture, the statue, and the Haydn score, all products of form-giving consciousness. The summative ceremony, the big unifying effort, is the picture entitled The Music Lesson .
For more than thirty years Matisse owned CÃ©zanne's Three Bathers, and from that example he learned quickly having begun to paint at the age of twenty-one he had to learn everything quickly that a painting is a made pictorial thing, an expressive likeness originating in, but not representative of, primary nature. One of the pictures in Venice, Vase of Flowers (1898-1900), is an obvious homage to CÃ©zanne's way of building up a surface with choppy, richly pigmented brushstrokes and animating it with thickly inflected colors. But the great lesson he learned from the older painter was always to defy what is already known, to break down what is too available or "workable." So that although Matisse learned something of color plasticity and the dimensionality of the picture surface from CÃ©zanne, his own defiant curiosity led him to investigate the spaciousness of separated forms.
The different practices are stunningly evident in the arrangement of their works in the Barnes Foundation, where historical relation matters less than structural correspondences. Petulance fueled by unlimited capital produced, in combination with Dr. Alfred Barnes's often shrewd and daring tastes (shaped in part by his advisors William Glackens and John Dewey), a great and very idiosyncratic collection of early modern art. Because the Barnes Foundation was meant to serve not as a museum but as a study center (and showpiece of Dr. Barnes's educational theories), the standard gallery arrangements by period, geography, or artist are broken up into what Dr. Barnes called wall-pictures, whereby a Renoir, for instance, is flanked by a Tintoretto and a Giorgione in order, as one of the foundation documents explains, "to foster understanding of objective investigation and to help in demonstrating the principles of aesthetics." In the main hall is Matisse's Seated Riffian (1913). The square green-robed figure is laid on a yellow and green background or backdrop, since it is another of Matisse's color fields hung on the canvas like a decorative veil. The face is an assemblage of ocher, green-blue, and mustard swatches tenuously stitched together. Color and line are not compelled into their patterns by a conceptual structure, as they are in cubist compositions; they seem instead to have arrived there as the accidental result of the artist's desire for new enjambments. The face, as in so many of Matisse's portraits, contemplates its own incompleteness, its provisional imageness; it does not return the attention of the outsider. On the wall opposite is a portrait of Madame CÃ©zanne, Woman in a Green Hat . CÃ©zanne draws us into the subject's posture of attention with brief silky swabs of color built up and fused in such a way as to invite into the pictorial event the erotic participation of our own attention. The life of eros in the painting, as in CÃ©zanne's work generally, thrives in the plaited, slatted, crosshatched piling up of color. In Matisse, eros thrives on separation and detachment; it lives in the stressful estrangements of color and line of line yearning for color and color for the "natural" restraints of line.
For an abstractionist like Frank Stella, who figures in all this because he is such an articulate, systematic apologist for the extremely deliberate art he has chosen to make (and because, as the most conspicuous artist of his generation, he is the presumed heir to discoveries made by the two older painters), such contentions and defiances as I've been describing must be seated in a historical program, a sequence of progressive, problem-solving advances. Artists, in his view, work primarily according to laws of historical necessity, though those laws are formalist rather than social or materialist ones. (According to this peculiar compound of Marxist inevitability and evolutionary progress, representationalism will eventually disappear.) But for artists like CÃ©zanne and Matisse, and for viewers engaged in the same search for an imagining of primal innocence and the consequences of its loss, there is no history, at least not the mechanistic kind proposed by Stella. There is only consciousness, in its constant present moment, groping always through and toward the nature it is a part of and the life of forms that absorbs all pasts. I think this is why a rigorous formalist critic like Clement Greenberg regards Matisse as one of our greatest artists. But an artist who views the past as a series of determinist formal problems will most likely produce an art of merely strategic surprise, where pictorial expression can only be an image of the artist's overstudied intentions.
In some of his late works, CÃ©zanne left exposed sections of the canvas or paper, not as marginal fields to crop the colored areas but as active compositional units. In a few of those still lifes and landscapes, the flatness of the exposed surface buckles toward and into the painted area. Each brushstroke thus becomes a skirmish with the sculptural encroachments of emptiness. Landscape painting did not interest Matisse, but his still lifes and interiors have, by contrast, an aloof depthlessness. His reply to the historical situation described by Stella namely, the collapse of illusionist depth was to create a surface not built up but spread out as sheeted scalings. That's why his colors so often look either rolled or paved, as in the magnificent fields of The Red Studio and Harmony in Red, or else diaphanous, shaken loose, as in Three Sisters . He was not interested in following CÃ©zanne by making images of the geologic accretions of line and color. Matisse's way of making images was, more than any other modern painter's, a tentative, unsentimental detachment of compositional elements. The Moorish Screen, for example, from 1921, displays the familiar contents of Matisse's interiors: table, books, open violin case, human figure, elaborately ornamented screens and carpets, all disinterestedly made available to us on the plane of the canvas. For all his religious feelings, Matisse, unlike CÃ©zanne, did not offer up the contents of his pictures to the gaze of consciousness. All those items have a decorative purpose in the room, and as painted images they are decorations on the canvas. But absorbed into the cool deployment of those artifacts is the emotion Matisse was trying to image: the expectation that out of the coincidence of familiar objects a fused whole may suddenly result, where relations among things are dissolved into immediate undifferentiated erotic presence.
In Matisse's late years these separations and expectations become both more drastic and more playful. His career was not summative or recapitulative. Like Shakespeare's late plays beginning with Antony and Cleopatra, with its breakneck velocities and wiry, brittle language, Matisse's late works are not so much a culmination of what he had already done as they are an even more inventive testing of the limits of structure and idiom. When he paints The Rococo Chair (1946; Plate 6) and Still Life with Pomegranates (1947), he is still the painter of the sacramental stillness of domestic furnishings. But the saturated and diluted color fields of his earlier work are here defied by muscular green canals of color powering through the chair's arms and legs and by the diluvial congestiveness of the ocher upholstery. Each pigment stream is banked, drawn in, by white edges; the colorist energies surging against them are palpable. The expansive force is intensified by the violent cropping of the image: our gaze is not allowed to take in the wholeness of the decorative artifact. What matters is its cool, impassioned incompleteness. In the still life, a plate of pomegranates and scattered fruit lies on a table from which rise two columns, a drape and a shutter, which form the right margin of a window. In the window or, more properly, upon it is worked a pictorial gesture, from an artist who would soon no longer have sufficient physical energy to continue painting, comparable in magnitude to the lifted planes of The Italian Woman thirty-two years earlier. Leaves and branches burst like boreal streamers from a white core. The consolidations of the natural world, a tree's physicality, are blown into the isolated exaltations of those darting green forms. Nature's erased consistencies are entirely replaced by Matisse's iconographic poetry: the showering green of the nonexistent tree upon the window answers the blackened scarlet pips of the one split pomegranate, Persephone's fruit, the seeds of which weighed her down; and from the sexual inertia of her underworld existence she rises yearly in vernal plentitude. In paintings of the Madonna and Child by Fra Lippo Lippi, Botticelli, and others, the pomegranate was the sign of restoration held by the Christ Child. In Matisse's image, the sign of vernal return, of the overcoming of sexual inertia, is the rootless, trunkless spray of green leaves painted as decorations upon that window.
As he got older, the more clearly Matisse perceived erotic relations, the more serenely poised and separate the images expressing those relations became. One of the great works of his old age is Nude with Oranges (1953). Decoration is here refined to its purest properties. The central axis is a female nude executed in thickly brushed India ink outline; suspended around the figure are the planetary oranges, two on the right, one on the left. The nude is drawing reduced to its most gestural, denotative force. We see the lineaments, the act of attention in the turned but featureless head, the slope of the belly toward the groin, which is half-tucked behind the forward thigh. The paper cutout oranges are sculpted, kiln-fired color, the nearest Matisse could come to infusing thing life into the quality of color. The nude drawing shares its field with pure color. The center of the invisible triangle that the eye draws between the oranges is the figure's enfolded sex. The four images are inviolably separate but just as inviolably joined to the erotic relation created by that anonymous shared blank support. It is the most serene image Matisse produced of the pleasurable, desolating feeling of the incompleteness of all perfectly formed desire.