Women in Blue Dress 1937
Matisse? Again? Maybe it’s just Philadelphia, but with the Barnes Collection and the recent ‘Visions of Arcadia’ at PMA it seems like we’ve been seeing an awful lot of Matisse lately. Not that I’m complaining. Matisse is the ‘art as comfortable as a good armchair’* guy, and true to his word, he made a great deal of beautiful eye candy (in the very best sense.) His colors alone are an endless pleasure. Who could ever get tired of his sweet spot blues, candy pinks and vivid greens?
December 31 was Matisse’s birthday, by the way, so Happy Birthday Henri, with great thanks.
Palm Leaves 1912
Matisse: in Search of True Painting, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through March 17, 2013) is well worth a Megabus journey. The exhibit, organized by the Met in conjunction with a Copenhagen museum and the Pompidou Center in Paris, features 49 works in pairs or series. The exhibit is thus a spectacular chance not only to see Matisse but to probe beyond the pleasing surface of this most popular artist to get at his process and his ideas about creating art.
Still Life with Purro I 1904
A number of the works have a still-searching-for-direction quality about them, particularly a grouping of still lifes that begin the show. In fact, when Matisse painted them in 1899 - 1904, he was in his early 30’s with a wife and three children to support. He’d been painting seriously for some time but had little to show for it - no critical notice and no financial success. These still lifes are worth a long look; they hold many of Matisse’s sources and influences as well as signposts indicating his road forward. Cezanne, Signac, Bonnard and Van Gogh are all more or less present in color usage, texture, and composition, but so are strong hints of Matisse’s own unmistakable brand of alchemy. Part of the fun of the exhibit is noticing how the influences flicker in and out and then fade to background as Matisse became more confident with and more acclaimed for his own vision.
Much of the direction of his art was surely set by his trips to Morocco. I always picture Matisse, a child of bleak, grey industrial northern France, getting off the boat in that bright southern port for the first time in 1912 and opening like a flower to the golden light and the warm sun. Two paintings from that first visit, Palm Leaves and Acanthus, give a stunning idea of how Matisse absorbed the experience of Morocco and turned it into brave modern art. Both works are full of energy, slashed and scrubbed with strong color in thin washes; they both push and pull between representation and abstraction and steam with the excitement of discovery. Acanthus, a marvel of mauves, bright acid greens, oranges and rich periwinkle blue, troubled Matisse at first. He carted it home to Paris and then back again to Morocco, planning to rework it but finally deciding it was all right as it was. By nature and habit Matisse was said to be much milder than his groundbreaking art, so perhaps he just needed time to catch up with himself.
Young Sailor II 1906
Young Sailor II from 1906, a painting in the Met’s own collection, is shown side by side with an earlier version from the same year. I found this one pairing of the most striking moments in the exhibit. The Met version, well known and beloved, is a cartoon-like version of its partner, which is a more solidly drawn, better proportioned representation of a young boy in sailor’s clothing. When Matisse showed Young Sailor II to Leo Stein, he tried to pass it off as the work of the mailman in Collioure, the small town in southwest France where he painted it. Stein described the painting as a work of ‘extreme deformation.’ Again we see Matisse bent on pushing art in a new direction, taking chances and experimenting with form and color, but I was interested to see that in direct comparison with Young Sailor I, the Met version looked tepid and almost sentimental.
Young Sailor I 1906
Young Sailor I is already edgy and modern - in its energy and courage and the play of color in the face, it reminded me of Femme au Chapeau, Matisse’s Fauve portrait of his wife from 1905, the painting that sent shock waves through American audiences when it was shown at the Armory show in 1913. Young Sailor I is in a private collection so is rarely seen - the pairing in this exhibit not only revealed Matisse’s process, but also raised interesting questions about the designation ‘masterpiece.’ Is a work crowned with honor and glory on its own merits, or may it be revered simply because it hangs in a storied, world-class museum? How does the taste of gallery dealers and museum curators and market availability factor into our understanding and acceptance of the ‘masterpiece’ label? Whether or not Young Sailor II is considered a great masterpiece in Matisse’s overall body of work, the buzz of recognition connected to a known, rather than little seen, painting makes the question relevant.
View of Notre Dame 1914 (MOMA)
In 1914, when World War I was about to devastate Europe, Matisse was in Paris, with a studio on the Quai St. Michel. Out the window he could see the towers of Notre Dame, and from this year came one of what is, for me, one of his supreme masterpieces. My heart did a little dance when I came around a corner and met it face to face. (The only masterpiece meter you need, really.) This is the stark, stripped down View of Notre Dame from the spring of 1914, owned by NY MOMA. The MOMA View of Notre Dame is a blue and black drawing on canvas, with a surface scrubbed and scratched and smudged and worked over until everything that remains seems both arbitrary and rock-solid essential. Disembodied towers float in a blue ether that is at once underwater and high in the sky. Only one little green splotch of a tree holds the great cathedral to earth.
View of Notre Dame 1914 (Switzerland)
At the Met this work is mated with a second view from the same year, a literal sketchbook sort of drawing/painting that is light years away from the concept of the MOMA work. Over and over again I found this exhibit telling stories beyond the one it promised in the title. The story of Matisse and his process, valuable as that is, is just the beginning. Here is the ranging imagination of artists in general, those with the vision and curiosity to see and express the same idea or scene in infinite ways and forms. Matisse did numerous versions of Notre Dame, each with its own identity and particular magic.
The Dream (1940) with photo of early stage
In the final galleries, several of Matisse’s paintings are documented with photographs showing working stages. (The Large Blue Dress, a 1937 work in the Met’s collection, is also accented with the skirt of the dress worn by model Lydia Delectorskaya.) The Dream (1940) is centered amid 14 black and white photographs that show how it progressed from a loose, sketchy, literal scene of woman and foliage to an abstract composition, a white oval against a rose background that retains hints, flattened and decorative, of the original subject. My own love of Matisse’s rich, luxurious drawings would have stopped the process at about stage 5 or 6 and left it in black and white, but the total picture, like this entire exhibit, is fascinating. Matisse's famous quote: *What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/Matisse
Slide show from the Met Exhibit http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/11/30/arts/design/20121130-MATISSE.html#1
El Anatsui at Jack Shainman
Also in New York, but only until January 13, is a show of the work of El Anatsui, the great contemporary African artist, at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. El Anatsui’s astonishing tapestries are painstakingly composed of flattened bottle caps and other bits of discarded metal held together with tiny twists of copper wire. Sprawled across walls, the works make deep, rich connections to ideas of African tribal grandeur, especially the legacy of the storied gold-rich African kings wrapped in luxurious cloaks of symbolic Kente cloth, and to the sad history of colonial exploitation by Europeans who cheapened and brutalized people, countries and traditions. The seductive beauty of El Anatsui’s textured, shimmering, swaths of metal cloth is the portal to worlds of meaning. http://www.jackshainman.com/home.html
George Bellows: Stag at Sharkey's 1909
Isn't it funny how so many art movements are named by snarky insults? The 'Impressionists', The 'Fauves', even the Gothic style - these were not terms of endearment but put-downs from critics who clearly thought they knew what was 'art' and what was not. 'The Ashcan School' is another example, this time from early 20th century America.
Artists and Friends in John Sloan's NY studio 1898
In the context of a time when so much artistic fur was flying in Europe (Cubism, Surrealism, Picasso, Matisse, etc.) the work of the Ashcan School can seem a bit tame and stodgy, but these artists, like their European contemporaries, were revolutionaries, rebelling against conservative American tastes - which were at least, if not more, conservative than traditional tastes in Europe.
Chicago Art Institute Students: Flyer 1913
In 1913 the famous Armory Show was mounted in New York, bringing the first taste of avant-garde art to the U.S. The Armory Show, an earthquake that shook expectations and assumptions to their foundations, was recognized as a colossal event but one that was shocking, even dangerous. The New York Tribune called it “A Remarkable Affair Despite Some Freakish Absurdities.” It is said that notices were posted warning pregnant women away for fear they would miscarry, and when the show moved to Chicago, Matisse was given a mock trial on charges of 'artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line,' found guilty, and sentenced to die.
George Luks: Nighttime Buying and Selling on Allen Street 1905
Organized by American painters eager to bring the excitement of Modern Art closer to home, the Armory show included a healthy number of forward-looking Americans, foremost among them the artists who would come to be known as The Ashcan School. A first American volley against the strict traditions of the National Academy was the 1908 show in New York by The Eight, a group of painters circled around the charismatic teacher/painter Robert Henri. It was their only group showing - the circle then expanded, with one result being the group that came to be known as The Ashcan School.
George Bellows: Cliff Dwellers 1913
As you might guess by the name, these painters, including Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, George Luks and Everett Shinn, concerned themselves not with idealized beauty, but with a realistic perspective on the gritty life of New York's poorer neighborhoods and rich colorful streets.
John Sloan: McSorley's Bar 1912
Many of them had backgrounds as newspaper illustrators so there is an element of reportage in the work of the Ashcan School, along with an acceptance, even celebration of human nature in its most banal and ordinary forms. There's more than a bit of Bruegel in the Ashcan School, coupled with the lush expressive brushwork of Frans Hals and Velasquez - no accident. These painters were sophisticated and knowledgeable and most had spent time traveling and studying in Europe. Notable works include Bellow's mighty Stag at Sharkey's (1909) his marvelously detailed Cliff Dwellers (1913), George Luks's Nighttime Buying and Selling on Allen Street (1905), George Bellow's Washington Square South (1910) and John Sloan's McSorley's Bar (1912.)
William Glackens: Washington Square South 1910
John Sloan: Sunday, Women drying their Hair 1912
Robert Henri: Dutch Girl in White 1907
Robert Henri, for being such an inspiration to these painters of lively genre scenes, is better known for portraits - he's a marvelous painter whose brushwork and handling of paint is simply delicious. He did quite a few portraits of children, especially on his travels. This lovely example is from a stay in Holland in 1907. The National Gallery in Washington has just opened a show of the work of George Bellows - I hear it's wonderful and can't wait to see it! http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/bellowsinfo.shtm
The newly re-opened Barnes Collection in Philadelphia includes many works of William Glackens and examples from some of the other Ashcan painters.
AFP photo by Robert Michael
Myth met reality this week when we were treated to the phenomenon of a 'supermoon'- technically known as a perigree full moon for its proximity to the earth. The photos from all over the world are spectacular - this eye-popping example is from Dresden, Germany. I'm a big fan of the moon (I'm hardly unique - you probably are too) for its often startling beauty and the magical nature of its perceived changes.
Arthur Dove: Me and the Moon 1937
Human may have trod on the surface, planting flags and leaving dusty footprints, but when that silvery ball or sliver hangs up there among the stars on a dark night, it's easy to understand why humans have always found it a source of mystery and power, for good and for bad. The full moon can bring riches and cure warts, but it can also drive you mad.
Hiroshige: Saruwaka (late 19th c)
A full moon is always an event - with our scientific mindsets we understand the movement of the tides, the moon's relation to the sun and earth, etc., and watch it simply for the pleasure it brings - but in a more agricultural time and place it signaled essential steps in the growing year. The names of the full moons for Native Americans identify expectations - Full Hunger Moon in February, Full Worm Moon in March when the ground starts to warm and life begins to reappear, Full Corn Moon in September, commonly known as the Harvest Moon, which marks the harvest and signals the Autumn equinox.
William Blake: The Wandering Moon 1820
I hope you got to see this month's 'supermoon' - I watched it with friends in NW Connecticut as it emerged dramatically from behind a thick bank of clouds and rose until the sky glowed silver - so beautiful! Many artists have tried their luck at catching moonbeams - in tribute to the moon, here is a selection from various times and places.
One of the moons comes from Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970. His death yesterday means a great loss to children, to illustration, and much more - his legacy is enormous. He'll have his own tribute - coming soon.