Art June 2020
Matisse & the surrogate figure
On Henri Matisse and his mediated images.
When Henri Matisse was a twenty-five-year-old student of Gustave Moreau’s, he painted a view of his immediate surroundings, including a pair of his fellow artists. The Atelier of Gustave Moreau (ca. 1895, Private collection) presents a dimly lit room bisected top to bottom by a tall nude model whose central placement is challenged by the pale cast of a classical statue, seen further back, to one side. The two men seated at easels face away from the model and the sculpture. The grays, off-whites, and gray-browns of the interior give no hint of Matisse’s future brilliance as a colorist, but the firm structure of the moody canvas and the way the relative sizes of model and sculpture create space against a fairly monochromatic plane speak of strengths to come. The painting is most prescient, though, for its content. The studio remained one of Matisse’s recurring subjects for the rest of his working life, and, even more important, the standing nude and the sculpture that dominate The Atelier of Gustave Moreau announce his persistent fascination with the relationship of direct experience and the mediated image, an idea that preoccupied him, over many years, in some of his most ambitious and compelling works.
Matisse revisited the atelier in Studio Under the Eaves (1903, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), an attic room sparsely provided with a small table, a wooden chest, and an easel set before a window open to buildings and trees. Subdued, richly varied “non-colors” somehow evoke a spill of light. The easel becomes anthropomorphic, reaching forward to hold the canvas at an angle, as if taking the place of the standing nude and the sculpture in the earlier studio painting. That anthropomorphism is particularly striking because, in contrast to the importance accorded to the nude stretching the full height of the canvas in The Atelier of Gustave Moreau, a human model is notably absent. The omission proves characteristic of many of Matisse’s later explorations of the studio motif—the Museum of Modern Art’s iconic Red Studio (1911), for example, or the equally celebrated Pink Studio (1911, Pushkin Museum, Moscow), in which the contents of the work space are itemized, absent people. The readily recognizable paintings and sculptures in these canvases, many with figures, suggest that Matisse was not simply responding to the visual stimulus of his surroundings, but also taking inventory of his achievement to date, surveying what he had done, perhaps concentrating on the works with which he was most satisfied.
Matisse began to make sculpture about 1899, initiating a lifelong dialogue between his investigations of three-dimensional forms and his search for ways of translating his perceptions of the world around him into two dimensions. The profiles he discovered through modeling and carving plaster and clay informed his paintings and drawings, and vice-versa, while the resulting sculptures often served as subject matter. The work appearing most frequently is the modestly sized, spatially articulate Reclining Nude (Aurora) (1906–07). Hip cocked and arm raised behind her head, she is a response to Michelangelo’s reclining Dawn (1520–34, Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence), a sculpture Matisse was fascinated by. He is thought to have kept a photograph of Dawn in his studio. The pose clearly resonated for him. He returned to it, with variations, in many later sculptures and paintings throughout his working life. Even more specifically, he included Aurora in many canvases. The sculpture appears in a 1908 still life (Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo) in glowing ochre boldly outlined with burnt sienna, perched on a sculpture stand beside a small Persian vase. The curves of a rosy pink Aurora echo the arcs and circles of a miscellany of objects in Still Life with a Pewter Jug and Pink Statuette (1910, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia), while a flesh-colored version, placed beside a cylindrical fishbowl in front of a blue window, in Studio with Goldfish (1912, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia) adds a human presence; Aurora appears, as well, in several increasingly simplified versions of the same motif, also painted in 1912, now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, and in a tightly focused iteration painted in 1916–17 (Tikanoja Art Gallery, Vaasa, Finland). Aurora grows to monumental size, transformed into a fountain, beside a pool seen through the window of The Music Lesson (1917, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia). The sculpture is the most distant object in the painting, and in contrast to the various still lifes it shares the setting with human figures, subordinated to Matisse’s three children, shown grouped around the piano in the foreground, and Madame Matisse, seated in the garden. Oddly, the fictive sculpture looms over the relatively small figure of the artist’s wife. Interpret that relationship as you will.
Matisse’s adoption of a sculpture of a nude female as a still life element may have encouraged him to experiment with bodily forms without having to respect the real size relationships of, say, goldfish and the figure. Released from such logical considerations, he could concentrate on—or even discover—new formal relationships. That the source of the image was the female body, but at one remove, seems to have been liberating. Matisse was clearly a lover of women. He never stopped working from the model or finding sources for invention in the figure, clothed or unclothed. (Late in life, in ill health, he is supposed to have said that he liked having models in the studio for the frisson.) But a group of achieved, ambitious canvases triggered not by real models but by the figure already turned into a work of art—a sculpture or a painting—suggest that he found working from these “translations” to be as stimulating or even more so than contemplating the real thing. It may be related to his habit of making multiple (often serial) images of the same motif, as if testing alternative possibilities, following the implications of things that emerged in the course of working—“what if I did this?” (This practice was brilliantly illuminated by Rebecca Rabinow’s 2012–13 exhibition, “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” at the Met.) Just as he was engaged by finding new formal solutions to challenges he had already set for himself, Matisse seemed to be fascinated by revisiting his own existing works of art, turning them into components of new compositions.
Witness the many paintings in which we see the ring of large, agile pink nudes, Dance (I) (1909, Museum of Modern Art), the study for one of the “decorative panels” commissioned by Matisse’s patron Sergei Shchukin for the staircase of his Moscow mansion. (The finished works are now in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.) Even after the completed panels were sent to Russia, the enormous study—roughly 8.5 by 13 feet—seems to have remained a compelling, perhaps unignorable presence in the studio for several years. Cropped views of the study appear in some of Matisse’s most potent paintings made between 1909 and 1912. In a 1909 canvas now also in the Hermitage, part of Dance (I) fills the background, behind a still life of intensely green and yellow fruit, and sunflowers on a patterned yellow cloth. Interestingly, the picture, Still Life with “Dance,” originally belonged to Matisse’s other important Moscow patron, Ivan Morosov, like Shchukin a wealthy merchant, passionately drawn to the adventurous art being made in Paris before the advent of World War I; perhaps acquiring Still Life with “Dance” was the next best thing to having the actual panel.
The left side of the enormous study, with its backward-glancing, upright figure and her smaller, front-facing companion, dominates two closely related paintings, Nasturtiums with “Dance” (I) and (II) (both 1912: I, Metropolitan Museum of Art; II, Pushkin Museum). Each is a masterly orchestration of radiant blues, ochres, and pinks, and each a completely convincing comment on perception, balancing on the brink of abstraction; II, the slightly more adventurous version, formerly belonged to Shchukin. In both canvases, Matisse finds cognates among the limbs of the depicted dancers and the tripod base of a sculpture stand placed in front of the painting, supporting a swelling vase of trailing nasturtiums. The slats of a chair back and the angled stripes of a cushion, lower left, are made part of the equation, while even more subtle connections are made among the teardrop shape of the vase and the dancer’s stylized hair.
Especially in Nasturtiums with “Dance” (II), Matisse further complicates the layering of observed actuality and the representation of the painted study—observed actuality already transformed—by blurring the difference between the replicated painting and the “real” objects. The dancers’ joined hands seem to touch the neck of the vase, while a dark elongated oval on the right invites a double reading as the hair of a dancer and an oversized leaf. In the similarly composed Nasturtiums with “Dance” (I), the tipped oval of the dancer’s hair is a lush blue-green, close to both the color of the vase and the ground plane of the study. (Morosov’s Still Life with “Dance,” executed more than two years later, includes a similar ambiguity between the dancer’s hair and the flowers in the foreground still life.) In both versions of Nasturtiums with “Dance,” the life-size rosy figures read as strongly as animate presences as they do as part of a replicated painting. If we were unaware of the existence of the study for Shchukin’s “decorative panel,” we might, at least at first viewing, interpret these agile nudes differently.
In The Red Studio, painted in 1911, after Shchukin’s panels had been completed, Matisse seems to have catalogued the contents of his studio, interestingly, without Dance (I). We recognize, among other works, the casually posed Young Sailor (II) (1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art); the three figures, hovering cloud, and white drape of Le Luxe (II) (1907–08) and the unstable, reclining Nude with a White Scarf (1909, both Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen); plus an early landscape, a still life of a pot of cyclamens, the sculpture La Serpentine, and the fourth of the Jeannette series of modeled heads, among others. Several of these works appear again, along with a narrow slice of the left side of Dance (I), in the light-struck Pink Studio— another of Shchukin’s acquisitions—accompanied by a classicizing male sculpture reminiscent of the one in Moreau’s atelier. Just as we related the nude model and the sculpture in The Atelier of Gustave Moreau, we connect the sculpture in Pink Studio with a sketchy painting of a standing nude and the cropped figure in the fragment of Dance (I). A minimally indicated Nude with a White Scarf hangs nearby, while opposite we recognize Le Luxe (II), with its trio of nudes, a figure drawing, some stacked figure paintings, and the 1908 sculpture Decorative Figure, a nude swaying against a massive cube. Together, these representations of human beings populate the empty studio. But the main event, confronting us in the center of the painting, is a flowered screen, familiar from other works, with a patterned cloth hung over it. The nested rectangles of screen and fabric combine with the grid of the window behind to reassert the rectangle of the canvas. As in The Red Studio, the idea of enterable space is symbolized by the placement of the studio furnishings, while the bold disposition of dispersed shapes, rhythmic drawing and, above all, intense, interlocking colors—luminous pinks, delectable turquoises, and pale gold—demand that we pay attention to the picture’s powerful formal structure.
Pink Studio has another close relative in the deep-toned, aggressively patterned Interior with Aubergines (1911, Musée de Grenoble). The role played by the centralized screen in Pink Studio is taken by a table with a red cloth with white swirls, supporting the titular eggplants, among other objects, including a small sculpture. The screen, almost subsumed by the rectangles of the window, the paintings, and a mirror, along with the scrolls on a cloth stretched over it, is further challenged by the generous blue floral motifs dotted across the entire canvas. The sumptuous patterning of Interior with Aubergines, typical of many of Matisse’s works of the time, reminds us of his enthusiasm for the complexities of Islamic miniatures, as well as for the tribal rugs and vibrant textiles he collected and included in many of his painting set-ups. A blue and white cloth patterned with scrolls and baskets of flowers is a frequent protagonist, often with colors altered, sometimes as background, sometimes, as in Harmony in Red/La desserte (1908, Hermitage Museum), playing a leading part. Just as repeated, stylized floral motifs threaten to overwhelm Interior with Aubergines, the insistent oversize sweeps and baskets in the background of Harmony in Red all but eclipse the figure placing the compote on the table, pointing to the kind of all-overness explored, with increasing daring, in Pink Studio, Interior with Aubergines, and The Red Studio.
The cloth draped over the screen in Pink Studio, a rich blue with swirls of creamy, pale-rose flowers, is also a repeated protagonist. In Interior with Aubergines, Matisse seems to have turned the motifs into regular, robust volutes, but there’s no doubt about the textile’s identity as it competes with other exuberantly patterned cloths in the riotous interiors Seville Still Life and Spanish Still Life (both 1910–11, Hermitage Museum). But while in the “Spanish” paintings the blue and rose fabric is thrown casually over a sofa, in Pink Studio it hangs neatly over the centralized screen, presented four-square, as if a canvas. The more time we spend with Pink Studio, the more we grasp the equivalence of the rose arabesques of the cloth and the curving arm and swelling hip of the cropped dancer in the fragment of Dance (I), visible on the right. Elsewhere, the sinuous nudes in the vast study seem to have functioned as surrogate models, replacing figures who, we presume, were based on actual people. Has the “figured” cloth, with its suave, pale rose “characters” become an equivalent for the painted dancers—a surrogate for a surrogate?
A possible answer to this question is suggested by one of Matisse’s most stripped-down and, perhaps, elliptical explorations of the atelier motif, A Corner of the Artist’s Studio (1912, Pushkin Museum). Conceived as a pendant to Nasturtiums with “Dance” (II) and originally hung with it, as part of a triptych centered on the celebrated Conversation (1908–12, Hermitage Museum)—Matisse in striped pajamas, facing his seated wife, across a view out the window— the painting is an inventive variant on the related canvas. A Corner of the Artist’s Studio provides a glimpse of a folding deck chair in the lower left, an equivalent of the slat-back chair in Nasturtiums with “Dance” (II) facing the opposite direction. In place of the sculpture stand and vase of nasturtiums, a large, deep-green amphora supports an exuberant, cascading plant. Behind it, where we expect to see the study, Dance (I), is that familiar blue cloth with pink swirls and floral discs. The close chromatic relationship of the amphora, the leaves of the plant, and the blue cloth create the same kind of pulsing ambiguity as the shifting connection between the dancer’s hair and the flowers in Nasturtiums with “Dance” (II).
Was this simply a witty conceit for a pendant or did the pink-on-blue patterned cloth offer yet another layer of distance? Did the cloth, by substituting the painting of rosy nude dancers against a blue ground, become a surrogate for a surrogate, providing Matisse with a kind of body-like presence without requiring the familiar forms of the human body? Or was he responding to the kind of likeness and unlikeness that he habitually described in his paintings—the play of curves and circular forms, now open, now closed, that animates The Red Studio, for example?
Nothing could be more tedious than describing the similarities and differences among The Red Studio’s transparent goblet, opaque vase, patterned plate, and swirl of nasturtiums in the foreground and the clock face in the background; the connections between the drawn figure on the plate and the personages in the paintings on the wall; or the pairing of the wicker chair and the trailing plant. But these visual assonances and rhymes are deeply engaging. We savor them as part of the endless inventiveness Matisse taught us to expect from his works. Was he underscoring the interchangeable character of images, images of images, and their inanimate relatives, reminding us to pay attention to the unexpected pleasures of the world around us? Or is something else to be deduced from the richness of Matisse’s response to the female body already transformed by his own image making, turned into a simulacrum of a simulacrum? Clearly there is more than meets the eye.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 46
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