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Matisse: an Era ..a multi-personality

prof. Francesco Carelli
University of Milan, Rome

matisse“I have worked to enrich my intelligence and meet my mind’s various needs, striving with all of my being for an understanding of the different interpretations of art given by the ancient and modern masters.”
Henri Matisse, ‘Notes d'un peintre’. in La Grande Revue, 25 December 1908.



Described by one of his Pointillist friends as “wildly impatient”, Matisse dominated the art scene up to the 1950s and is regarded as one of the most fascinating artistic intellects of the 20th century. A central figure in debate all through his career, he was the leader of the Fauves, a critical observer of Cubism, a follower of Signac, Renoir and Bonnard, the rival of Picasso, a teacher and the precursor of an art that looks forward to the abstract expressionism of New York.

Featuring 50 works by Matisse and 47 by contemporaries like Picasso, Renoir, Bonnard, Modigliani, Miró, Derain, Braque and Léger, all on loan from the Centre Pompidou, the exhibition “ Matisse and His Era “ in Torino is designed to present the master’s works in the precise context of his friendships and artistic exchanges with other painters. Visual comparison with works by his contemporaries will thus make it possible not only to detect subtle reciprocal influences and common sources of inspiration but also a sort of “spirit of the time” in which Matisse and the other artists are caught up and that also involves periods still awaiting study in depth, like the modernism of the 1940s and ’50s.
Works by Matisse like Icarus from the Jazz series (1947), Large Red Interior(1948) and Young Woman in White, Red Background (1946) are juxtaposed with paintings like Picasso’s Nude in a Turkish Cap (1955), Braque’s Dressing Table in front of a Window (1942) and Léger’s Leisure, Homage to Louis David (1948–49).

The exhibition is chronologically divided into ten sections with thematic focuses illustrating the eminently Matisse’s motif of the odalisque, as in Odalisque in Red Trousers(1921), and the depiction of the studio, a recurrent subject of Matisse’s work but also of stupendous paintings by Braque (The Studio IX, 1952–56) and Picasso (The Studio, 1955), as well as the master’s oeuvre and trajectory from his studies with Gustave Moreau (1897–99) until the late paper cut-outs and his death in 1954.
The first section presents Matisse’s early years and close bonds of friendship with his fellow pupils of Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts such as Albert Marquet, Charles Camoin and Henri Manguin. Together they painted a series of works on the same subjects – including coffee pots and views of the Seine as well as models in the studio and copies of paintings in the Louvre.
Section Two: Fauvism
Led by Matisse, the Fauvist movement began with a stay in the Midi at Collioure in the summer of 1905. The outcry caused by the presentation of paintings in pure colours by Matisse and his friends Manguin, Camoin and Marquet as well as André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, marked the birth of the movement, which the young Braque and Dufy joined the following year.

Section Three: North Pole – South Pole. Matisse and Cubism
Though highly critical of Braque’s adoption of Cubism in 1908 as well as his friendship with Picasso, Matisse was to admit much later that the father of Cubism was actually Cézanne, who said that everything is a cylinder or a cube. In September 1914, not having been called up for military service, he left for Collioure, where he met Juan Gris. The works he painted were markedly influenced by those produced by Picasso, Braque and Gris as from 1909–10. Matisse painted windows, a recurrent theme in his work, and portraits. Almost abstract and nearly unfinished in appearance, Open Window, Collioure (1914) is a composition in parallel bands of black and blue reminiscent of Gris’s work. In the same way, Matisse’s stylization of the human figure in his series of sculptures of nudes seen from behind and the large canvas.
Section Four: The Years in Nice.
Matisse moved to Nice at the end of 1917, after the tumultuous years in Paris, to make a fresh start. Here he met Auguste Renoir, and found a new friend in Pierre Bonnard. He also found new models through the art school in Nice like the Italian Lorette, the subject of Lorette with a Cup of Coffee (1917). He produced numerous portraits and intimist compositions with figures, returning to Impressionism, his first source of inspiration, with studies of the late paintings of Renoir and Monet. It was through this dialogue with his predecessors that Matisse took part in his own way in the return to classicism of the 1920s, as did Derain and Picasso.

Section Five: The Painter of Odalisques
Inspired by stays in Morocco, Matisse followed Delacroix in revisiting the exotic theme of the odalisque ( the Algerian Woman, 1909). Density of ornamentation and colour characterizes the paintings of this period, which were to remain emblematic of his sophisticated, hedonistic art for many years. He could now be described as commercially successful and indeed fashionable. Matisse’s odalisques led to the birth of a modern orientalist school. The section includes the Nude in a Turkish Cap (1955) by Picasso, who later remarked, “When Matisse died, he left me his odalisques, and this is my idea of the Orient even though it never existed.”

Section Six: The Pursuit of Line. Matisse and Surrealism
The 1930s marked a turning point in Matisse’s work, as exemplified by his illustrations for the poems of Mallarmé. As a result of this radical change, his drawing became autonomous, stylized and almost automatic, and a new approach to line was developed in the Themes and Variations series of 1943. The free handling of line, oneirism and the representation of simple objects characterize the graphic works produced in this period by Matisse, Picasso, Masson, Miró and even Léger, all of whom came under the influence of Surrealism.

Section Seven: Painting Painting. Matisse’s Studios
This section addresses the 1940s, the return to painting and the “interiors” with the motif of the window again given central importance, as in Open Window, Collioure(1914). The studio was then a recurrent subject for various artists as a reflexive, self-referential image of painting combining an assertion of professional identity, private space, concentration with respect to the madness of the world and mental space.

Section Eight: Matisse, Renoir and the Barnes Dance
In the same way, Matisse found an indispensable channel for reflection in the still life, a genre he worked in throughout his career. In the renowned still-lives with oranges, which Apollinaire regarded as the quintessence of his art, Matisse developed an interplay of sophisticated allusions running from Cézanne’s apples to affectionate reinterpretations of works by Picasso.

Section Nine: Modernism: the Turning Point of the 1930s
Between the 1930s and ’50s, great figurative artist s like Matisse, Léger, Picasso and Dufy adopted a more fluid and schematic graphic style and a palette of primary colours echoing the modernist vocabulary of figures like Le Corbusier and Mondrian. Matisse’s paintings took on a new formal economy that can now be seen as clearly linked to the aesthetic of the 1950s, as exemplified by Matisse’s Young Woman in White, Red Background (1946) and Léger’s Leisure.

Section Ten: Matisse’s Legacy to Abstact Art. The Late Works
The new technique of gouaches découpés that Matisse invented around 1947 allowed him cut into the living heart of colour. This period saw the publication of Jazz (1947), a series of twenty stencil-printed colour plates including Icarus (no. 8). The new techniques devised by the master were to have a considerable impact on artists of later generations including abstract expressionists like Rothko and Sam Francis, and artists of the Supports/Surfaces group like Vincent Bioulès, Claude Viallat (whose Homage to Matisse of 1992 acknowledges his source of inspiration ).
Thanks to his son Pierre’s successful efforts to increase awareness of his work in the United States,
the exhibitions of his very late works held in France, and the decorative and architectural complex of the Chapel of Vence, Matisse’s art provides sustenance for the art of the 20th and 21st century.

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