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Take a Trip Around the World with Matisse
Visiting Henri Matisse in his studio in Vence, France, in 1944, the journalist Marguette Bouvier noted that “Congolese tapestries hang on the wall …” and that the artist had “… brought his shells and Chinese porcelains, his moucharaby [Moroccan textile screens] and his marble table and all the strange objects with which he loves to surround himself. Thus he reconstructed … this Matisse-atmosphere which he needs in order to live.”
Throughout his career, Matisse acquired a variety of objects that would serve as creative inspiration, as reminders of past experiences and as guides to the pictorial languages and formal devices of other cultures. They range from humble household items, like a tobacco jar, to more exotic objects such as Oceanic masks and Tahitian textiles.
Many of these artifacts appear multiple times in his paintings. They take on a variety of roles, almost as a repertory actor might take center stage for one performance and appear as a minor character in the next.
Like actors, the objects mutate in his work, their proportions and color transformed by the new relationships and settings in which they find themselves. When they weren’t being used as subject matter, they took their places as part of the ever-shifting domestic environment Matisse needed to sustain his imaginative world.
Out of Africa
Henri Matisse (1869–1954) launched his career as an artist in the first decade of the 1900s, when modern art was just beginning to blossom. Inspired by the experiments of the Post-Impressionists and alive to new possibilities of color and execution, Matisse and a group of painters including Édouard Vuillard and André Derain exhibited paintings in which raw, unnatural color was married with direct and forceful paint handling. In 1905, the press dubbed them the “Fauves,” or “Wild Beasts,” and their careers were up and running.
Among the many influences that led to this breakthrough was the availability of artifacts from cultures around the world that had been affected by colonialism or made accessible by ever-increasing trade. African art, for example, was just beginning to find its way into Parisian studios.One of the first items Matisse bought was an African sculpture, a Congolese Vili figure, which he purchased in Paris in 1906 for the modest sum of 50 francs.
“I went in and bought a little-seated chap sticking out his tongue,” he later recalled. “I went to Gertrude Stein’s on the rue de Fleurus and showed her the statue. Picasso came while I was showing the statue to her. … It was then when Picasso noticed negro sculpture.”
Matisse was entranced by the visual qualities of his new find — the strength of form, severe simplification and unfinished surfaces — qualities he began to incorporate into his own work. Over the next two years, he acquired more than 20 African pieces, including several tribal masks.
While these objects rarely make an appearance in his paintings, their influence is evident in Matisse’s 1906 Self-Portrait. The work is achieved with an almost brutally direct hand and bold simplification.
The artist’s next revelation was his discovery of Islamic art, largely brought about in 1910, when Matisse made repeated visits to an exhibition in Munich entitled “Masterpieces of Mohammedan Art.” This inspired him to make an extended trip to southern Spain, visiting the Alhambra in Granada and the Great Mosque of Córdoba. It was here Matisse began to realize the power of patterned surfaces to create a sense of space, especially when different patterns are juxtaposed with each other.
One of the objects he acquired was a green glass Andalusian vase, which he used in several paintings. In Vase of Flowers from 1924, it stands in the center of a domestic scene, taking on a curiously anthropomorphic quality with its two handles giving a hands-on-hips appearance. The background is formed with a set of juxtaposed patterns and a view through a window to the sea, all of which appear to have equal weight in a highly flattened composition.
Matisse went on to immerse himself in Islamic culture, making visits to Morocco in 1912 and 1913, where he hired models and collected textiles. His work began to incorporate the flattened space of Islamic art, with its lack of hierarchies, its delight in pattern and its rich color. This went hand-in-hand with the artist’s desire to move away from Western European art’s focus on fully rendered form and perspectival space.
In addition to its formal visual language, the artist also took from the Islamic world a fantasy of sensual life. He had brought home from Granada a postcard of the Hall of the Beds, the richly decorated changing room of the Alhambra bath house, where the king’s wives disrobed before bathing.
The 1920s found him setting up similar scenes in his studio, hanging fabrics and carpets to provide settings for models posed sensually in costumes fit for a harem, with billowing culottes and sheer blouses revealing naked breasts. This subject matter was a cliché left over from 19th-century Orientalism, when academic painters found a ready market for harem scenes. Rather than seeming voyeuristic, Matisse’s paintings treat the subject playfully, turning it into a charming motif on which to hang more formal adventures.
Matisse’s playfulness with his subject matter is clearly evident in his 1940 painting Interior With an Etruscan Vase. Here a model rests between poses, glancing up from a book she is reading. Beneath the table the green harem pants she has been dressed in for posing are visible.
Importance of Pattern
One of the Moorish objects Matisse acquired was a Haiti, a large textile with sections of open decorative work designed to hang in front of a window. Matisse used it in several paintings including The Moorish Screen of 1921.
Here, in spite of the lavish environment of Islamic textiles and rugs, the artist peoples the space with two properly dressed French ladies and includes a violin case as well as a European table. The sensuality of Islamic world has been safely domesticated. But the focused rendering of the European tradition has also been removed so that the flattened figures are given no more importance than any of the other elements.
“For me, the subject of a picture and its background must have the same value,” wrote Matisse. “Or, to put it more clearly, there is no principal feature, only the pattern is important.”
Although Matisse delighted in artifacts from other cultures, some of his favorite props were more humble French domestic objects. A pewter jug with a twisted stripe motif and a decorative handle appears in his work over several decades.
In 1917 it shows up in a fairly quiet and solid still life. But in 1937, it performs a literally pivotal role in a series of paintings, including the remarkable Purple Robe and Anemones. Here the entire composition seems to turn around the jug, which stands on a Moroccan table, another perennial favorite prop of the artist.
A bouquet of anemones bursts and spreads from the jug to balance the sensual promise of the young woman as she smiles back at the artist. The patterns filling the rest of the surface jostle against each other in a lively and precarious balancing act.
Matisse’s sensitivity to pattern was continually nourished by his growing collection of textiles and rugs. These included Tahitian bark cloth, Kuba textiles from the Congo, Islamic wall hangings, and a variety of oriental rugs.
One of his greatest paintings, Interior With Egyptian Curtain, uses an Egyptian tent curtain — a large piece of woven fabric covered in a bold appliqué design. In the painting, the tent curtain hangs to the right of a window with a view of a stylized palm tree. A table in the foreground holds a bowl of lemons.
The painting achieves a dynamic sense of balance as the expanding energy of the tree is pitched against the more constrained shapes of the curtain’s pattern, while the lemons provide a gentle counterpoint at the bottom of the painting.
Reduction of Objects to Signs
Much in evidence in Matisse’s work is the calligraphic handling of line, a feature that was to play an expanded role with the years. Late in his career, Matisse did an enormous number of brush drawings where he explored the idea of reducing objects to signs that could be arranged in compositions.
To find the appropriate sign for an object, Matisse drew it numerous times, internalizing it until he truly understood what it was for him. His calligraphic approach was much influenced by Chinese art.
He owned a large Chinese relief panel of four characters executed in a bold, energetic style. And, he often quoted what he said was an old Chinese proverb: “When you draw a tree, you must feel yourself gradually growing with it.”
For Matisse, drawing an object wasn’t a process of imitating its surface appearance but an act of supreme empathy. His brush drawing Acrobat, of 1952, shows the extreme simplification that he arrived at in reducing objects to the status of a sign.
This approach allowed him to make his late great work in the form of paper cutouts, in which he “drew” with a pair of scissors as he cut into large sheets of paper painted with gouache. “The cut-out” he said in a 1952 interview, “is what I have now found the simplest and most direct way to express myself.”
He continued, “One must study an object a long time to know what its sign is. Yet in a composition, the object becomes a new sign that helps to maintain the force of the whole. In a word, each work of art is a collection of signs invented during the picture’s execution to suit the needs of their position. Taken out of the composition for which they were created, these signs have no further use.”
Matisse’s use of sign reached its zenith in his work for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, in which his starkly clarified brush drawings appear on white tiled walls, illuminated by colors from the almost abstract designs of the stained glass. The artist even designed vestments for the priest on which versions of Christian symbols appear as signs.
Matisse had arrived at an art relieved of all its descriptive duties, projecting instead a kind of spiritual resonance throughout a complete environment. The achievement would not have been possible without the artist’s absorption in the products of many cultures and his insistence on drawing and painting them until he wholly possessed them.
“Things that are acquired consciously permit us to express ourselves unconsciously with a certain richness,” he wrote. Indeed, one of the most striking revelations of the exhibition was how ordinary, even dull, so many of the objects seemed in comparison with their appearance in the artist’s paintings, where they feel vital, vibrant and necessary. In the magic of this transformation, we feel the full mystery and greatness of Matisse’s art.
A version of this article, written by John A. Parks, was published in Artists Magazine. Subscribe today.
Do you have any objects that inspire your art? Tell us what they are in the comments!