Madame Matisse’s Hat
Henri Matisse’s portrait of his wife, Amélie Parayre, was first shown at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. The catalogue called it simply La Femme au chapeau. Journalists soon decided (or pretended) that Matisse’s painting was scandalous, and the public turned up in droves to make fun of it. So far so predictable: the script was forty years old. But on 15 November something unusual happened. Two paragraphs of real and vehement criticism appeared in the Symbolist journal L’Hermitage, signed by the painter-critic Maurice Denis. Ever since, they have haunted our picture of 20th-century art:
What one finds above all, particularly in Matisse, is artificiality; not literary artificiality, which follows from the search to give expression to ideas; nor decorative artificiality, as the makers of Turkish and Persian carpets conceived it; no, something more abstract still; painting beyond every contingency, painting in itself, the pure act of painting … What you are doing, Matisse, is dialectic: you begin from the multiple and individual, and by definition, as the neo-Platonists would say, that is, by abstraction and generalisation, you arrive at ideas, at pure Forms of paintings [des noumènes de tableaux]. You are only happy when all the elements of your work are intelligible to you. Nothing must remain of the conditional and accidental in your universe: you strip it of everything that does not correspond to the possibilities of expression provided by reason … You should resign yourself to the fact that everything cannot be intelligible. Give up the idea of rebuilding a new art by means of reason alone. Put your trust in sensibility, in instinct.
As a response to Matisse’s picture, these sentences may seem bizarre. To most viewers Woman with a Hat is the very epitome of the accidental and instinctive in painting. It is passionate and expressive. The hat sums up its mode. And yet Denis’s verdict, in my experience, will never entirely go away. The more one focuses on particular key passages in the painting, trying to see them as Denis-the-practitioner might have done (the strokes of colour that go to make Parayre’s mouth, nose and jaw, for instance, or the dab of purple underneath her chin), the more the element of plotting and calculation in Matisse’s procedure, almost of coldness, comes to the surface. ‘You strip [the world] of everything that does not correspond to the possibilities of expression provided by reason.’ This is absurd as a characterisation of the picture’s whole effect, but applied to Parayre’s face and look – her ‘expression’ – the words point to something real. ‘What you are doing, Matisse, is dialectic.’ Wild expressiveness and cool reduction coexist. Why? With what result?
We know that Woman with a Hat was painted, at speed, towards the end of summer in 1905; a larger, more elaborate landscape painting, which Matisse had intended as the lynchpin of his exhibit at the Salon, had turned out to be unfinishable in the time remaining. Leo Stein said later that Matisse dared come only once to the Salon d’Automne to see his painting in situ, for fear of scoffers, and that Madame Matisse never came at all. Denis was not the only fellow-artist to join the hue and cry. The German painter Hans Purrmann, looking back later to his days as Matisse’s pupil and ally, tells the story of Matisse’s studio colleagues asking the painter ‘what kind of hat and what kind of dress were they that this woman had been wearing which were so incredibly loud in colour. And Matisse, exasperated, answered “Black, obviously”.’
It was a joke. But the joke was a good one; and therefore it concentrated an amount of conscious and unconscious thinking in a single reversal of terms. The joke set me thinking straight away of Baudelaire’s choice of black as the bourgeoisie’s prime colour, possessing its own ‘poetic beauty, which expresses the soul of the age; an immense cortège of professional mourners, politicians in mourning, lovers in mourning, bourgeois in mourning. We are all celebrating some funeral.’ Or, better still, of Giacomo Leopardi’s terrible Dialogue between Fashion and Death, from which Walter Benjamin chose the following line to epitomise his ‘Paris, Capital of the 19th Century’ (a line in which Fashion addresses its double directly): ‘Fashion: Mr Death! Mr Death!’ Or, best of all, of Malevich in 1923: ‘I envisaged the revolution as having no colour. Colour belongs to the past. Revolution is not decked out in colours, not ablaze with them. Colour is the fire of the ancien régime … Anarchy is coloured black.’
Woman with a Hat is not Malevich’s Black Square. The two are Modernism’s opposite poles: revolution on the one side, the fire of the ancien régime on the other. But they are, I believe, related. Black, in modernism, is always lurking on the other side of reds and yellows blazing. Matisse the cold calculator – ‘the anxious Matisse, the madly anxious Matisse’, as a friend described him in 1904 – is the same man as Matisse the sensualist. Colours, in a painting like Woman with a Hat, are forced apart from their normal identities so that some work of mourning, or cherishing – the two are the same, ultimately – can be carried out.
Genuine points of comparison for Woman with a Hat are few. The best seems to me a great portrait by Cézanne (we now call it Woman in Blue; it is shown overleaf), almost certainly painted just five years earlier. Nothing is known about that painting’s early exhibition history – it was eventually bought from Ambroise Vollard by Matisse’s key patron, the Russian Sergei Shchukin – but it makes sense that Matisse could have seen it, at Vollard’s or in one of the Cézanne retrospectives. In any case he certainly had the chance to study others very much like it. And Cézanne, of course, was his touchstone. It is as if Woman with a Hat began as an imagining of Cézanne’s Woman in Blue abruptly stirring from her armoured, downcast immobility and swivelling to meet the viewer’s gaze; so that the blue of Woman in Blue’s costume – which is really more negative, more deeply inhuman and inorganic even than Baudelaire’s black – leaps into coloured flame. Constraint and uneasiness are still the order of the day in Matisse, but they no longer hold the main character in a vice. Maybe there was a little too much Death in Woman in Blue for Matisse’s taste – it is easy to imagine Cézanne’s sitter contemplating a skull – and not enough of Fashion. Imagine Woman in Blue repainted by Van Gogh (another Matisse point of reference). There would still be plenty of tension and anxiety in evidence, needless to say, but everything would turn to confront us. Affect would be less painfully internalised. Modernity is outwardness, even in its moments of distress.
Painters who revered Cézanne in the early 1900s often saw him as the master of pictorial uncertainty. They loved the strangeness of his drawing and the impenetrability of his space. Pictures he had left unfinished were especially celebrated. This enthusiasm was founded on various (by then familiar) modernist assumptions, having to do with the inherent instability and open-endedness of perception, the impossibility of totalising, the dispersal of identities in the space of desire. Do these beliefs subtend Woman with a Hat? Perhaps. Listen to Proust on the subject, in Le Côté de Guermantes – he is describing the process of giving Albertine a first kiss – and look back at Amélie Parayre’s cheek:
In short, just as at Balbec Albertine had often appeared to me different, so now, as if, prodigiously accelerating the speed of the changes of perspective and changes of colouring which a person presents to us in the course of our various encounters, I had sought to contain them all in the space of a few seconds so as to reproduce experimentally the phenomenon which diversifies the individuality of a fellow-creature, and to draw out one from another, like a nest of boxes, all the possibilities it contains – so now, during this brief journey of my lips towards her cheek, it was ten Albertines that I saw; this one girl being like a many-headed goddess, the head I had seen last, when I tried to approach it, gave way to another. At least so long as I had not touched that head, I could still see it, and a faint perfume came to me from it. But alas – for in this matter of kissing our nostrils and eyes are as ill-placed as our lips are ill-made – suddenly my eyes ceased to see anything, and then my nose, crushed by the collision, no longer smelled anything, and … at last I learned, from these obnoxious indications, that I was in the very act of kissing Albertine’s cheek.
Phew! Proust’s passage is irresistible, I feel, and very modern, precisely in its being unbelievable. It is an idea of observing oneself in the act of passion. Not a word of it – not even the crushed nose – rings true. But that might mean it applies all the better to what Matisse did in 1905. For Woman with a Hat seems to want to register above all the factitiousness – the made-up quality – of a face seen from inches away. All I would say is that, for me, the factitiousness in Matisse does not result in perceptual break-up or breakdown. It does not reduce the face – even the cheek and jawline – to ‘obnoxious indications’. The face is multiple, and we as observers struggle to reconcile its contrary aspects. But we can do it. The picture allows us to. The quote we need from Proust, therefore, is more modest. The human face, he writes at one point, is ‘like the face of the God of some oriental theogony, a whole cluster of faces, crowded together but on different surfaces, so that one does not see them all at once’.
What is it we are looking at, exactly, in Woman with a Hat? I see a woman, maybe in her thirties, looking intently from under the brow of a hat. Madame Matisse was 33 in 1905, and had given birth to two children. Her hat is enormous. It participates, so historians of fashion tell us, in the mad upward climbing of hats in the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. Apparently the year of maximum levitation was 1911. The hat is splendid, but slightly crushing. It casts an implacable green shadow straight along Parayre’s forehead, and its blue all but annihilates the red of her hair. But the hat is abstract: the painter does not seem interested in making its extravagance palpable. It is a set of signs for hat-ness, for puffing up and profusion, for Fashion at war with Death. There is never a moment at which its showmanship distracts from the intensity – the humanness – of what is going on underneath it.
We happen to know that Madame Matisse was a hatmaker, apparently a very talented one. She was a remarkably skilled needlewoman all round. Earlier the same year, in the Spring Salon des Indépendants, there had been a submission (now lost) under the name Matisse (Mme Henri): Écran tapisserie sur un carton d’André Derain. Her hatmaking, we learn from Hilary Spurling’s biography, had time and again kept her various families afloat.[*] In 1895, aged 23, she had gone to work for Aunt Nine, owner of the Grande Maison des Modes on the boulevard Saint-Denis. She did so because her father had just been thrown out of work – he was a political manager and general factotum for a financier-politician called Frédéric Humbert – by the failure of his boss’s newspaper. In 1899, a year after her marriage to Matisse, Parayre set up her own hat shop in the rue de Châteaudun, using her aunt’s contacts. It was the only way her new husband was going to be able to continue painting full-time – which apparently (Spurling makes the case humanely) she was determined to have happen. In the terrible year of 1902, when the Matisse family was swept up and all but broken by the father’s part in financial and political scandal, Parayre’s health failed and her hat-shop went under. (The shop had previously been searched by the police, looking for hidden bearer bonds.) By 1903, when the worst of the family crisis was over, she was back with Aunt Nine on the boulevard.
The hat is very far from being an innocent symbol, then. It is presumably Madame Matisse’s own handiwork, and in a sense Monsieur Matisse’s livelihood. Painting below, handicraft above. Or rather, since both spouses were emerging from a sequence of dismal years in which neither’s activity did much to pay the bills, the hat and the painting are put in an imagined (utopian) equilibrium. Fashion is livelihood, and maybe a bit of a burden; but the face – the face of survival and anxiety, the face of painting – burns underneath the flummery with a livid, unstoppable flame.
How, then, physically, did Matisse choose to show his wife facing the world? Let us say, in a preliminary fashion, that Parayre seems to be sitting somewhat sideways to us, obliquely, with her face perhaps turned back to intercept our glance. The face is not quite frontal. The two eyes equivocate about how much the further one, to our right, recedes into depth. Down below, in the body, most things are left in suspense. And I want to hang on to that uncertainty as long as I can. I do not want to see straight away what Madame Matisse is made out of. This is because I believe the painting expects its viewer not to see straight away, and even when she has seen, to be unsatisfied, or unsure, that the best-case scenario adds up.
The puzzle is the pose, and the nature of the woman’s costume. In a sense we are back to the jeering fellow-painters and their demand for literal truth. What sort of dress is Parayre wearing? What are the contours of her breasts and shoulder? How do we interpret the short line of white that puts an end to the sweep of colour on the right-hand side, and the halo of indigo just beyond it? Are we looking at a boundary line between flesh and dress material here – a truly spectacular décolletage – or between one kind of dress material and another; between a flower-patterned lace or taffeta coming down from Parayre’s throat and the start of her dress proper? How much flesh is visible – at Parayre’s neck, at her breast, on her arms? It looks, does it not, as if she is wearing long green and pink gloves. And the glove in the centre – close to us, apparently – is resting on a green vertical, capped with a curlicue of purple. Sometimes in the literature she is said to be sitting with her hand resting on the arm of a chair. I wonder. I see no other sign of chair-ness hereabouts, except maybe the blunt diagonal of blood red propping up Parayre’s elbow. She could as well be holding a metal-tipped cane, or a parasol. What do we make of the astonishing aureole of pink colliding with yellow, put in around the glove’s dark beak? Is it a handkerchief? If it is, the material appears to be sticking to the glove as opposed to being held by the hand inside it. Or is it a great limp flower? But never has a shape been less like any specific botanical specimen. Presumably the strip of yellow, orange and red that crosses the body towards the bottom is meant as a belt. In that case, are we to read the analogous crossbar of orange at the neck not as a brilliant transposition of flesh-tone (which the overall mode of the painting might suggest) but a necklet whose colours roughly match the belt – the kind of accessory that often crops up in fashion plates from the time?
The further I go, the more literal-minded about local colour I think I am entitled to be. And this is true to the picture: it is the other side of the implied contempt for literalness built into Matisse’s ‘Black, obviously.’ Of course there are things in the painting that are never going to settle into being equivalents for familiar parts of the world – the blue and green background on each side of the face, notably – but there are plenty of others that do so settle, or could so settle if we would let them. The neck might actually be orange, the dress might be green and blue, and the lip – that terrible, inconsolable lip – is lip-coloured. Matisse is never going to allow his viewers simply to give up on the question, ‘Do these colours refer?’ He is not willing, at this point in his career, to facilitate a viewing that settles for the whole modernist artefact being at one (consistent) imaginative remove from the world, existing stably as something the artist dreamed up. It is the jarring between likeness and transposition, or literalness and impossibility, that is the Matisse effect. And this was the jarring, the inconsistency, that put his fellow modernists’ teeth on edge.
Of course Matisse has used the ‘same’ colour, or very slight variants of it, for utterly different things. He expects us to notice this. Orange for the necklet and also the belt; pink for the jawline and for some sort of embroidery on the glove; a whitened orange (more or less a pink) to pin down something as solid as the bottom lip and the set of the chin, but then – and maybe, it seems, simultaneously – the same colour to suggest something as elusive, or at least as impalpable, as the halo round the gloved fingers; a dark purpled red (dried blood colour) for the eyebrows, the armpit, the hard line along the top of the far breast. The painting, that is to say, is sewn together by literal recurrences.
All the same, some colours occur only once, at crucial junctures. Look at the purple curlicue I pointed to earlier, between the hand and cane; or the exact shade of green chosen for the bar of shadow (if that is what it is) across Parayre’s brow; or the kind of purpled mauve, more opaque and decisive than any of its many near relatives, that opens up the space at the front of her throat. The painter wants us to see the subtlety, and also the wilfulness, of his variations on a theme, or his seeing of different things in the same light; but then he also expects us to register the decisive leap out of the established scale. He wants us to notice, and to gasp at, his suddenly seeing how to fix, or transfix, a singular optical fact. Nothing will prepare us, or will have prepared the painter, for the final dab of yellow on the tip of Parayre’s nose – but the whole picture hangs on it. Nothing could be more hardworking, more investigative and empirical, than the way her mouth is drawn. First there were two plain strips of red and pink – bars at the top of an abstract ladder of colour, pink for the chin, green for the recession above it, pink again for the underlip, and flaring red for the upper one. But then this abstraction of sensuality had to be made into a particular mouth. A tentative, half-transparent line of greyed mauve was put over the red to the left, as if trying to inscribe on top of it more of a Cupid’s bow. And a bolder, more opaque dab of mauve was put next to the pink of the lower lip, giving the left side of the mouth a shape. And was this the point at which the amazing, inorganic green of the shadow under the nose was strengthened, so as to intensify the play of complementaries? Did the pear drop of yellow occur as part of this process? Was it maybe thrown up by the business of getting the other greens and yellows to keep the mouth – the mouth’s wounded sensuality – from running away from the rest of the face? (Of course the mouth runs away with the picture. The picture turns on it. But for that very reason it had to be held down, and held back. It had to be intensely, naively correct.)
So … It is the local precision of colour on the face that holds the likeness together. I guess I am only stating the obvious. And so far I have only pointed to part of what happens. I have not looked at the colours and modelling on Parayre’s cheek and jaw – let us call them the Albertine part of the picture, the non-obnoxious Albertine part. And I have not really focused on the eyes – on the abstract patchwork of the two irises, and the slight shift and tilt between one eye and the next. The face is an intense circuit of equivalents, with every touch elated and investigative. The effect is all the more gripping because it goes along with the fact – which we soon become aware of, even at two or three feet away – that so much of the face is sparsely, minimally indicated. The jaw and cheek are touches, dabs, on top of largely unmodified liquid primer, tinted a light grey-green. The ear is an awkward blot, surrounded by traces of charcoal under-drawing. Always we are meant to be aware of haste, of manic and inspired economy, of sparseness on the verge of tipping over into outright erasure or inattention. But again and again the face composes itself out of the clusters and surfaces, and becomes, pace Proust, all one thing.
It is the face that matters. But the body and pose, in their very elusiveness, keep calling for a solution. At last I see what it is. Madame Matisse’s breast and shoulders – the whole spectacular lacework and corsage, or décolletage and bouquet – turn out to be no such thing. They refer, on the contrary, to the 19th century’s chief instrument of concealment, but also of signalling and revelation. Parayre is clutching a wide-open fan, with maybe a pattern of flowers on it, or even an actual bunch of flowers held against it, awkwardly. (So is the pink and yellow aureole really a crinkled paper wrapper? And is what I previously called a cane or parasol maybe not solid at all, more like the fan’s dangling tassel?) Perhaps the fan is rippled and buckled a little – as if torqued by Parayre’s grip. Would that explain what happens to its top edge towards the right? Of course, even when we opt for the fan solution to the puzzle, the marks that ought to make up the object go on escaping from the frame. The thick paint on the flowers – the white is by some way the thickest piece of paint in the picture – makes it impossible to have the flowers settle down into decoration on the fan. And yet they are never enough like real flowers to belong anywhere else. Towards the fan’s right edge the touches and patches of colour on it are truly cursory, wriggling on a dead light-purple primer. Here is the part of the picture most like poor Albertine’s cheek. ‘Obnoxious’ would be overstating things. But certainly indiscriminate – not really brought into focus.
So the interpretative question follows. Once the wide-open fan is registered as a possibility, how does Parayre change? Above all, what happens to her orientation to the viewer as a result – the way she addresses our gaze? I am not sure. I think that perhaps the fan’s presence has the effect of opening the figure slightly, and turning it more towards us. It helps the figure ‘face’ us. Or rather, it polarises the choice of readings on offer. Either the figure is facing us, or it is looking a touch obliquely – over the shoulder, with the quality of a look intercepted. The either-or quality becomes more distinct. The woman is looking and moving two ways, and the difference between the two poses becomes just a bit more noticeable, more irreconcilable, once the fan is in place – more a question of ‘duck’ versus ‘rabbit’. The face itself is still turning; but the body faces us four-square. Or maybe it is just that the fan conjures up the facing – gives us a fleeting, misleading impression of the body revealing itself – as fans were supposed to do.
Fan and hat are in cahoots. The hat’s absurd determination to face us and be a face, a second face, the face that respectable women could never, naturally, put on (a metaphor of sensuality rampant, a crazy bird’s nest of pleasures and promises): all this, as I said before, is abstract. It cancels itself as it proliferates. It is just an idea of overtness – of sex being finally ‘in your face’. And the fan, for me, is ultimately the same kind of abstraction. Fan and hat both try to fight the face’s sensuality to a standstill, exactly by spelling out that sensuality, by making it tritely exterior. They are twin millstones. They crush and volatilise what they cover or protect. The cane is a neurasthenic’s prop.
Maybe this is too literary. But suppose we look again at the green that Matisse has put all over the place in the picture (to the right of the face especially), and see it not merely as a foil for the face’s sensuality, but as threatening and infiltrating Parayre’s vitality – a green sickness that turns her mouth into a bruise. Is this, too, forcing the note? Perhaps we could think of the green simply as a non-bodily colour, which by its nature cancels sensuality. So that even the vibrant reds and oranges of bodily orifices are not enough to conjure back fleshly existence into the space of Fashion. Is this the picture’s basic wager? Suppose we ask ourselves what we make, in this connection, of Madame Matisse’s ‘expression’? What word gets us on its wavelength? Is it guarded? Strained? Reproachful? Distrustful? Disdainful? Do you see it as touched with distaste, or anxiety, or even a mild fear? Or is she just distant? Somewhere out there on her own.
This was a woman, we know biographically, who had just been through public hell. She was tremendously armoured, but maybe understandably always waiting for the worst to happen. Spurling quotes her as saying later in life: ‘I am in my element when the house burns down.’ There were several such burnings over the course of her 20th century. And I interpret the remark as meaning that she did best – she was most fully herself – when actual catastrophe took the place of potential one. The potential catastrophe she had learned to believe life always was.
It is all very modern. Parayre’s eyes, mouth and eyebrows are how I imagine Freud’s Dora’s to have been, or Ursula Brangwen’s, or Maggie Verver’s. ‘Hold on tight, my poor dear,’ Maggie says to herself as the noose tightens, ‘without too much terror – and it will all come out somehow.’
Spurling believes that Woman with a Hat ‘is among other things a portrait of Amélie’s courage, her will and her passionate, exacting faith in the painter’. I admire the interpretation, and certainly prefer it to the usual patter in the textbooks, which hardly cares that the Woman is a woman, let alone a specific individual. All the same, Spurling’s vocabulary has me worried. I have the feeling that ‘courage’ and ‘will’ are exactly the kinds of totality that Matisse thought painting in 1905 – and beyond painting, modernity – had found it must do without.
Maybe we could approach the question by turning again, in a more generalising spirit, to the features of the painting that earn it a place in art history: its high-keyed colour, its high-risk handling. What were the colour and handling of? What did they stand for? Matisse’s exasperated ‘Black, obviously’ is not in the end a response simply to his acquaintances’ cheap jibes, but to the real question underlying them, to which none of us has a good answer. What is the transposition of colours in modernism – which is only the most flagrant example of a general de-realisation of means and materials, a forcing and negation built into the very texture of resemblance – intended to do?
My answer – Matisse’s answer – is that it opens onto black. It is a way of showing sensuality – sensuous experience – becoming something thought or manufactured, as opposed to felt. Denis’s ‘artificiality’ points this way. Or D.H. Lawrence’s ‘consciousness’. Here, for example, is the odious Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, rounding on Hermione:
‘Spontaneous!’ he cried. ‘You and spontaneity! You, the most deliberate thing that ever walked or crawled! … Because you want to have everything in your own volition, your deliberate voluntary consciousness … If one cracked your skull perhaps one might get a spontaneous, passionate woman out of you, with real sensuality. As it is, what you want is pornography – looking at yourself in mirrors, watching your naked animal actions in mirrors, so that you can have it all in your consciousness, make it all mental.’
I realise that this makes Proust, by comparison, seem a real lover of women. And Birkin, to be fair to Lawrence, is meant to be a violent and dangerous prig. (A portrait of the author.) Nothing could be further from Matisse’s tone. But tone is not everything: sometimes excess turns out to be a way to get difficult issues in focus; and I believe that Matisse’s and Lawrence’s proposals about modernity are closely linked.
Could we imagine something like Birkin’s words, minus the nasty self-righteousness, spoken gently – spoken out of love? For Spurling is right: love is at stake here. And of course the words in question (transposed into an ironic, puzzled, even admiring register) are addressed by Matisse not just to Amélie but to himself – to his own anxious sensibility. I think that Woman with a Hat is all about getting sensuality ‘in the head’, to use another of Birkin’s insults – making it discursive and reflexive. It is about having the immediate and passionate – having colour, in other words – become a matter of mind.
Maurice Denis was not the only modernist in 1905 to think that Woman with a Hat had got the relation between the mental and the sensual the wrong way round. André Gide, for example, wrote this of Matisse:
The canvases he shows on this occasion have the aspect of theoretical demonstrations [exposés de théorèmes] … a product of theories. Everything in them can be deduced, explained; intuition has nothing to do with it. No doubt when Matisse paints that woman’s forehead apple green … he can say to us ‘I do it because.’ Yes, this painting is reasonable, all right: it is positively argumentative [Oui, raisonnable cette peinture, et raisonneuse même plutôt].
Gide is over-clever; but he gets something right. Of course I realise that many readers, confronted by him and Denis (and the overlap between their vocabulary and arguments is striking), may feel like shaking the pair by the shoulders and telling them ‘Look again.’ How could anyone face to face with Woman with a Hat – and not just dazzled and terrified by it – have failed to see that in it intuition, accident and spontaneity are still palpably struggling with mind? And how could a painter like Maurice Denis – Nabi, neo-Catholic, ultra-Rightist – have dared call Matisse on the issue of modernism as mental game-playing? Gide and Denis’s mistake, we could say, was to think that they had identified a cold, hard condition Matisse had succumbed to, rather than one he tried to represent. As if the condition was avoidable! As if Gide and Denis were not sufferers.
Nonetheless, as I say, they were onto something. The ‘parce que’ built into the apple green line (and every other line and choice of colour in Woman with a Hat) has something truly chilling to it as well as exhilarating. For every act of sensuous realisation in Matisse has at the same time to be ‘an act of will in a field of artifice’. This is the picture’s wager, it seems to me – its root discovery about modernity. It is out to make a completely overt and sensuous likeness in which the sensuousness would be self-cancelling. It will show us sensuousness (colour) at the point of being or becoming all calculation and anxiety, all the idea of outwardness and contact, not its reality. To call this Fauvism, then, as the critics did in 1905, is one hundred per cent wrong – unless the wild beast is imagined as always looking back at the onlooker through the bars of its cage. Colour is a cage in Matisse, or a kind of armour – still reminiscent of the carapace in Cézanne’s Woman in Blue.
So Denis’s intuition of Woman with a Hat as dialectical, noumenal and self-cancelling strikes me as profoundly right. Denis, incidentally, spent a lifetime promoting a painting that would use the great outwardness of colour to vivify Idea – Idea with a capital I. But what Matisse is doing, he sees, is using colour to do an altogether different sort of dialectics. Colour would recapitulate sensuousness, but in the very process of negating itself and becoming a mental image. It would not be concentrated and intensified in the process: not supercharged and totalised by the artist’s vision, but put down in patches and fragments – acts of will, demonstrations, repetitions of the same overanxious ‘parce que’.
This is modernism as I see it. Or rather, it is modernism at its limits; at one of its moments of extremism and provocation, which do turn out (sometimes) to be its moments of renewal. Of course you will gather that I am on Matisse’s side in his dispute with Denis, but I nonetheless feel the dispute is a real one, and I feel sympathy for Denis’s side of things. Denis’s is also a modernist voice. And his wish for a form of art that would come to exist on the far side of formalism – formalism and paradox – is a vision, needless to say, that modernism has always been haunted by.
Modernism is paradox. It is dialectics. It is an art that continually, relentlessly proposes that human qualities, which once were implicit and embedded in the texture of experience – qualities of intensity, depth, directness, vividness – are on the verge of extinction. They have been outlawed, or, worse still, vulgarised and commodified, so that everywhere miniaturised and compressed kitsch images of them whirl by in the ether of information, as background to buying and selling. Modern art is an act of dialectical retrieval, in what it sees as desperate circumstances. The human will only be found again, it says, by pressing on towards the human’s opposite. Depth will be found in flatness, and spontaneity conjured out of cold technique. Absolute openness and vulnerability can only be discovered through a process of rigorous masking and formality. Affect and rationality are, at the moments that matter in Matisse, somehow bizarrely the same thing. The one is the form of the other. Fashion in modernism is always speaking Leopardi’s great line. Mr Death, it says, Mr Death. Orange is blue, and pink is sea-green. And all the colours of the rainbow are black.