The Big Show

Nicholas Penny

  • Henri Matisse: A Retrospective by John Elderfield
    Thames and Hudson, 479 pp, £48.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 500 09231 1
  • Henri Matisse 1904-1917 by Yves-Alain Bois
    Centre Pompidou, 524 pp, frs 220.00, February 1993, ISBN 2 85850 722 8

The visual arts today have two publics. One consists of people who visit, and revisit, churches, cathedrals, museums and galleries – as well as temporary loan exhibitions. The second consists of those whose experience of art is almost entirely of these exhibitions. Temporary loan exhibitions are not a new thing: they were mounted by the British Institution in London before the National Gallery was founded. But the big show – the international loan exhibition with its complex logistics, massive budget and, frequently, a good measure of political prestige – is still a comparatively new phenomenon, although its demise has been repeatedly predicted, chiefly because of rising insurance costs and the anxieties of conservators. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that what is really threatened is not the big show but the welfare of the museum or gallery which is its host.

Few major galleries can afford not to mount such shows, for the activity and ‘gate’ can be measured as ‘growth’ and shows attract the publicity which convinces both paymasters in government and private benefactors that the gallery deserves further support. The big show attracts a public for the permanent collection. Or so it is claimed. The Parisians who queue to see the new shows at the Grand Palais are seldom to be seen in the Louvre. And the more big shows there are, the less likely it is that those who visit them will feel the need for alternative sustenance.

Many conservators or curators privately concede that they neglect – or postpone – their duties to the permanent collection because of the importunate needs or the irresistible glamour of such shows. Moreover, it is not unusual either in the UK or the USA for part of the permanent collection to be temporarily packed away in order to make room for the big – for the even bigger – show. In Italy some smaller museums now seem to be open only for exhibitions, while the permanent collection remains in store. And in great Italian cities new spaces – often deconsecrated churches – are being opened up for shows, while in the museums and galleries the areas open to the public are contracting.

A museum which builds a new wing or is extensively refurbished can find its permanent collection treated like a show. Several of the VIPs I escorted around the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery when it opened asked me how long the ‘exhibit’ would be on and seemed bewildered when I replied ‘for ever.’ The Tate Gallery has adopted the novel idea of turning its permanent collection into a show by changing much of the display annually. The policy has offended many people, though it can be defended on the grounds that the Tate doesn’t have the space to exhibit all of its major works. It also has the great advantage of discouraging the premature establishment of a canon of modern art, or at least of encouraging less orthodox views, and reappraising neglected artists – a service best performed by small shows put on by large galleries.

Big shows play safe. Monet (more Monet shows are in preparation), Van Gogh, Matisse are the ideal subjects. The Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which closed in January and can now be seen in abbreviated form at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has been one of the most successful shows of recent decades. Those who have visited it dwell on the distance they travelled, the long queues they encountered, the attendance figures (reportedly higher than for Picasso). As with Pavarotti in the Park, the experience of high art approximates ever more closely to that of mass spectator sport or the popular pilgrimage.

The cumulative experience of an artist’s oeuvre can be extraordinarily moving as well as revealing and, it must be said, testing. It is also exhausting. The Matisse exhibition on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou consists of 140 paintings arranged within a labyrinth of white walls. It starts with paintings made at Collioure in 1905 in a Neo-Impressionist style with chopped ribbons of bright colour, moves on to densely patterned interiors such as the Harmony in Red of 1908 and the huge, ruthlessly simplified figure compositions, including The Dance of 1909 (in both versions), the marvellous and strange paintings made in Tangiers in 1912 and 1913 – Zorah Standing, Zorah on the Terrace and The Acanthus Plants, for example – and concludes with the Parisian paintings of 1916-17, which make extensive use of black, both as a flat area and as a sort of compositional scaffolding.

It is a good place to end, for after these rough and austere black paintings Matisse’s work declined both in energy and in inventiveness. Since most people who get into the show have been queuing for a couple of hours, it seems reasonable to suppose that they have at most a couple of hours left in them for concentrated viewing. In such time they can certainly obtain a good general impression of the exhibition and look carefully at about two dozen paintings. In New York, however, it is hard to believe that most visitors can have left with any sense that they had done justice to the four hundred or so paintings on display. Exhaustion, however, easily disguises itself as awe.

This feeling of awe, which is as marked a feature of the critical response to this exhibition as of the promotional literature for it, perhaps derives from Matisse’s position as a godfather – indeed the godfather – of ‘modern art’. The label ‘modern art’ isn’t much used now, but 15 years ago it was used frequently: the term conjured up a large canvas covered with big patches or bold patterns of colour probably painted in New York. American abstract art of the Fifties and Sixties owed much to Matisse. John Elderfield claims in his long introductory essay in the New York catalogue that ‘Matisse was alone when he began to discover that the very coloured stuff of which paintings are made can have an independent reality no less bodied and emotionally charged than the forms paintings depict.’ This is an extraordinary claim. Can red, however bloody, really have the impact of a wound, or blue, however deep, convey associations as potent as the ocean? The Museum of Modern Art in New York is one of the places in the Western world where such a claim is most likely to be made, for it has been closely associated with the promotion of American abstract painting.

The Centre Pompidou with its jolly coloured pipes is also a suitable setting for a celebration of Matisse, for the whole building seems to have been designed in accordance with an institutionalised pop style epitomised by the violet, tangerine and lime-green fibreglass seats in the Paris Metro stations and the stripy stumps that have invaded the Palais Royal. Matisse has been recruited to help an aging century feel young and bright and vital. He has secured uncritical adulation as a prophet even among those for whom much that he presaged now seems discredited or shallow.

The New York exhibition included some of Matisse’s earliest, often faltering efforts as a painter working in the manner of Monet and Manet as well as in that of Cézanne. His subjects were among those which were much in favour in the last decades of the last century in Paris: the view framed by the window (a type of landscape which cancels the middle distance); the artist’s own studio; the still life; the domestic interior, sometimes with a docile wife or feline model blending into it, treated as part of the furniture, part of the decoration, as domestic animals. These subjects are very often combined and there are a few paintings which combine all of them. Matisse’s most notable departures from this limited repertoire were either into portraits, or at least paintings of people, or into pastoral; and when in arcadia (or the gym or the pool), he is at his most abstract, dynamic and monumental.

Matisse invented a new type of representational art – often only just representational – which recorded the sensations of space, light and colour with the force and the imprecision of a recent recollection. This would have been impossible without the previous Impressionist enterprise of striving to record the data which the eye passively receives. Proust’s Impressionist painter, Elstir, aimed to reproduce not the visual world as he knew it to be, but the ‘optical illusions’ it could supply. ‘If God the Father had created things by naming them, then it was by removing their names or giving them other names that Elstir re-created them.’ Impressionism can be described as the pursuit of truth – a truth to which there was an inexplicable resistance, but which we now easily accept. But Proust’s account is rather different. Impressionism is a disorienting type of painting, the painting of illusion as distinct from fact, deploying hyperbole as a weapon against the numbing effects of familiarity. Ironically, Proust’s own description of the coast seen through the hotel window at Balbec – the band of colour in the sky like a layer of aspic, the sunset the colour of smoked salmon beside the cold grey mullet of the sea – is more startling than most Impressionist paintings. This is because the Impressionist was in fact limited in his ability to give things other names, and although Proust notes that Impressionist painting achieved something analogous to metaphor, this is far truer of the artistic developments which followed it. In Matisse’s painting people become things, things acquire personality, the outside moves inside, art (or at least wallpaper) becomes nature, the view becomes a picture – a picture in a picture.

Elderfield’s essay boldly takes up the question of the metaphorical dimension of Matisse’s work. He devotes several paragraphs to the famous Harmony in Red of 1908 in which the fat, flowing, simplified patterns on the tablecloth continue on the wallpaper and seem both to incorporate the still-life on the table and to be as close to (or as far from) nature as the stylised trees seen through the window. Here, as elsewhere in Matisse, ‘the subject matter is largely that of nature without culture, telling of a precultural, prehistorical harmony.’ The scattering of elements suggests ‘primal abundance’ and the picture is a ‘kind of container into which nature has been fitted’. Indeed, like the baskets of flowers which are part of the pattern of cloth and wallpaper, the picture itself is ‘a woven container which looks flat, but which offers an effect of enclosure nonetheless’. In addition, this particular picture is ‘metaphorical of the body. It is a container of fluids, organically shaped objects, and arabesques like sinews or veins; and it is, of course, blood red. Moreover, the subject of the picture is centred on the body and its reach; specifically, on a woman’s body that reaches into nature.’

Matisse was a witty artist – witty in a serious way. In this account he becomes implausibly solemn. It isn’t helpful to project onto his art those issues which so deeply concern modern intellectuals – anthropological preoccupations with Nature, post-Freudian preoccupations with the Body. The red of this painting, which doesn’t seem to me very bloody, was in fact a last-minute change of plan. Originally the room was blue. Such a reversal is highly characteristic of Matisse. In the marvellous Acanthus Plants (No 96 in Paris, not shown in New York) the sky is painted pink on top of blue and the soil blue on top of pink – the more orthodox, or less unorthodox, colours for each ‘grinning through’ (as a house painter would say).

Not only does Matisse wittily reverse his original ideas, he reverses conventional procedures and priorities. It seems that he frequently filled in the background before the figures or objects were painted or even precisely defined. In the Red Studio the furniture is indicated only by outlines left in reserve. In some later works women appear only as blank silhouettes. When reserved areas are filled in, a ragged halo often remains around the hands or feet (in Zorah Standing, for example) or around the goldfish or the leaves. Similarly, when he employs a black outline it is usually slightly ‘out of register’ (as a printer would say), sometimes running over the ground, sometimes run over by the filling.

Looking at the paintings, as distinct from the reproductions, one is struck by the use Matisse makes of the white priming of the canvas. In his Neo-Impressionist paintings the mosaic of touches is seldom dense, and white is essential to the vibrant effect. Later, there are the halos, and key areas elsewhere are uncovered: in the Music Lesson, for instance, the ear of the boy at the piano and a part of his sheet music as well as the silhouette of the seated figure in the background. In describing Matisse’s works one constantly returns to the idea of filling in or going over a pattern: a procedure associated with children’s art. And, indeed, Matisse’s painting was deliberately childlike and coarse – far coarser than one would suppose from the reproductions. Fear of seeming philistine should not hinder acknowledgment of this.

It is not that anyone would expect from Matisse any of the magical refinements of oil painting perfected in previous centuries – flickering lights, transparent shadows, blended forms and vanishing outlines. We know that he repudiated all this, but might still be surprised at the way he slapped the paint on, rubbing it, even scrubbing it, this way and that, or repenting of his impatience and dabbing or stabbing a succession of big punctuation-marks. His outlines are never painted with delicacy or finesse. There are numerous cases where his paint ran or dripped. The finest lines are the very thin ones which he scratched through the paint, sometimes with a rapid, scribbly insistence, sometimes with the languid manner of his pen drawings. Careless or carefree craftsmanship is also suggested by the frequency with which his thicker paint has started to crack: this is usually the consequence of scumbling on top of paint layers which have already begun to dry. Some of his most magical effects, however, derive from this practice. In Zorah on the Terrace, for instance, the violet blue is painted on top of pink, the pale green on top of blue and the yellow orange on top of blue green. The layers in The Acanthus Plants are another example. In cases like this the colours assume a hallucinatory vibrancy.

The deliberate technical crudity of Matisse’s painting is no less obvious in the late pictures cut out of painted paper – the cutting-out was done with a pair of scissors and reproduces all the awkward turns, slight discontinuities in straight lines and little splinters familiar to anyone who uses them. Crudity is essential to convey the speed, the minor accidents, the rapid changes which make improvisation exciting. And improvisation is essential to Matisse’s art. Harmony, or something quite like it, is contrived out of unexpected materials and with limited means. Somehow this playful business is allied to a serious exploration of the way we re-create the world in recollection, or see it with our eyes shut. It is not only the deliberate coarseness of the execution but also deliberate awkwardness of composition which strikes one forcefully at the exhibition. The Dance looks almost elegant in reproduction, almost fit to adorn an archaic Greek vase, but when you see the huge canvas (in either version) the collisions of form – the hands which don’t quite join, overlapping the leg behind them; the way that the arm of the woman on the right seems to cut off the feet behind it – disqualify it for ornamental application. It is these collisions which give the impression of rush and bump, imparting a human dimension of sorts to drastic simplifications.

The Harmony in Red, a very different picture with no action in it apart from the maid arranging dessert (Elderfield’s body reaching into nature) and with an elaborated rather than a pared down composition, lends itself to similar observations. Here it is the chair squeezed to the left of the table which is discordant – an element of reality stubbornly resistant to the pattern, refusing to be either bent out of place or eliminated, and thus revealing that the pattern is only a provisional schema.

Matisse’s people, even in his portraits, tend to have mask-like faces. Occasionally one might say that they have almost as much personality as a cat. Usually they are no more expressive than his goldfish. Yet when face or figure fills the canvas, it can generate some of the unease which we feel when suddenly in the presence of a stranger. This is often achieved by a disorienting device in the composition. In Zorah Standing, for instance, it is the feet forming parallel lines which go straight out of the picture. In the second portrait of Auguste Pellerin (one of the blackest paintings) it is the way that the rectangular frame behind the sitter clamps his circular skull. After all, even if Matisse was the godfather of Modern Art, he painted from life, or at least from the model, much of the time, as is amply documented by the photographs in these books, and some of these awkwardnesses spring from his recognition that he should let the difficulties of this sort of art disrupt other more ornamental or abstract ambitions.

The catalogues of the Matisse exhibitions are chiefly anthologies of good colour-plates. The one for the New York exhibition may seem more desirable because it covers the artist’s entire career, but the Paris catalogue is in some ways better. It has a more succinct preliminary essay, a more richly documented chronology and a valuable anthology of passages from Matisse’s letters or from contemporary criticism relating to each picture exhibited. This makes for excellent reading in the queue, if you can buy it beforehand.