Matisse

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The Musée du Luxembourg announces its current show of Matisse’s art as a kind of resurrection–his second life he himself called it–begun at 72 after several life-changing events.  First there was his separation from his wife in 1941, after 43 years of marriage, and in 1942 an operation for intestinal cancer that left him weak, bed-ridden, and finally confined to a wheelchair.  He also became increasingly arthritic and must have lost some of his fine motor skills.  In severe cases of arthritis it becomes too painful, if not physically impossible, to hold a pen, or a brush, of small circumference.  It is the work produced by Matisse in these last years of his life that forms the basis of this show.  What we see is that any physical infirmities seem overwhelmed by an artistic spirit that could still soar.  He was unstoppable and insistent that, even as an old man, he still had things to say.  He must have been a tough old bird, and this exhibition is testimony to his stubborn refusal to give in to his diminished physical state. Art historians have seemed loath to attribute any aesthetic decisions to the physical limitations of an artist.  For example, I have heard that Monet’s diminished eyesight should not be used to explain the changes in his late style.  Matisse’s physical limitations then should not be used to explain the changes in his work in the last decade of his life.  However, it is a position that simply seems to fly in the face of the physical evidence. You may be shocked to see the works in the first two rooms.  The colorist, the Fauvist Matisse who matured into the user of pure color hues, is nowhere to be found.  In his place is the artist of the line drawing, some with thinner lines done with a sharply pointed pen, some with heavy lines done with the tip of a brush as broad as a modern-day Magic Marker, all uniquely in black. One can only imagine how he would have loved the felt-tipped multi-colored markers used by today’s youngest budding artists. But if the small motor skills are limited, he’s not lost his eye or his imagination.  For example, his drawing of a young woman reclining next to a plant (Theme E, variation 8, 1941), one of several pictures here that are still in private hands, shows that the economy of line, the rondeur of each pen stroke, is still with him.  But now he overlaps lines, from her chest onto her arm, from the heel of her hand onto her jawbone, something that he would not have done earlier.  This woman could be just an excuse for the leaves, for the plant that occupies nearly half of the picture.  Elsewhere the human form is set aside entirely for pen and ink, or brush and ink, renderings of trees on large sheets of white paper (Theme I, variation 7, 1942).   No chiaroscuro in these drawings–they are more diagrammatic trees than three-dimensional ones.  They flatten out on the paper and, despite their less-than-life size, they seem to tower over us; as in nature, no two trees are the same.   All of them are composed of round-edged leaves, and the viewer is struck with the continuity of the roundness of his line in all of these drawings, as in his mature work in general.  In the next room we can finally take a deep breath.  That first room is filled with the tension of the unknown.  But now, we see that the color is still there, and we are once again reassured that Matisse has not lost his bonheur de vivre.  For good reason, the grand old master is in demand.  Commissions come in from all over France: tapestries from Gobelin, book illustrations from publishers, stained glass windows from a church in the south of France.  It’s 1946 and the Gobelin Tapestry Works implore him to design something for them to weave.  Matisse writes to a friend that he still hasn’t said yes but that that it would give him great pleasure to take Gobelin out of the eighteenth century at long last.  And does he ever turn them around!  In Polynésie, la mer, he takes a medieval conception of color fields, the kind seen in glass windows, and uses it to divide the tapestries into ten rectangles of royal blue alternating with sea-green blue.  Then he ignores the divisions and scatters across the surface creatures and creations of the sea, all swirling and swooping and swaying in the current made momentarily static in those fields of blue. Matisse still has blue rectangles on his mind when he paints Interior jaune et bleu that same year.  Two corners of the canvas are set apart as blue fields in a yellow picture.  Once the colors are set out, Matisse can use his familiar black, curving arabesque lines to draw the furniture and scant elements of a room almost without taking note of the divided canvas.  But wait, he’s up to his old tricks and there’s a picture within the picture.  The blue field in the lower left is a canvas, a still-life that leans against one edge of the round table.  The blue field in the background, is that yet another painting that we see through the back of the chair?  Those color fields might even be used to define foreground and background, and to delineate the interior.  They are not at all the same rectangles of the tapestry. Color, always essential to Matisse, becomes even more central to his aesthetic in this period of his life.  As form becomes increasingly simplified, as shapes are pared down to essential outlines, Matisse returns to a technique he first used in the early 1930’s.  For preparatory studies of La Danse he cut the figures of the dancers out of paper painted in flat shades of undiluted opaque color.  The color and…
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