Henri Matisse

#74. Alan Gouk writes on Key Paintings of the 20th Century: a Musée Imaginaire (Part 1).

Paul Cézanne, “Ginger Jar and Fruit”, c. 1895

“First the Giants, then the pygmies.”   Elie Faure

I could have begun with a painting by Rubens, one of Cézanne‘s favourite painters, his Susannah and the Elders in Munich, or the Three Graces in the Prado, but that would have set us off on the wrong foot by confirming Cézanne‘s own estimate of himself – “how feeble I am in life “, said in relation to Manet’s “bold impasto”. However, when the National Gallery placed Cézanne‘s Grand Bathers beside Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Rubens’ Judgement of Paris, he did not look feeble, and it was the Rubens that fell away first. What the confrontation confirmed was that it is not the succulent rendering of flesh, the atmospheric rendering of spatial illusion, nor the sumptuous handling of fabrics and the texture of appearances that counts, but the architectural strengths of the composition, the disposition of the major masses and the demands of their accommodation to the entire presented image, and the shape of the canvas , and that this can be created with a new economy of means, new and old, and an especial emphasis on “form”, form over the sensuous, form over everything. Cézanne goes on to build a monument to his feebleness.

And here is a contradiction, for how can it be that someone who said this of himself could prove to be the most powerful temperament in a century of powerful temperaments?

Emile Zola, a vocal champion of the movement in French painting he designated as “naturalism”, coined the expression — “nature seen through a temperament”. No one had a temperament more powerful and idiosyncratic than Paul Cézanne, of an intensity bordering the pathological, in his adolescent ferment, at least. (Perhaps it was just adolescent rebelliousness.) And he did not quite shed the phantasising of erotic torment that assailed him in youth, fuelled by his readings in classical literature, common to every well-educated schoolboy in France in the 19th century.

Underneath and parallel to the discipline instilled into him during his apprenticeship with Pissarro, there remained an erotic imaginative life which found expression in the many Bathers paintings, La Lutte D’Amour, a baroque turbulence in marked contrast to the strictness of his study after nature.

We are not all gifted with as strong a temperament, not all blessed with “equal temperament”. Some of us are in C major, some of us in B flat minor. Some are predominantly extravert sensation types, others are introverted feeling. Find out who you are. Be who you are, and not who you wish you were.

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#71. John Bunker writes on Richard Smith, Work of Five Decades at Flowers Gallery, London

Installation View, upper gallery, Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades, Flowers Gallery, © Richard Smith Foundation, courtesy Flowers Gallery London and New York

Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades is at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London until 15th July 2017

https://www.flowersgallery.com/exhibitions/view/richard-smith-5

Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades is as rich and tantalising a show as it is modest and partial. Well chosen combinations of work signal original and singular twists and turns across Smith’s career. It was a chance to get up close to some of the later more delicate and intricate works loosely coming under the rubric of the “Kite” paintings. But there were also the more robust deliberately awkward painterly works that play explicitly with the grid and illusions heightened by intense colour-play. These contrasts and continuities in approaches did not disappoint – but in ways totally unexpected.

The biggest surprise came on encountering Smith’s Snakes and Windows filling the whole of the ground floor (upper) gallery space. I was taken aback by my initial reactions to what is essentially an installation piece because I was instantly reminded of my first encounter with Matisse’s Memory of Oceania and The Snail brought together in Tate Modern’s Cut-Outs blockbuster in 2014. In a note I’d made at that time about them both I said:

“…and finally found myself perplexed but totally engaged by the slow-motion collapsing architecture of Memory of Oceania. The Snail, according to the received wisdom of art historical myth-making, takes us to the cusp of a new kind of visual drama, one of colour and shape devoid of subject-matter adhering only to the shape of the canvas itself. Was this the future that Matisse had in mind for his Cut-Outs?”

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#51. Alan Gouk writes on the Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

Gallery of Matisses at the Shchukin Collection, photo John Pollard

Gallery of Matisses at the Shchukin Collection; photo John Pollard

The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris has been extended to 5th March 2017.

http://www.fondationlouisvuitton.fr/en.html

This unmissable show is likely to be the highlight of this year and possibly of the decade. The flamboyant kite-like superstructure in Frank Gehry’s signature style apart, the main galleries display beautifully the visionary taste and judgement of this extraordinary Russian collector. What monstrosities may we expect when this show closes? Gerhard Richter? Cy Twombly? Bill Viola? Ai Wei Wei? God help us! So let us rejoice while we can that there once was a man of superlative judgement to take the true temperature of his times, a time before the psychopathology of art globalisation. This is an exhibition that normally would have gone to the Met. or the National Gallery. How many handbag sales have gone into this colossally expensive enterprise on the fringes of the Bois De Boulogne?

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#49: Ms. Ellen Knee writes on Matisse/Diebenkorn; Rothko; Copperwhite; Imperfect Reverse.

Henri Matisse, Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, 1924, Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Henri Matisse, Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, 1924, Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

On Art News Phyllis Tuchman reviews The Matisse/Diebenkorn show in Baltimore:

http://www.artnews.com/2017/01/19/striking-up-a-conversation-the-baltimore-museum-of-art-unites-matisse-and-diebenkorn-in-a-glorious-exhibition/

Striking Up a Conversation: The Baltimore Museum of Art Unites Matisse and Diebenkorn in a Glorious Exhibition.

Tuchman writes:

“Astonishingly, Diebenkorn’s paintings in Baltimore are never overshadowed, as you might expect, by Matisse’s masterpieces. The American who twice lived outside San Francisco—in Berkeley (1953–66) and Healdsburg, California (1988–93)—as well as on the western outskirts of Los Angeles (1966–88) doesn’t just hold his own: he actually upstages Matisse.”

That indeed is astonishing…

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#40. Harry Hay writes on Philip Guston, Henri Matisse and the Politics of the Idle.

Philip Guston, "Stranger", 1964

Philip Guston, “Stranger”, 1964

“Why am I like this?” Oblomov asked himself almost with tears, hiding his head under the blanket again. “Why?”

After seeking in vain for the hostile source that prevented him from living as he should, as the ‘others’ lived, he sighed, closed his eyes, and a few minutes later drowsiness began once again to benumb his senses… He was passing from agitation to his normal state of calm and apathy… So he never arrived at the cause, after all; his tongue and lips stopped in the middle of the sentence and remained half open. Instead of a word, another sigh was heard, followed by the sound of the even snoring of a man who was peacefully asleep.

From Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, first published 1859.

When David McKee gallery closed its doors in 2015, representation of Philip Guston’s estate was passed over to Hauser & Wirth, who celebrated this coup with an exhibition of his abstract work from 1957-67 at their gallery in New York, which is where I saw it in June this year. I want to make it very clear that this is not a review. The moment has passed and I have no particular desire to pick apart this grouping of works, which was mainly comprised of greyscales, floating ‘heads’ and the pure drawings he made in Florida while having some sort of an artistic crisis. The whole exhibition seemed to be accompanied by something of a concession that this is not really Guston’s best work, and that it is simply interesting to see the hints and suggestions at what would come later, what we are all yearning for, the return to figuration. This is really problematic on so many levels, not least the assumption that the late figurative works are any good, but that it also seems that the only way an artist’s voice can be ‘heard’ is by having something to ‘say’, and that the only way to ‘speak’ in art is to deal in recognisable imagery. But as fascinating as Hieroglyphics are, they are not paintings, and I question the extent to which any painting reveals itself through the conventions of language. Sure, it is subject to certain rules and conventions, but it is we who use language to understand what those conventions and meanings are. We interpret, but the painting imparts nothing directly. This is what Guston seems to struggle with in his later work, however open-ended the narrative connotations of his imagery may be. His frustration with abstract painting is well documented, “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, then going into a frustrated fury about everything, and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid… Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.” [i] I have some sympathy for this frustration, and yet many a painter before Guston has lived through equally tumultuous times, and yet still managed to remain committed to achieving their aims most appropriate to the chosen discipline.

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#37. Tim Scott writes on Abcrit, Caro and Abstract Sculpture

Caro with his sculpture "Millbank Steps", 2004

Caro with his sculpture “Millbank Steps”, 2004

Surveying the numerous analyses in abstractcritical and Abcrit, it is evident that one subject has occupied the attention of many contributors: that of defining the meaning(s) of the word ‘abstract’. From technical definitions: ‘non objective’; ‘non figurative’; ‘non representational’; ’concrete’ etc., etc. to the more abstruse renderings defining the ‘break with traditional norms of painting ’; or rendering traditional material into non mimetic ‘form’, or Picasso’s projection of collage into three dimensions to create a new medium for sculpture, ‘construction’.

The term has also been widely interpreted to signify a new art form, one that eliminates mimetic illusion in favour of representing nothing but itself. Others argue that there is no such thing as representing ‘nothing’; everything must ‘represent’ something; every blob, every mark, is capable of being ‘something’ else.  ‘Abstraction’ is seen as being in a continuum from the past (of painting), through periodic changes of ‘making’ that create a new pictorial vision of the world, albeit by illusion. It can also be seen as  a complete break with the forms of the past in favour of new norms (usually largely derived from geometry), which are seen as representing a totally ‘abstract’ new ‘reality’, its subject not being derived from nature, but being ‘scientific’ in its new ‘truth’ (ignoring that science itself deals with ‘nature’). Yet another interpretation is seen as being the hallmark of a ‘modern’ art, an art that is of our time and synchronises with other major changes in society, living styles, engineering and technical development, all the signals that suggest that man has evolved, improved and developed in time.

Whichever semantic definition one prefers, abstraction as used to signify a new Art Form (of the 20th C.), which, though building on the foundations of the ‘old art’ (via the 19th C.), is perceived as radically different in its vision (pace all the arguments about abstract ‘content’).  Much discussion, however, has been about the ‘stepping stones’ of the 19th C.; in which abstraction is viewed as having always been integral to making art (largely painting) and which in its ‘modern’ (mid 19th C. on) developments, though representational, rejected the old formulae of three dimensional illusion, spatial perspective depth etc. to evolve totally new ways of looking, seeing and describing.

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#27. Alan Gouk writes on Matisse’s “Baroness Gourgaud”

Henri Matisse, "Baroness Gourgaud", 1924, Musee National D'Art Moderne, Paris.

Henri Matisse, “Baroness Gourgaud”, 1924, Musee National D’Art Moderne, Paris.

Matisse’s oeuvre can be divided into numerous periods, (and not just for curatorial convenience), too many to list here, but each stylistically distinct from the previous (though not so obviously as with Picasso), and with a different set of priorities both formal and expressive, much more so than might appear to the casual observer.

I choose to write about this particular picture, The Baroness Gourgaud, almost certainly a commissioned portrait from the wealthy Baron, partly because it is one of Matisse’s finest portraits, utterly different in character from the great Madame Matisse in Rouge Madras 1907, (Barnes Foundation), or Auguste Pellerin, 1916, or Woman in a Turban, (Laurette) 1917, (Cone Collection, Baltimore), but also because it reveals many of the devices he had learned from Persian and Indian miniatures, by which Matisse ordered his spaces in the more relaxed setting afforded by the early Nice years, after the intensity of his engagement with Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism, to which the Pellerin portrait attests, during the first world war, the so-called “Radical Years”. But Matisse was always “radical” in ways which escaped most commentators then and now, who tend to downgrade the Nice years for reasons which amount to no more than Puritanism and philistinism. Renoir’s sensuality accrues similar opprobrium, quite unjustly.

John Golding writes: ”But basically for him [Matisse] the decorative came to mean an allegiance to the totality of the painted surface and to the overall spiritual and emotional aura that radiated from it… Matisse is one of the very few Western artists who have been able to invest pattern, normally associated with flatness, with spatial properties”. (Matisse and Picasso, Tate Modern 2002). [Braque in the 1930’s is another]. And Matisse himself said: “Persian miniatures… through their accessories… suggest larger spaces, a more truly plastic space. That helped me to go beyond the painting of intimacy”. (Dominique Fourcade ed. Matisse – Ecrits et propos sur l’art. Paris 1972 page 203). The intimacy would return with paintings like that of The Baroness, however.

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#20. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe interviews Todd Cronan

Henri Matisse, 'Studio Under the Eaves', c.1903

Henri Matisse, ‘Studio Under the Eaves’, c.1903

This article was first published online by Bomb Magazine on 5th May 2015, and is re-published here with their kind permission. http://bombmagazine.org/article/044448/todd-cronan

[Editor’s note: we have already linked to this article and commented on it on this site, but thought it of sufficient interest to merit republishing here, where we can comment upon it directly. With many thanks to the author and Bomb editors.]

“Here are some marks, what do they mean?”

I don’t write book reviews very often, and I think it may be the case that the only other comparable in length to my review of Todd Cronan’s Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism may have been on Derrida’s Truth in Painting, back in the seventies. I think this is a very important work, for artists as well as art theorists, and I hope it will be widely and carefully read. Cronan is an associate professor of art history at Emory University, and in addition to Against Affective Formalism, he’s written a book about Matisse for Phaidon, and articles on Brecht, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Santayana, Georg Simmel, Paul Scheerbart, Paul Valéry, and Richard Neutra. Brecht and Valéry are especially important to what he has to say, i.e., the political as well as the poetic are simultaneously of concern.

Cronan’s book, in my view, is most important for what he says about Matisse, but its argument also goes far beyond the specifics discussing that particular artist might involve. Cronan has revived the idea of intention, in response—at least in part—to what he shows to be a final, or at least extreme, eruption of what a determined anti-intentionalism can cause. He shows that this has led the most well-known followers of Deleuze—and Deleuze himself, at least in respect to what he has to say directly about art—to see movement and other qualities in Matisse and others to be neither more nor less than an opportunity for missing the point altogether. Philosophers are notorious for skimping on description in order to use what they’ve got to get to what they really care about as quickly as possible, Hegel’s impatience with Kant’s “ratiocination” about the sublime being a notorious example, and T.J. Clark’s lovely description of two paintings by Poussin a monumental and convincing argument against being too eager to take refuge in generalities rather than seeking to fully grasp specifics. This has caused a fuss amongst the eminent about which those who care may have more to say. I am more excited by how, as an alternative to leaving the work as soon as possible, Cronan gives us a thorough treatment of Matisse’s context, large as well as local, and the best approach to what Matisse gets painting to do that I have read. Also, it’s by far the best treatment of what difficult art might involve that I’ve seen his generation produce. This is an approach to art—especially but not only to painting—that includes how the work acts in the world. This is how and why it involves Brecht and the political, and questions that follow from, and accompany, those sorts of questions are among the ones that we thought we might pursue here.

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#8. David Sweet writes on 1966 and the New Pictorial Economy

Richard Diebenkorn, Woman in Profile, 1958, Oil on canvas, 68” X 59”. Image, with artist’s signature, from Dunn International catalogue, 1963.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Woman in Profile”, 1958, Oil on canvas, 68” X 59”. Image, with artist’s signature, from Dunn International catalogue, 1963.

Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series seems to have been initiated as a response to two paintings by Henri Matisse; View of Notre Dame and French Window at Collioure. Both date from 1914 but had never been exhibited before being included in a Matisse retrospective in 1966, organised by the University of California and shown in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, but not New York.[i] I want to argue that Diebenkorn recognised something important about these paintings. He saw that they introduced and valorised a particular pictorial economy, characterised by simple means and finite quantities.

Despite the difference in age, the works were similar to a kind of painting then being made in America. The same year Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons and Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross series were also shown. Anyone who saw the three exhibitions would have faced an interesting triangulation; the Matisses, like the light from a new star arriving fifty years after the event, an ambitious late career statement from a major Abstract Expressionist and a set of unconventionally configured canvases from a 30 year old star of the New York art scene.

These coinciding exhibitions arguably constitute an important cultural moment, and one can imagine the impact on a sample viewer of the combined experience. It would be clear that the terms of a new pictorial economy had been constructed, validated and even historically provisioned, by obviously successful, high net worth examples. It would also have offered evidence for the possibilities of abstraction made under the auspices of this economy. What I want to suggest is that it is impossible to fully understand abstraction’s contemporary potential, and past achievements, without recovering this moment and absorbing an appreciation of the associated pictorial economy into our critical apparatus: So there.

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#6. Robin Greenwood writes on Richard Diebenkorn and the Hollowing-out of Painting.

Ocean Park #43, 1971

‘Ocean Park #43’, 1971

Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy, London, 14 March – 7 June, 2015

If I’ve read one 5-star review of the RA’s Diebenkorn show by now, I’ve read at least ten, most of them little more than P.R. exercises repeating the same blandishments to the gallery-going public, to recognise and acknowledge a masterly evocation of the lambent light and open spaces of his native Californian west coast. Spoiler alert: this will not be another piece of positive flannel. OK, Diebenkorn was by all accounts a fine fellow and a much-respected artist, and his reputation has grown considerably over the past two decades as he has entered the collective art-school consciousness of recent generations as the straight-up kind of painter’s painter in an age of conceptual art. More and more young abstract and semi-abstract painters have become familiar with the three phases of his work, and it now chimes in with something that has recently happened in abstract painting, whereby it has become the acceptable, non-scary version of modern art in general; safe to feature in sofa catalogues, a safe occupation for the younger amateur painter, decidedly unthreatening; in fact, not too radically abstract. And Diebenkorn is a kind of flagship painter for the confident employment and enjoyment of these ubiquitous modern aesthetic tropes. He now, reputedly, has clout and charisma, where he once seemed a peripheral and minor contributor. He undoubtedly had a degree of talent, and his paintings have the sniff of sincerity and ‘authenticity’; they look superficially like the ‘real deal’. But, as some clever wag pointed out recently, authenticity is a content-free zone. If you think Diebenkorn’s art has anything to do with, say, a continuation of Matisse’s lifelong core project, you’re wrong; if you think Diebenkorn is anything of a colourist, you’re wrong; and if you think Diebenkorn is exciting, you are living a very sheltered life. He raises the mediocre to fantastic levels of significance. More on all this later.

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