From the Archives: Matisse—A Symposium

Henri Matisse, Two Masks (The Tomato), 1947, gouache on paper, 18¾ by 20 3/8 inches. Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Marron, New York. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Having broken attendance records at Tate Modern, the exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” is drawing huge crowds to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (where it’s on view through Feb. 8, 2015), and the artist’s works are even proving to be a sensation online at venues like Tumblr. On the occasion of MoMA’s 1992-93 Matisse retrospective, A.i.A. invited 14 artists, art historians, writers and critics to weigh in for our May 1993 issue. Here we present observations by Ellsworth Kelly, Lynne Tillman, Peter Schjeldahl and Jennifer Bartlett. —Eds. November 26, 2014



The great accomplishment in painting during the first half of the 20th century by Matisse, Mondrian and Picasso is the foundation on which present and future painting continues.

Today, many artists think that form and color are not sufficient for a work of art. The current fashion dictates art must contain political, environmental or minority issues.

Personally, I believe in art for art’s sake and I believe Matisse did also. He only painted to please himself, not to please the world, nor to change the world. Of course, his art has changed the way people see the world.

Now, after nearly 50 years, my admiration for Matisse continues to grow, reaffirming my conviction that for me painting is about painting, and reinforcing my determination to make an art that has a clarity of spirit.



[I]t became apparent that Matisse (to cite an example I am constantly asked about) often had intimate relations with his models. [However,] it seemed useless as well as tasteless to resurrect long-forgotten events whose main interest is in the category of gossip about the great.
—Jack Flam, Matisse: The Man and His Art, 1869-1919, 1986

I would be more impressed by Jack Flam’s delicacy, a standard compunction of Matisse scholars still apparent in the distinctly G-rated catalogue texts of John Elderfield’s great MoMA show, if I thought Flam covered his ears and hummed when interviewees started relating the artist’s amours. I rather suspect he listened avidly. So would you, and perhaps for reasons besides vulgar curiosity—not that there is anything felonious about vulgar curiosity, whose most effective cure is in being satisfied. You might, like me, be fed up with an exaggerated discretion that seems compounded of the indignantly maintained immunities of bourgeois gentlemen and the old formalist horror of tainting art with life. You might feel as well that a certain fullness of meaning and a depth of reality are missing from your comprehension of this figure so fundamental to everybody’s initiation into Western modern culture.

After sizing up the breadth and complexity of Matisse’s art in the MoMA show, I do indeed want gossip about the artist. I do not mean piquant anecdotes. I mean what Matisse did with which models, how he treated his family, what people who knew him really thought of him and so on. You know: the lowdown. Here was a man who agonized in the creation of apparently shadowless pleasure. Here was a galley slave of delight. Concealment of emotion—even as he drew energy from emotion—was his method, more or less. Elderfield in his catalogue essay theorizes ably on the psychological mechanics of Matisse’s work, but his account is frustratingly abstract for want of biographical grit. The how and even the why of Matisse’s sublimation are meager topics without the narrative nourishment of the what.

Start with Lorette, a smoking gun if ever there was one. Seemingly nobody knows so much as her last name. Matisse painted this black-haired woman, often with remarkable grimness, some 50 times in the years 1916-17. He was morbidly obsessed by her, it was obvious, during a time of decline from his period of greatest invention and also of the increasing domestic misery that he would flee when decamping to Nice. (Did he flee Lorette as well?) Elderfield helpfully hung a room at MoMA with nothing but Lorettes, including a full-length nude that is the most coarsely sensual of all the artist’s images. No reviewer I read picked up the cue. Face it. We have been as conditioned to overlook strange behavior in Matisse as children of a dysfunctional paterfamilias.

Matisse’s veiled private life is inevitably contrasted with the open book of Picasso’s. (Has anyone commented on the ethnic-class component of the difference? By being an arriviste Spaniard, Picasso waived a Frenchman’s privileged privacy; his monkeyshines were fair public sport.) I believe that backstairs stuff actually would be more useful in Matisse’s case than it is in that of Picasso, whose emotional and sexual motives—or their pointed abnegation (not sublimation) in the intellectual gesture of Cubism—are right out front. The tales of Picasso’s mistresses serve us mainly as aides-memoire in tracking his periods. The cold, shifty, self-absorbed Matisse is something else again, with his Arcadian thematics that twist and turn in obedience to obscure pressures. With a rare exception like Bonheur de vivre, where he left dreamlike clues in plain sight, Matisse’s pictures never expose his personality, only his talent. This very opacity is loaded with personal import.

Of course we should learn to take Matisse’s work, like that of any artist, in the way he meant it to be taken. But where is it written that we have to stop there? In wanting to know Matisse the man, I am seeking only a supplementary nuance, another point of access to the art—in this instance, the hidden term of a dialectic, the troubled feeling that accounts for the intensity of Matisse’s sunny-side-upness. The need for biographical data grows more peremptory with time (even as it gets harder to come by). Each new generation is naturally more ignorant of the social codes, including artistic style, that carried tacit information to the artist’s contemporaries. Less and less about Matisse, as about any historical figure, goes without saying. For no end of reasons, then, let’s dish.


The Matisse Pages from Madame Realism’s Diary

October 12: Staying home, not returning telephone calls, reading, watching TV; am somewhat edgy, anticipating terrible news. Election returns. All of NYC holding its collective breath. Am turning into myself or upon myself, or anyway inward, like hibernating bear, if bears do turn inward. But eager to go out at night, more like a vampire, current metaphorical rage, than a bear, which would be cumbersome. Reading the newspaper closely. Should arrange for ticket to Matisse show. Resent need to plan. Would like to stroll in and see it alone. Reminds me of the line in Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story, when train porter, who was tipped just ten cents by Claudette Colbert’s companion, tells Joel McCrea that Colbert’s “alone but she don’t know she’s alone.” Don’t want to go and yet would like to see it. Is it that Matisse’s “genius,” proclaimed throughout the land, along with precious attention to his wives and mistresses, his taste in food, drink and habitats, forces one to engage in a joke at one’s own expense? Entry into show will be entry into joke, whose punchline is the trivialization of one’s existence. Or is this only anticipatory anxiety, future fear of wounded narcissism? Which reminds me of a Dutch idiom, Je bent de sigaar, which means, literally, you are the cigar, but which means, idiomatically, you are the butt of the joke. Might write a book called The Idiom.

October 18: Dinner at Indian restaurant. Ordering dishes becomes more complicated when sharing food appears indicative of character, nebulous but damning. Conversation about whether one is or is not willing to visit Matisse show because of nauseating promo. Talk of Matisse and Madonna’s Sex, encouraging inane puns about overexposure. Easier to buy Sex than have it, someone says. One artists announces he isn’t going to Matisse, couldn’t be bothered. I question if not going, because of crowds or cultural fetishization, is foolish; he demurs, explaining position more fully. I feel similarly, I tell him, but would not act on it, since it was a part of me I resisted and distrusted. Then repeat what my father used to intone when I was a child: “Si and Hi went to the circus. Si got hit with a rolling pin. Si said to Hi let’s get even with the circus. We’ll buy two tickets and we won’t go in.” All looked at me strangely. What nursery rhymes did they learn, I wonder?

October 31: Halloween. Venture out even though once pledged never again, after having been hit with egg. Downtown filled with wanderers in garish makeup, though city silent as a communal grave; streets giant cemeteries with souls wandering about in the eerie quiet costumed as hatchet murderers, movie stars, animals. Our heathen carnival. Others standing near me pelted with eggs that rain down from above; I am unscathed. Small miracles abound. Evening amazing for the hush; characters dressed as TVs, other objects, but even masked no one seems dangerous. Most amazing of all, no one dressed as Matisse.

November 3: Raining. Election Day. Radio says rain is bad for the Democrats. Why? Statements like that annoying, precisely because one remembers them. Decide to do Matisse before or after voting. Lines will be long everywhere. Relatively small crowds at MoMA, I’m told by two guards who regard us all with a trying mixture of curiosity, revulsion and boredom; those compelled to watch thousands of people every day must have a debased view of life. As I walk around imagine being incorporated into M’s diary, the auto/biographical emphasized by chronological design/ order of installation. Crowd’s comments: “He likes oranges.” “He likes pots.”

Matisse likes reading women, as well as undressed women, even partially undressed readers. But is “like” the right word? Fascination with women reading is a vast subject, not his but art’s. Eyes averted, inaccessible, in another world, cerebral, unavailable, “givers of life” representing world/life before one was given life, perhaps. Funny to look at, really; thoughts about oblivion cluster mentally. Reference to 19th-century women being “given” literacy. Question:  Is this image another woman(liness) as masquerade? A study of self-consciousness or of self into consciousness? Will never mail postcard of a woman reading now without ambivalence.

What are goldfish, apart form the obvious-small orange penises. What is obviousness? What’s simple/clear about M’s having painted penises, if he did, in goldfish bowls, and elsewhere, over and over again? A friend tells me there’s an essay about the goldfish whose point is, because M had red hair, goldfish are Matisse. Is that “le penis, c’est moi?” Hectic being in this goldfish bowl gazing at goldfish bowl gazing at goldfish and nudes. In thrall to M’s lurid, hedonistic, frozen Moroccan moments, his plunge into cultural/sexual dubiousness, his pleasuring in foreign exoticism. Domestic exoticism, the nudes in his studio, who became an abiding, enduring home away from the home (wife and children) he left behind in Paris after World War I.

M’s “other” landscape, land as body, bodies of land, bodies to be landed on; Woman, not alone his vanishing point, though his Odalisques with their legs spread wide proclaim absence makes the art. Can’t help punning. Actually am a pun, which most don’t get. You don’t understand me/the married man’s joke. M was married: remember that, I tell myself, as I look at “Conversation.” Man stands on one side, woman on the other, a relationship on two planes separated by a window. G.K. Chesterton: “For views I look out the window. My opinions I keep to myself.”

Lusty old M, filled with blood lust and sucking on blood oranges. Oranges and orange goldfish. Matisse paints himself seated, immobile before the sensual life he sets down on canvas. The delicious meal he serves up for himself, memorializes; he lets nothing come in his way, the objects he wants in front of him he places there, the world at the foot of his easel, he palette, his plate. M a pleasure seeker. His paintings beautiful, pleasurable. Their object, no doubt, pleasure. He wants “purity, serenity,” but pleasure is not, as love is not, “pure,” always messy, an admixture. How does one know pleasure? Pleasure seeks an object. Everything has an object; everything is an object. Sometimes an abject object, which is, it seems to me, the more I think about the Moroccan paintings, an appropriate idea. But what are the ideas one has when thinking about M’s work? Is pleasure an idea when looking at a painting?

Two Italian men stand near, murmuring in that wonderful tongue, gazing with me at Anemones in An Earthenware Vase (1924). Italians walk away. Wearing red bandannas, like Matisse’s Gypsies, and Levi’s 501s. Jean jackets read: “Live the Legend.”

Disdain M’s dancers, dance to represent Life, Dance of Life. Uncomplicated overexuberance. Degas’s dancers, at least, sometimes narcissistic, distracted bored. M’s dancers like bad art, tired metaphors. Remind me of movies that try to be artful, so incorporate “art,” have it on walls or include dialogue about art, especially set in a gallery. Matisse seats himself before the dance of life. One painting teacher I studied with said never sit while painting because it was lazy and you were at work.

On line to bathroom someone says, I think—or did I read it or dream it?—”M’s trying to find the essence under the modernist illusion.” Essence is modernist illusion.

An older man with beard keeps turning up in front of me. His head bent low, he cranes his neck to see the work on the walls, then hurries on, and reappears, bent down, worried, harried, deeply depressed. Seems to be an artist struck dumb by the Master. Taking to heart the greatness, the genius, of Matisse.

Am moving ahead of the crowd as much as possible and occasionally have chance to stand in front of a picture alone, but just for a brief moment. All of us here, trying to get a look at theses paintings, even for a second and in some discomfort, brings to mind strongly the genius business, which keeps crossing me up. Why? Because finally I am looking at the work through that frame more than at/through anything else. So it’s already seen, observed, served up and serving. What does it serve, ideologically, esthetically, economically, etc., to foster the myth of genius? Easier to understand it ideologically than, say, psychologically, except as cultural version of master/slave condition.

Think later and more about this exhibition in relation to Russian Constructivist show at Guggenheim, its emphasis on the many developing a collective visual language. One looks at or views (how is viewing different form looking? less invested, disinterested, disinvented?) that work differently, I think, because of context, which provokes/produces different thoughts from Matisse show. With its biographical trajectory can’t stop being aware of Matisse the man, and am not interested in him.

Took longer to vote than to go through exhibition. Meet a friend on line. Discuss election and Matisse. Talk about pleasure and Matisse, to indulge one’s pleasures, which pleasures at what time, and the hope for the man from Hope—to have more citizen pleasure.

Drink coffee while waiting. Hot coffee a pleasure. Some pleasures one has no guilt about. What makes it pleasurable, if/when it is, to look at art? Economic explanation not sufficient. Clinton wins; but Perot does pretty well, since it pays to advertise, for one thing, and he is such a cute, paranoid critter. More people vote this year than in the past 24, but still not many more than half the eligible. Commentators keep saying it’s the end of cynicism, which bothers me as much as emphasis on male genius. Is doubt unhealthy? Is the American myth/dream of change and hope like the myth of genius? Serving different or same ends? Still, an avowed skeptic is not thrown off course so easily.



Weird sexuality, languid and brutal paint. Painting of satyr about to attack sleeping nymph. Breast-shape hills chartreuse and pink. Frightening satyr, limp nymph. Women asleep and lying down. Man in rigorous striped pajamas being confronted by woman in black dressing gown. Between them an open window with restless exotic plants. The woman’s jaw appears to have been eaten away. The paintings of Dance: MoMA’s pale pink and correct, the dancers are good though confused. In the Russian painting, intense evil people who have subsumed the dance. Apollonian vs. Dionysian. Jolly and pure cutouts of sea creatures. Quiet craftsmanship. Tiny brown picture of tiny brown studio with easel near city windows. Moroccan shoes and light, the green shadows of hot places. Implacable Chicago Bathers in scary concrete water. Concrete and steel reflections. Heavy lines that cut raggedly and violently around edges of painting, into people’s faces, over tables, chairs, and willfully end, describing nothing of the subject of the picture. Three people staring at a turtle, people in room with a good dog. Two paintings of the same boy in a seaman’s jersey. One a numb neutral beautiful abstract composition with boy as subject matter. The other a highly eroticized sexual pouting boy as content. Women lying down sleepily looking at fish, or at us under elaborate hats through long sleepy lids. Men with dark holes for eyes. Fish circling in bowls, octagonal tables, scary fruit. A family as chess figures playing chess. Closed blinds. Forgotten umbrella. Louvered shutters, one closed and lit, the other open and dark. Woman with bowl of fruit overtaken by large burgeoning blue vine in wallpaper, branching like antlers, wild alien trees celebrating outside the window. Patterns, patterns of patterns, shadows, trees, plants, fish, people, landscape becoming patterned, patterns rushing to a conclusion, stopping before an anticipated finish, interrupted by a brutal line, an unexplained absence of a foot, jaw or hand. Matisse has stopped the painting.