Matisse: Pictorial Reality as the Subject of Art

We spoke of "pictorial autonomy" in class with respect to the Fauves and to Matisse.  For Matisse, this autonomy is initially the result of his use of color to liberate the image:
Woman with a Hat, 1905

Color, of course, is not the only way he achieves this notion of a pictorial reality, or a reality which exists in the work of art.  It may, in fact, be facilitated by his tendency to make the female so central to his art.  On the one hand, the subject of the female is so familiar that we almost don't notice it; on the other hand, his treatment of the female is so unfamiliar that we do notice it.  Part of what he accomplishes with the female body comes from his tendency, through most of his career, to break down the boundary between what we think of as the foreground or "figure" and the background of the painting.  In Matisse's hands, it is a breakdown between a painted version of "reality" as it exists outside the painting and a new or imagined reality which exists inside the painting.  But perhaps the key to his vision does lie in that affinity for textiles.  As in both of the paintings below, the blue table cloth has infused the structure and composition of the paintings, almost to the extent that it seems to be growing over and ingesting everything in its path.  But it is that love of the decorative which ultimately gives these paintings such a joyous and almost innocent quality.

Breaking down the boundary between figure and ground, between painted reality and imagined reality, in painting:

Interior with Eggplants, 1911 Harmony in Red, 1908-9

Open windows and planes of reality:

Open Window at Collioure, 1905

In the Open Window at Collioure (which is reproduced quite nicely in your textbook), each level of space is characterized by a different type of brush-stroke. In this painting the brush stroke becomes a metaphor for the quality of time associated with the type of space.  Flat areas of paint are used for the interior and architectonic spaces which have static time; curved short strokes for the plants around the window, and horizontal and vertical dashed lines for the ships at sea.  The composition is a series of framed views within views, further surrounded by rectangular framed spaces, which in the end becomes a metaphor for the act and art of painting.  Despite what appears to be relatively neutral subject matter, the painting was deeply disturbing to Matisse’s colleagues.  In 1905, it is one of the most complete challenges to the Renaissance conception of space, and it poses this challenge with a painting of a window.  The Renaissance notion of the painting as a window onto the world is here turned almost inside out as the other world and the window unite with no sense of depth or perspective in the painting.

The Decorative Nude

The Blue Nude, 1907 Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background, 1925
Odalisque with Magnolias, 1924

works in cut, painted and pasted paper:

Flowing Hair, 1952 Blue Nude, 1952 

An essay on Matisse’s representations of women:*

To the critic Clement Greenberg, the paintings are seductive but not because of the women in them; they are seductive in the use of paint, in the entire pictorial field; Greenberg, in fact, finds the sex-appeal of the female figures to be contradictory to the idea of sex-appeal.  To Greenberg, this moves the paintings out of the realm of popular culture and into the realm of the avant-garde.
To Carol Duncan, a recent feminist critic, the female figures lose their seductive properties because of Matisse’s assertion of control; in her criticism, male control becomes the same as artistic control, or vice versa.  The nudes lose their aesthetic interest and become objects of social or political interest in this interpretation.
In 1913, when Matisse’s first Blue Nude (1907) was seen in Chicago, it was burned in effigy by students who thought he had used art to violate the female body, by which they meant he had denied the viewer of the pleasure associated with the feminine.  Matisse, as we know, did not believe that he was reproducing a woman on the canvas so much as creating an image of art; throughout his writings he speaks of the process of making art as a process of representing a state of mind, and in this sense, the image of the female body is equally an image of himself.  He actually says this: “After a certain moment it [the drawing of a model] is a kind of revelation, it is no longer me.  At these moments there is a veritable doubling of myself: I don’t know what I am doing, I am identified with my model.” (cited in Elderfield, p. 13)
Consistently, although using varying means, Matisse does deny the viewer the right to gaze with pleasure on the female model–in the Blue Nude, by distorting the body; in his odalisque paintings, by creating dazzling backgrounds which almost seem to anticipate op art in their optical confusion and movement.  It is not so much that the figure dissolves into the ground as that the ground prevents the eye from settling on the figure.  Some of the figures have been described as being phallic in form or at the very least androgenous; likewise these are strategies which deny erotic sexuality.  The questions which have been raised by these paintings include the following: are these paintings reflective of a psychological fear of women, such that the artist, even as he paints a female model, does not want to look at her and will not let the spectator look at her either?  Or is that question a red herring, because in fact, Matisse rarely lets the viewer’s eyes rest on anything in his paintings?  If this is true, they why does Matisse paint from life?
But he doesn’t.  “To copy the objects in a still-life is nothing....One must render the emotion they awaken in him” (in Elderfield, 22).  For Matisse, the painting as a whole composition must convey significance and emotion; from this it follows that the background and the foreground do not exist in a hierarchical relationship with one demanding more attention than the other.
Two points follow from this.  The first is that the female body as a foreground subject inherently threatens equality of foreground and background; it is possible that Matisse does engage in distortion of the figure in order to prevent the female from dominating the vision of the viewer.  This is not entirely a plausible hypothesis, though, because the distortions do call attention to themselves, which leaves us in the position of asserting that Matisse is using a female body as part of his equalized composition and then treats the female aggressively because she prevents him from achieving his goal.  His strategy in the odalisque paintings is more successful because it is less aggressive: here he prevents the gaze from destroying the equality of the composition.
There is another aspect of figure/ground in play here.  With Matisse, and increasingly throughout the 20th century, alternative readings of artworks coexist so that we can almost go back and forth from one reading to another.  This tendency to see more than one interpretation, more than one reaction to gender, more than one medium, can become a metaphor for the loss of boundaries between figure and ground.  In this case, if we consider the "background" as the entire painting and the "figure" as the interpretation, we have more than one interpretation imposing itself against the same background.  The interpretations then become part of the background for new ones.

*John Elderfield. Pleasuring Painting.  Matisse’s Feminine Representations  (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995), is my primary source for this discussion of responses to Matisse's nudes.  Elderfield, who is now the chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art, does not, unfortunately, address the role of textiles in these paintings.  As I said in class, seeing the Metropolitan exhibition this summer, I had the feeling that the females just don't matter in these paintings.  They're about the desire to create a textile, as it were, out of the female body, the background, the colors of the setting, the light, in the space of the small canvas.

Purple Robe and Anemones, 1937 The Dream, 1940