Matisse emerged from WWII with a reputation among living painters second only to that of Picasso. The fresh interest in Matisse was stimulated by a late flowering in many phases of his art- drawings, book designs, and oil paintings- which culminated in seven large and youthfully turbulent interiors painted in 1948, the most successful and daring of which is the “Large Red Interior” , painted in Vence.
When “Jazz” appeared, and as Matisse began to work more and more with paper cutouts, there was a new appreciation of his stature as one of the master craftsmen of his age. The physical substance of his art had never ceased to fascinate him: his ballet costumes for “Rouge et Noir” had been adroitly designed both to abstract the human figure and to emphasize its silhouette; his tapestry designs , to exploit the qualities of wool; his book illustrations, to enhance the visual qualities of the type.
Donald Kuspit: Fauvism is the full-fledged beginning of what is in fact the most free-wheeling style in 20th-century painting, namely, direct, instinctive, self-reflexive painting. Ironically, it is the century’s most durable painting style, perhaps because it was felt to be the most inwardly necessary, to use Wassily Kandinsky’s term. It involves a paradox: seemingly unconditional surrender to the material medium with the hope of finding one’s True Self in it, to use D. W. Winnicott’s term. Direct painting attempts to articulate what Anton Ehrenzweig calls the inarticulate hidden order of inchoate, volatile, protean impulse that is the fundament of art and the self, conveying the idea that there is a certain mercurial art to being oneself. Perhaps the ultimate goal of instinctive painting is the uncompromisingly original expression of feeling, which is itself regarded as the origin of expression. As Matisse wrote, “expression. . . does not consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face or betrayed by a violent gesture,” but rather “the whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. . . . Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings.” Intuitively direct painting does not simply mean squeezing paint directly from the tube onto the canvas (this was already no longer novel when Vlamink did it, with all the vehemence he could muster), but the exploitation of painterly texture as an expressive end in itself — independently of whatever image it might catalyze (supposedly always secondary) — in a total, so-called all-over painting. Direct painting reached a grand climax in the “oceanic” Abstract Expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock, which are at once consummately decorative and emotionally engulfing. They climbed all the way to the painterly peak that was first consciously glimpsed in Fauvism.
Matisse was the most important of the Fauves because his paintings were the most aggressive. He did the most violence to observed reality — distorted, or rather exaggerated certain aspects of its appearance — to make his own latent violence manifest. Above all, he generated a sense of conflict, just barely resolved, at least on a technical level.
Aside from the paper cutouts and the brush-and-ink drawings, the last major work of Matisse was the design for the new Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican Nuns of Vence. That enormously ambitious project took him three years ( 1948-51) , and when it was completed, he had designed not only the structure itself but everything inside and outside of it, including the candlesticks, the priests’ chasubles, and the pattern of ivy planted in the chapel garden.
He wanted a chapel that would speak of joy rather than of penance, lifting and exalting those who entered it. The walls he kept white, and across them he spread three maor mural drawings-”The Stations of the Cross”, “The Virgin and Child”, St. Dominic”- on glazed tiles.
Age, according to those who watched him at work, had made him no less a perfectionist than he ever had been. He made preparatory studies over a period of two years, sometimes producing as many as three thousand sketches for a single mural, practicing unceasingly, until, as he said, “I am able to let my pen go with confidence.” When he was satisfied, he transferred the design full-size to paper tacked on the wall of his studio in Nice, using as a giant pencil a ten-foot bamboo pole with a crayon attached.
Against the black of the mural drawings and the white of the walls he pl
the splendor of his stained glass windows, designed with vegetal patterns instead of Biblical or sacred scenes. His most inspired notion was to omit red from the windows, thus abolishing the fiery glow that suffuses so many medieval cathedrals. Instead, he used lemon-yellow, sapphire-blue, and emerald-green, flooding the chapel with a Mediterranean radiance.
“A picture by Matisse is a kind of hortus conclusus or inner sanctum — indeed, his studio was his sanctuary from the world — in which the emotional flavor of sensation-saturated things and people, all seen many times but still offering something new to be seen — Matisse is ever-alert to a new visual surprise — unfolds like a flower. Each picture conveys, with seeming immediacy, what it means to cultivate one’s own garden — one’s own perceptual and emotional garden. Matisse’s paintings are slower and harder perceptual going than they seem, however quickly one gets — or thinks one does — their overall expressive point. They are not easy to see, all the more so because they do not lend themselves to piecemeal seeing, like Cubist works. When Matisse said that he wanted to condense his sensations into a total composition, he implied that he also want to distill them into a stimulating, seductive perfume that would resonate in every part of it. Thus Matisse returns to taste, but it is not foreordained, but rather the result of a mingling and compressing of incommensurate sensations in a pictorial alembic. It is intense compositional and emotional pressure that gives Matisse’s pictures their peculiar pungency and disarming innocence — their aura of virginal perception and elegant immediacy. Of all 20th-century works they are most against what Breton called “miserabilism,” that is, the depreciation of reality instead of its exaltation.” ( Kuspit)
Technically, Matisse’s distinction was that he was as great a draftsman as he was a colorist, a man in whom were reconciled the traditions of Ingres and Delacroix. Line and color were alike in their functions, he insisted, for line should be used not primarily to define contours but to “express light and differences of value corresponding to color.” And “differences,” to Matisse’s shrewd and discriminating eye, were the very essence of creation: “I do not paint things,” he told the poet Louis Aragon,” only the difference between things.”
Matisse has monumentalized his wife’s head, even as he has dramatized it. Despite his assertion that human passion and violent gestures are not what artistic expression is about, the fact of the matter is that his wife’s face has a passionate expression which is intensified by the violent green gesture that suggests his contradictory attitude to her. The striking gesture is expressive in itself, so much so that it stands out of the composition, disrupting it — all the more so because it sharply contrasts with the blue helmet that his wife’s hair has become — however ingeniously integrated into its play of greens and reds. The unconventional green gesture in fact drops from the helmet — it seems to seep from the eccentric little triangle in it, a brooch that has become a symbol of her psyche — like the perpendicular of the fourth dimension, conveying duration in what otherwise is a relatively immobilized, mask-like face. Because of this unique green line, which is like a knife that cuts through the center of the picture — without it both picture and face lose their expressive edge and emotional distinctiveness — Mme Matisse’s face seems more overtly impassioned than Matisse’s own in his Self-Portrait of 1906, wearing a sailor shirt as though to emphasize the primitive underside of his personality — the instinctive aggression and dark passion evident in his face — as well as the seemingly unsophisticated, crude character of the painting.
But both faces have undergone an expressive transformation, indeed, a kind of hysterical conversion into masks. They retain the semblance of familiar human appearance, but it is as though they are flat stones that have been turned over, revealing an unfamiliar emotional terrain underneath. Oscar Wilde, and the decadents in general, argued that one can express with a mask feelings that a face dare not express socially. The use of masks, African or otherwise, is a heritage of decadence — a way of achieving perverse expressive effects. Indeed, the faces of Matisse and his wife are not only powerfully expressive masks but textural Rorschach tests. One can find one’s own strong feelings in the seemingly spontaneous texture, which stimulates one’s own expressive spontaneity, in part because one can’t make intellectual sense of it. One has to bypass the repression barrier, and the defensive tendency to intellectualize — to invent or find or impose cognitive form — that keeps it in place, in order to be creatively expressive, that is, express the creativity of one’s unconscious.