Ever simplifying and ever synthesizing; younger at eighty than at thirty, Matisse sat in his wheel chair, put aside paintbrush for scissors, and filled his sunset years with patterns of pure color. …
“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. The collector Leo Stein, the first owner of Matisse’s 1905 Portrait of Mme Matisse, with its infamous green line splitting her face in half, called it “the nastiest smear of painting I had ever seen,” noting “the unpleasantness of the putting on of the paint.” This provocative, daring painting, which defies the ordinary perception of reality, is a long way from Raoul Dufy’s Street Decked with Flags, Le Havre and Derain’s London Bridge, both 1906, which are far more conventional, both in structure and color, however intense the color.” ( Kuspit)
The Fauve movement lasted a very short time- scarcely more than three years( 1904-07) in its most active phase- but it left Matisse, at least, with an appetite for color that was never appeased. He yearned for “the beautiful blues, the beautiful reds, the beautiful yellows, the materials which stir man’s basic sensuality.” He advised the students of the famous school he conducted in Paris from 1908-11 to “order, above all, in color.” And in “Notes of a Painter” , which appeared in 1908 and which remains one of the most lucid statements ever made by a painter about his own art, he explained that color relations were so basic to him that he would willingly distort- “change the shape of a figure or transform my composition”- in order to maintain what he regarded as “an impelling proportion of tones.”
No painter of his time made more intelligent use of the traditions of other cultures. At exhibitions and in his travels to Italy, Algiers, Morocco, and Tahiti he studied and collected and went home to assimilate.
Near Eastern ceramics, Japanese prints, Chinese brush and ink paintings, figurines from the Ivory Coast, Persian miniatures, Algerian pottery and textiles- all contributed in their various degrees and ways to that style of controlled extravagance , or sublimated sensuousness, by which Matisse is most generally known.
Most characteristically, it is a style combining fresh, singing color with flat, unmodulated surfaces, a flattened pictorial space, emphatic design, and a taste for an active all-over arabesque or floral motif that animates the entire canvas. By these means Matisse achieves not only unity of surface but also a decorative, almost architectural quality reminiscent of Romanesque frescoes.
The subject matter follows the style: Matisse treats of flowers and vines; Oriental silks and sumptuous rugs; Persian tiles and precious glass; richly furnished interiors and partly glimpsed, floridly subtropical exteriors; gi
posed as odalisques against patterned surfaces.
To the whole he gives a remarkable sense of freedom. Partly this is because he was a master draftsman, whose sensitive, musical, but controlled lines_” there is no madness in my curve”- was unequaled by any artist of his time and was often compared to the finest Oriental calligraphy.
Partly the sense of freedom results from the fact that in his best paintings Matisse followed the advice he once gave to a young painter: ” isolate your color” – give it room to breathe. Accordingly, he favors large, mosaic like planes, or zones of color , that work to create , simultaneously, space, form and light.
And it is Matisse’s light, finally, that strikes us when we examine one of his typical paintings. Not only does the entire canvas seem flooded with light, but light seems to inhere in the very fabrics, the flesh of the models, the leaves of the plants.
“Matisse’s ambition was remarkable, and remains virtually unique in 20th-century art: to invent a new art of harmony, at once cognitively and emotionally satisfying, a visual art that would overcome the dissociation of sensibility — the split between reason and feeling — that T. S. Eliot regarded as the disease of modernity. It would be an art of healing and reconciliation, in which opposites merge to synergistic aesthetic effect. His is the only 20th-century art that deliberately sets out to do emotional good. It has a calming effect, with no sacrifice of cognitive and perceptual complexity, and vitality.” ( Kuspit )
The vertical is in my spirit. It helps me to define precisely the direction of lines, and in quick sketches I never indicate a curve, that of a branch in landscape for example, without being aware of its relationship to the vertical. My curves are not mad.