His whole career, said Matisse, could be thought of as a progress toward clarity and simplification: “A constant struggle for complete expression with a minimum of elements. ” Actually, his career had many meanings, as any great artist’s must, but the progress toward simplicity was certainly one of its central themes.
Yet “progress” is perhaps not the right word, unless with it it is understood an almost continual fluctuation between the simple and the complex, the active and the static, the decorative flat pattern and the modeled “realistic” forms. The final Matisse; the Matisse of the paper cutouts and the ink drawings; was of course the most simple of all-but even more than most great artists. Matisse was inconsistent, and it is not impossible to believe that he would have turned again toward elaboration if he had lived beyond his eighty-fifth year.
What we do know is that in the second decade of the century he turned away from the flat, high color and sinuous arabesque that had characterized his style since “Joy of Life” in 1906 in favor of more simplified , geometric forms and a more somber palette of blacks and grays or deep, resonant colors.
It was the most structural and monumental period of his career- and perhaps the most fertile. It was marked by a succession of powerful works, among them, “Music”, “Piano Lesson”, “The Moroccans”, “Moorish Cafe”, “The Riffian”, and the five remarkable and progressively abstracted bronze heads of “Jeannette”.
In the 1920′s Matisse turned toward softer, more relaxed, more opulently colored, and more realistically three-dimensional paintings, a move that contributed greatly to his popularity among art collectors but not to his reputation among artists. In 1929 he practically gave up easel painting in order to concentrate on drawings, prints and sculpture.
When he returned seriously to oils 1n 1933, it was to pursue- in paintings like “Lady in Blue”- a flat, decorative, semiabstract style that culminated, shortly before the war , in a series of two-dimensional studies of mannequin like women whose high-fashion charm only added to the growing impression that Matisse was past his expiry date.
Yet no summary can acommodate Matisse’s career, for he was a man constantly and passionately in motion. It was in the “relaxed” 1920′s , for instance, that he painted such violent and garish canvases as “Decoative Figure on an Ornamental Background” ( 1927), and sculptured such vigorous, angular, and non-naturalistic bronzes as the “Seated Nude” of 1925 and the two versions of “The Back” of 1928-29. It was in the 1930′s- in what had been called his “chic” period- that he spread, after three years’ work, his monumental friezelike mural “Dance II” beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, designed his strikingly abstract sets for Leonide Massine’s symphonic ballet “Rouge et Noir”, and produced, in the design and illustration of Mallarme’s “Poesies” , one of the great classic expressions of his career.
For all that, at the beginning of World War II he was in a sense a major painter without a following. Although his earlier works were still looked at with great respect by the younger painters, he had not had the impact on the young, in the years 1920-1940 , of a Picasso, a Braque, a Mondrian, a Leger, a Miro, or a Rouault.
One of the reasons was doubtless that he did not, at any time after his Fauve period, belong to an influential or easily identifiable school. Then, too, in his abrupt and often confusing changes of stylistic direction, Matisse seemed to some of the younger generation to be retrogressing when he should be advancing. Finally, his subject matter was criticized as irrelevant to its time: in 1937 Picasso’s savage “Guernica” seemed a more pertinent painting than Matisse’s elegant “Lady in Blue”.
About the role of the “decorative” in Matisse’s paintings, Ms. Spurling is also a shrewd critic. In her essay for the exhibition catalog, she writes:
“Critics routinely dismissed the work of [his] Nice period at the time and afterwards as decorative, shallow and self-indulgent. Matisse was stigmatized, especially in comparison with Picasso, as a worldly and essentially frivolous lightweight, an image that still lingers in the popular imagination half a century after his death. He was used to coming off badly in the perennial hostilities that had dogged him all his life between the noble art of painting and the humble, despised decorative arts of his native region. ‘It’s a bad mistake to give a pejorative sense to the word “decorative,”’ he replied. ‘A work of art should be decorative above all.’ He saw the paintings of this period as a series of encounters in which he tested color to the limit, constantly shifting the borders of perception in a process that culminates in the astonishing Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground (1926), where the seated nude seems not so much human as totemic, hard and unyielding as if carved out of wood or stone. It is the textile that appears to surge and swell from the white wrap billowing between her thighs to the patterned rug and wallpaper tipsily surrounding her with their blowsy curves and floppy, red, almost hallucinogenic flower blobs. Nothing stimulated more vigorously the intuitive organic growth at the core of Matisse’s work.” ( Hilton Kramer)