INCONVERSATION

John Elderfield with Phong Bui

On the occasion of Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913 – 1917 at the MoMA
(July 18 – October 11, 2010), John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, the Museum of Modern Art, who co-organized the exhibition with Stephanie D’Alessandro, Gary C. and Frances Comer, Curator of Modern Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, stopped by Art International Radio to talk with Rail publisher, Phong Bui, about the exhibit.

Phong Bui (Rail): Having been to the exhibit and read some of the texts in the catalogue, I wonder whether this exhibit was initiated by the last Matisse retrospective of 1992, and of course the ever popular Matisse Picasso so-called face-off, in 2002 – 2003, while the Modern was at its temporary home in LIC, Queens?

Portrait of John Elderfield. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

John Elderfield: In a way it obviously did, in the sense that I’d been, with the retrospective, looking hard at this period within the whole spread of Matisse’s career. And then with the Matisse Picasso exhibit the relationship around Cubism was clearly important, and critical to Matisse’s work during this period. However, after those two exhibitions I’d made a vow to myself that I wasn’t going to do any more Matisse shows. [Laughs.] Yet while I was at the Art Institute of Chicago five years ago, giving a lecture about my reinstallation of the MoMA collection shortly after the museum had just opened, I met Stephanie [D’Alessandro] who invited me to see “Bathers by a River,” which was, at the time, in conservation. After close inspection, I was excited to see how they had taken off the old, discolored varnish, as well as removed areas of earlier repairs by previous conservationists, so that parts of the surface looked like scabs on skin which had fallen off, you could see the flesh underneath; there was bright color in these little scab areas. Although the painting was completed in a relatively somber palette of green, pale blue, black, gray, we’d long suspected that it was begun earlier, partly because we knew that in 1909 Matisse had a commission from Sergei Shchukin, with which he produced “Dance” and “Music”—and “Bathers by a River” was originally intended as a part of the commission. Matisse in fact sent a watercolor of what he planned to Shchukin. But there was obviously a misunderstanding of some kind, and Shchukin wanted only two works—“Dance,” and “Music.” Anyhow, I was hooked, and kept going back to Chicago, which made me realize that you sometimes find yourself walking down a road without realizing how far you’ve gone. And, as the conservation advanced, Stephanie and I agreed that this was the moment to propose conservation of MoMA’s Matisses of this period, the greatest collection of them anywhere. The obvious next step was to do an exhibition. It isn’t a huge show. There are about 40 paintings, plus prints and drawings and sculptures, adding up to 110 works, and not all of them are from ‘13 – ‘17 because we decided that we didn’t want to give the appearance that the new approach of ‘13 had just come out of nowhere. In fact, the first picture we begin with in the exhibit is Cézanne’s “Three Bathers” (1879 – 82), which Matisse had bought from the dealer Vollard in 1899, which became a sort of talisman for him throughout this period.

Rail: While walking through the exhibit I couldn’t help but to think of Picasso’s “Self-Portrait with Palette” and Matisse’s “Self-Portrait” from the Fauvist period, both painted in 1906, the same year that both of them first met each other through the Steins. Matisse, at the time, was 37, and Picasso was 25. Needless to say, both paintings revealed equal tenacity and boldness of invention, yet it’s so easy to overlook the fact that Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de Vivre” (1905-06) and “Woman with Hat,”(1905) and other paintings of the Fauvist period were painted before Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907).

Elderfield: Absolutely. I think Picasso was involved in a real catch-up situation. He realized that Matisse was the one he had to address; and they both knew, right after they met, that what happens with two strong personalities is that there’s attraction and repulsion at the same time. On the one hand, it’s clear that the “Demoiselles,” as it advanced, became an attempt to ratchet up what he was doing in response to Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” which Matisse had painted from mid-January to February of 1907. When “Blue Nude” was shown at the 1907 Société des Artistes Indépendants it was thought to be ugly and aggressive; and it still looks that way. One can understand how it pushed Picasso along. On the other hand, Matisse truly disliked the “Demoiselles” at first, but then he realized it was something he really had to pay attention to. And this is one thing about Matisse which comes through in the present exhibition: that he’s somebody who, regardless of having major status as an artist, will continue to look at new art. We know that he looked at and esteemed old art, Cézanne’s in particular, but also looked at new art—which isn’t so common, even today, for really established artists to allow themselves to be challenged by new things. Also, after the exhibition of “Dance” and “Music” in 1910, to pretty horrific responses, he had more or less withdrawn from the scene for a couple of years. He took two long trips to Morocco, and when he came back, after the second one, in the spring of 1913, he had an exhibition of his Moroccan paintings in April. This time the response was great; critics said the work was beautiful. But you can feel Matisse’s teeth grinding at this, because he didn’t want to be thought of as simply a painter of beautiful pictures. And it’s at that point that he really starts to engage with what is around him, and gets out the big “Bathers” picture again and starts working on it. And this is what leads into this amazing five years.

Rail: Not being afraid of making ugly images is the lesson that both Matisse and Picasso had learned from Cézanne. In fact the second essay in the exhibition catalogue, “Modernism and Tradition,” refers to Emile Bernard who saw a reclining nude in some hardware store in Paris which was decidedly ugly, but yet it was so inexplicably compelling that it led him to quote Baudelaire, “The charm of horror only intoxicates the strong.” At any rate, I always felt that the Cubists’ reductive palettes and the application of the extended broken planes have greater affinity to Cézanne than, let’s say, Matisse’s deliberate use of neo-expressionist brushstrokes, although much less methodical than Seurat or Signac; this reveals Matisse’s break from Cézanne, as opposed to Picasso’s longer attachment to the older painter.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), “Bathers by a River” (1909-10, 1913, 1916-17). Oil on canvas. 1021/2 × 1543/16 in. (260 × 392 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1953.158. ©2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Elderfield: When you look at Cézanne’s “Three Bathers” and Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” you can see the relationship of color and form between the two paintings. But when you turn to “Le Luxe,” made later in 1907, you can also see that Matisse was looking at Gaugin. Matisse was never afraid of influence. In fact he said it’s good for an artist to be influenced, because that’s how you challenge and measure yourself against established artists. So Matisse managed to escape the influence of Cézanne in 1905 – 07 by allowing himself to be influenced by Seurat and Signac, by van Gogh, and finally by Gauguin. Then, in 1908, he could actually bring Gauguin and Cézanne together, and I think the picture that does so is also his response to Picasso’s “Demoiselles,” namely “Bathers with a Turtle.” The “Demoiselles” was finished before the great Cézanne retrospective of 1907 at the Salon d’Automne, the year after Cézanne’s death, but “Bathers with a Turtle” was painted in the following year 1908, and we can see that the left-hand side figure, the one reaching down to feed the turtle, is based on the figure at the left of Cézanne’s “Large Bathers,” now in Philadelphia. So Matisse comes back to Cézanne after having left him and drawn on other artists, and then he brings the whole of his arsenal together to say to Picasso, here you go. [Laughs.]

Rail: Yes. He throws a softball, but a very curved one. On other front: I also feel that both of their relationships to Ingres are quite arresting. Although one would easily say that Picasso’s natural talent was undoubtedly more pronounced than Matisse’s, or any other artists’ for that matter, his obsession with Ingres show a lack of fluidity in the use of line. Whereas in Matisse’s work, the Arabesque quality and speed of execution, the way the lines are drawn, has much more of an emphatic fluidity and elegance than Picasso’s. What do you think?

Elderfield: I think that’s true, and yet the elegance of Matisse is an ostensible elegance. You soon realize it isn’t only elegant. I don’t think we should at all be underestimating the pleasurable-ness of Matisse’s work, but this quality of his work reminds me of what Lionel Trilling said of Keats: that he was the poet who made the boldest affirmation of the principle of pleasure, but was also the poet who brought the principle of pleasure into the greatest and sincerest doubt. And Matisse brings doubt into the realm of pleasure. Before 1913, his paintings already have the quality of a visual collision. For example, in “The Manila Shawl,” painted after he got back from Spain in late January 1911 (February to mid April 1911), there’s a dark drawing around the sides of the extraordinarily beautifully painted body. At first you think this is pure contour drawing, but then you see, especially on the right side, how the straight line comes up from the side of the body, jumps over the shoulder, and carries right into the hair; it’s not naturalistic at all. It has to do with fixing the shape in space and organizing the body, even if it produces visual discomfort. Even more demonstrative of this boldness is “Portrait of Olga Merson,” painted six months later (July – mid-October 1911), where Matisse puts two roughly-drawn arcs actually on top of the body, certainly to discomforting effect, but you feel the pleasure in putting them there.

Rail: That kind of boldness must have driven de Kooning crazy.

Elderfield: I know, and in particular with the great “Goldfish and Palette” (late November 1914 – spring 1915) in the MoMA collection, it’s like de Kooning waiting to be born.

Rail: It’s so true. As you pointed out in the catalogue, Alfred Barr had observed that this period—which culminated in two paintings, “Bathers by a River,” and “The Moroccans”—is one that is full of experimentation, of paintings with “austere form,” “restrained color,” and “abstract design,” and a power of invention and an austerity of style scarcely equaled at any other time in his career. I like the term “forbidding asceticism” in referring to the near-monochromatic painting, for instance, “Woman on the High Stool” (January – April 1914), which brings to mind the predominant use of black that generates different purposes for Matisse than it does for Picasso. I remember reading Jack Cowart’s text in the catalog of the exhibit Matisse: The Early Years in Nice (1916 – 1930), which was a marvelous exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in 1987. In the catalogue, I came across the account of Matisse’s visit to Renoir at the end of December 1917. Renoir at the time was 76 years old and Matisse was 48. It was remarkable; Matisse brought a bunch of paintings to show to the great Renoir and Renoir looked at them and said that Matisse was not a good painter, or even that he was nearly a very bad painter. But what prevented Renoir from saying it was Matisse’s unique use of black. All his life, Renoir said he couldn’t think of the possibility of using black without breaking the chromatic unity of a surface, but Matisse knew how to do it, and when he does it, it holds on the painting surface. And from that, he said surely, Matisse is a painter.

Henri Matisse. “The Moroccans” (Issy-les-Moulineaux, late 1915 and fall 1916). Oil on canvas. 713/8˝ × 9´2˝ (181.3 × 279.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel A. Marx. ©2010 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Elderfield: Well, the two paintings, “Bathers by a River,” and “The Moroccans,” as Barr had mentioned, are the most demonstrative of this uniqueness. “The Moroccans” was painted first (January – November 1916), and the black there is used to separate the three areas as much as to connect them. He manages to have it both ways and this is what’s extraordinary. In addition he provides us with an impression of extraordinarily strong light from very little color but from the vibration of the black and the whites. When we advanced our study of “Bathers by a River,” which was all but completed between the early spring to November of the same year (1916) and, with the aid of the cross sections through the layers of paint taken by the conservators, we were able to plot how it changed in that period; I think the most critical move that Matisse made was when he first painted one of the vertical bands black, which he presumably picked up from “The Moroccans.” Again, it’s the formal brilliance of how to use black that doesn’t break the membrane of the surface, while separating things and bringing them together at the same time. So what had begun in 1909 as an entirely Arcadian picture was brought to conclusion as a two-part composition, as the black separates, and joins, the verdant left side and the barren right side. It’s this amazing, dislocated manner of composing that is the great innovation of this period. In his famous Notes of a Painter (1908) he wrote about how every part of a picture was equally important insofar as everything must play its role. This came out of the traditional notion of a composition as everything having to be fit together, but what Matisse eventually got to was to pull out some of the pieces, or introduce surprise elements that don’t seem to quite fit in. This ultimately comes from Cézanne but it’s something he really makes his own. For example, just when you feel as though you are familiar with his revisionary process, you come across, just to the left of the seated figure’s circular turban in “The Moroccans,” circular and vertical strokes that were among the very first things he put into the picture, and he never went back to them. He just left them. And this is repeated in other pictures as well. Talking to painter friends about this, they’re in awe of his ability to walk away from a picture without feeling that everything has to be settled in place. We know that he worked his paintings in stages, taking them to a provisional completion time and again until he let them go. In the case of two paintings, “View of Notre Dame” (January – mid February 1914) and “French Window at Collioure” (mid September – October 1914), he seemed to have left them in provisional completion and never went back to them. He didn’t sign either of them, and never exhibited them. But neither did he destroy them. I think we can take it that they puzzled him but that he knew that allowing himself to be puzzled was, for him, an integral part of being a painter.

Rail: I suspect that ability to trust that quickening first stroke and just have the confidence to leave it has something to do with his earlier recognition of children’s drawings. I’ve read many accounts of his attempts to take elements from his son’s (Pierre) drawing and culture it for his own use. This is something I’m sure Picasso must have been extremely envious of because it took him until the last 10 to 12 years to achieve that childlike quality in his work. But regarding the predominant use of black, John, would it be possible that Matisse may have been responsive, even at an unconscious level, to his once classmate Rouault’s paintings, while they were students under Gustave Moreau at École des Beaux-Arts? Rouault had been trained as a glass painter and restorer from when he was 14 until he went to study with Moreau at the age of 20. This experience has been suggested as a likely source of the heavy black contouring, likened to leaded glass, which pretty much characterizes Rouault’s mature style.

Elderfield: Yes, but I think it was also something that was in the air. We know that when “Bonheur de Vivre,” was first exhibited, which was Matisse’s break against Signac and neo-Impressionist methods, Signac said, “Matisse has gone to the dogs…he has surrounded some strange characters with a line as thick as your thumb,” and complained that it was like “the most detestable cloissonism,” like art nouveau decorations.

Rail: Can you imagine Signac saying that?! [Laughs] Matisse has gone to the dogs!

Elderfield: I think that Signac recognized Matisse’s talent, and he must have felt great that he’d won him over to his neo-Impressionist style—only to find that Matisse had suddenly, drastically changed. He was thinking: Matisse was one of us and now he’s not one of us anymore. [Laughs.] But this is the great thing about Matisse, which he regularly talked about, how you can’t be a prisoner of success, a prisoner of style; you can’t be a prisoner of any of these things. In one of the handwritten texts he wrote for Jazz (published by Tériade in 1947), which refers to not being a prisoner of success, he said that he had heard that ancient Japanese artists would actually change their names in order to preserve their freedom, and he said that’s very good.

Rail: You know, Chinese restaurants do that all the time when the business isn’t so good; they would change from, for example Happy Buddha to—

Elderfield: Unhappy Buddha! [Laughs.]

Rail: Exactly. Something else Matisse had said, which can be very deceptive, is that he wanted his paintings to be something like a good armchair in which to rest from fatigue. This can be applied to, of course, the latter phase of his work, but for the most part, as you and Stephanie brought up in the catalogue introduction, the whole arduous working process basically amplifies all kinds of physical aspects, from scraping, incising to sanding, repainting, and so on; it’s very fierce and determined.

Elderfield: And when he said that in 1908 he was making big paintings with flat color areas. You can understand that he may have thought about them in these terms. But clearly something changed, and this is a subject that Stephanie and I talked about a lot: how does one fit these two sides of Matisse together? There are, of course, plenty of situations where our distance from a particular statement or circumstance can be such that we just can’t understand it anymore, even that we find it puzzlingly repulsive. An obvious example is what can now be perceived to be anti-Semitism in Shakespeare. As for Matisse’s statement, we certainly have to think of it in the context of the vogue for decorative art at the time it was made.

Rail: So maybe sitting in a good armchair is for the sake of deep pleasure.

Elderfield: Actually, you can sit in a good armchair and look at unpleasant paintings as well. [Laughs.]

Rail: [Laughs] True! But, most kinds of processes that are invested and identified with modernism are not of what we would consider anticipated unity, but instead, the struggle for unity, as in “Guernica,” which had often been cited as the definite exchange of epic scale paintings for modern art. Yet “Guernica” was painted in 1937, and Matisse painted “Bathers by the River” in 1916.

Elderfield: It’s fascinating that Picasso had regularly tried in that same period to make his Cubist pictures on a large scale. He had a commission to do so in 1909 from the wealthy painter and critic Hamilton Easter Field for his library in Brooklyn, which he probably accepted because Matisse had just got his commission from Shchukin; but Picasso’s project never really got going, mostly because Cubism in that stage was wrist painting. By that point, Matisse was an arm-painter, which is why Matisse was able to transform what he learned from Cubism into very large pictures. Picasso’s pre-Cubist “Demoiselles” had been a very large painting, of course, and it is surely no accident that the “Bathers by a River,” “The Moroccans,” and “Piano Lesson,” Matisse’s three largest pictures of the 1913 – 17 period, were completed or almost completed shortly after the “Demoiselles” was exhibited for the first time, in July 1916. That must have been a push for Matisse. These were Cubist kinds of pictures at a scale and at a level of ambition which Cubism had not reached at that point, except for academic Cubists, who made narrative pictures like [Albert] Gleizes or [Jean] Metzinger and so on. Picasso finally got to it only after his experience of the theater in 1917, and by 1921 with “The Three Musicians” he was able to paint flat area in bigger canvases, which got him away from wrist painting.

Rail: Due to the advent of collage in 1912, after which synthetic Cubism emerged.

 Elderfield: Right, collage changed the methods of Cubism, opening it to a larger scale. Matisse saw that, and it’s clear that the banding in Matisse’s pictures is indebted to collage. He learned here as much from Juan Gris as from Picasso.

Rail: Just to follow up what about the revision process of which we had spoken earlier: When I looked at “Nude by the Sea,” painted 1909, I notice the scraped area that begins with the tree and merges right into the figure on the left edge, which had been previously painted in the center of the painting had obviously been moved by Matisse maybe an inch less to the right. The same thing can be said of “Bathers and a Turtle,” which is even more pronounced.

 Elderfield: In fact, through this new and amazing technology—which I, of course, don’t understand entirely—we can now see how the physical movement of forms to left or right is at the heart of the revisionary process in Matisse’s sculpture as well as painting. As we are talking, I am remembering the wonderful story about de Kooning and Gorky. Gorky, who’s such an amazing draftsman, as was de Kooning, once said something like, “sure, we can draw, but what we really should do is, when that brush or the pencil is coming to touch the canvas or paper, we should know exactly where we’re going to put it, then just move it over a bit to somewhere else.” By surprising him- or herself in the process of creation, there is a better chance that the artist will make something that will in turn surprise us. This is the great lesson of what Keats called “Negative Capability,” the ability of working in uncertainty without hankering after reason all the time. In this period of Matisse’s art, it allowed him to begin every picture in uncertainty; and it’s just amazing how each picture is different. There are some sequences of works, like the sequence of still lifes on tables where you recognize there’s a kind of momentum going along from one picture to the next; but basically every picture is a new adventure.

Rail: But to go back to “Nude by the Sea,” and of course I’m thinking of the second standing figure in “Three Bathers and a Turtle,” which seems to suggest Matisse’s insistence on the centralization of the figure. There I’m reminded of Cézanne’s famous “The Bather” (1885) at the Modern, which makes me wonder whether one can say that Matisse, by virtue of being a Frenchman—one who belongs to Cartesian logic tradition, at least in painting, which was certainly exemplified by Poussin, who was the exact contemporary of Descartes, and whose work both Picasso and Matisse were obsessed with—can be seen as an artist who inherited that tradition and brought it forth to modernism?

Elderfield: Yes, and the difference is revealed in a hilarious interview that Matisse gave in 1910 where the interviewer had the nerve to suggest to him that he neglected intelligence. Matisse replied, “Quite so…I believe only in instinct.” And yet, as we all know, Matisse was a massively intelligent man, and he’d learned academic training inside out. For example, there’s one of the drawings of the standing female nude seen from the back in the first room of the exhibition, where you can see he’s placed a vertical guideline down the side of the figure so that he could work the figure away from it. But he did work from instinct, setting an image down not to end but to begin a painting, in a revisionary, amendatory process of painting. This was essentially Matisse’s invention: a process of observing his own intuitive reactions to what he had done, then often reworking the whole painting at the next stage. This amendatory process became, of course, the very method of making modern paintings—including, of course, paintings that look nothing like Matisse’s—although we see less of it now. Cézanne adumbrated this method, but not to the extent that the pictures could get totally transformed each time around, which was what Matisse did, even though he found it scary because he could well lose something he really liked. For, as Bob Dylan once said, “you can go back, but you can’t go back all the way.” [Laughs.]

Rail: [Laughs.] The other identifiable element in Matisse’s painting of this period is the architectonic quality began with “Interior with Goldfish” painted 1914. “Head, White, and Rose,” (mid-November 1914 to early 1915) a very strange painting indeed. Boy, I haven’t figured that painting out.

Elderfield: I know, and that’s part of what is great about it. One of the reviews of the exhibit said, “It’s simply a failed picture.”

Rail: I wouldn’t say that.

Elderfield: Well I’ve come to believe that, with works like this, it’s either the picture or it’s me. And it’s more likely to be me than the picture. [Clement] Greenberg once wrote an essay in response to what David Sylvester had written about Pollock’s paintings being ugly. He effectively said, “If you think it’s ugly, you’ve just got to wait, and just get used to it, and then you make the decision. You don’t just say, oh, it’s a failed picture.”

Rail: Not that different from the example of Picasso who decided to finish Gertrude Stein’s face without looking at the last sitting?

Elderfield: Yes.

Rail: And the famous remark she made was, “it doesn’t look like me” to which he responded, “it will.” I actually feel the same way about “The Italian Woman,” with her entire left shoulder painted over, which I don’t know how I can negotiate spatially in front of the image. And of course the ultimate one, which we all love because it’s housed here at the Modern, is “The Piano Lesson.” As flattering as it is in its severity and abstraction it actually indicates Matisse’s forthcoming involvement in a much more three-dimensional space, which is that of the proceeding years he spent in Nice (from 1917 to 1929).

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). “Bathers with a Turtle” (1907-08). Oil on canvas, 179.1 × 220.3cm (701/2 × 873/4 in). Saint Louis Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr., 24:1964. © 2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Elderfield: What we wanted to do was to concentrate on the really radical pictures, and not include some of the less radical ones, the more naturalistic paintings that he was doing in the same period. The reason was we didn’t want the former to subdue the latter. Matisse said in 1914 that he wished he could paint more fluently, but just couldn’t. This is true with “The Piano Lesson,” which looks fluent but was done with the same amount of revision as other paintings. Of the three big pictures (with “The Moroccans” and “Bathers by a River”), it’s the only one that is a painting of a place, as opposed to of memories. Even though I’ve been looking at this picture for a long, long time [laughs], I mean sometimes daily, what I mainly saw for a long time was its quality of abstraction. Of course, it isn’t an abstract painting, almost everything in it has an external referent, but what gradually came to insinuate itself upon me was how it is a representation of a specific moment. I can imagine someone standing over my right shoulder and turning on a light. The light is thrown diagonally across the room, and onto the garden outside to produce that green wedge of lawn, and then against the boy’s face, and so on. That specific and arrested moment in time is linked through subject matter to the passage of time, with the metronome and the burning candle, as well as through the physical means of the making; the scratching and the jabbing, and so on. Something very similar to this can be said of the Phillips collection picture, “The Studio, quai Saint-Michel,” (March – April 1917). You do feel that these pictures are moving on to something else, but what they move on to will be not as austere as they still are.

Rail: Also, the use of repetition is quite amazing. For example we see he had transposed, though in a sketch-like manner of the “Seated Figure on the High Stool,” painted from two years earlier (1914), to the upper right of “The Piano Lesson.” What was once in a slight ¾ view of her head in “Seated Figure on a High Stool” is now painted frontally in order to harmonize with the head of the boy below. You could say the same of the sculpture of the seated female figure in the bottom left, which anchors the left corner solidly. I think the most exquisite touch is the way the right edge of the orange vertical band, of what appears to be a door because of the slight diagonal tilt of the bottom edge, had it continued straight down it would have hit the left side of the boy’s head! But, brilliantly, Matisse painted over it slightly with the gray; therefore it separates the foreground and background.

Elderfield: It’s amazing, and of course that room still exists, which is now the Matisse archives. I’ve been in that room, and, where the piano was, there is now a computer. [Laughs.]

Rail: Oh really? [Laughs.] Matisse had also said, in 1908, “My destination is always the same, but I work out a different route to get there.” How would you see the difference between Matisse’s sense of continuity and Picasso’s unity of style?

Elderfield: Well, Picasso is the artist who is actually more famous for constantly changing styles. There is a sort of nervous stylistic eclecticism about him. Matisse isn’t as impatient, but the desire for change is as strong in its own way, in that he believes that continuity is attainable only through change. The two artists are obviously very different; they’re obviously influenced by different artists, by different artistic temperaments. Picasso is a Spanish artist who keeps going back to the idea of a figure that belongs in a niche-like space like a statue in a church. Matisse is a French artist who grew up in the Louvre with huge canvases, which had to be models for him. Even though he spends part of his life making really small pictures, with the mural size paintings such as “Dance” (I) and (II), “Music,” and “Bathers by the River,” and then right at the end with his paper cutouts, the ideal of monumental pictures is there all the time. This is also true with the Vence Chapel. Actually, not long ago I was talking about the chapel to Steven Holl, who had just been there for the first time, and he said he was impressed by how you can have wonderful architecture with a boring exterior. It’s true that when you get to the chapel, you cannot be impressed by the exterior. Quite the opposite; you think, what is this? But, when you go in, it’s just such a knockout delivery. And he (Holl) was saying, “Well, you know, this is good for architects to realize, that you can just do it all inside.” It’s amazing what Matisse did create with the disassociation of black-and-white drawing and colored windows. In any event, at every point in Matisse’s career, you are always carried to another point. As he said, he is really doing the same thing by different means all the time; and the different means mean that the same thing always looks different.

Rail: The only time he ever came to America was to sit on the jury of Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburg in 1930, and that was how the Barnes mural commission came about.

Elderfield: And you know that Rene D’Harnoncourt, who at that point had not even started working at MoMA as the successor of Barr, was designated to look after Matisse. He, in fact, took Matisse to a baseball game, which he did not understand, and did not like; he found it cold and miserable. But he said what he loved about New York was the sort of crystalline light from all the water around the island.

Rail: At this point we should address the issue of World War I. In Patrick O’Brian’s biography of Picasso he described how Picasso took Braque to the train at Avignon to send him off to the front, just after the outbreak of the war in August 1914, which basically marked the end of their collaboration. But in addition to Greenberg’s essay (of 1966), which famously argued that what Matisse should do is to make great art, despite being untouched by the war, can you detect any other subtleties that some of us may not?

Elderfield: I think the war did affect what he was doing, clearly not in subject matter, like [Raoul] Dufy who made war posters and [Felix] Vallotton, who painted pictures of the battle fields, and so on, but Matisse did it in other ways. He sold prints, and sent food parcels to prisoners of war, his brother among them, in German camps. He, in fact, wanted to fight, but he was not allowed to because he was 44, and had a weak heart. It’s a difficult issue, and one has to think back to 1914. While Matisse was painting, he could hear the distant cannon explosions outside of his windows. The main difficulty is that we must forget the honors claimed in refusing the draft during the Vietnam war if we are to understand the dishonors attributed to those who did so in 1914. We know that Braque served; Apollinaire, Léger, others, and we know what they felt about people who didn’t. We know that they were morally indignant about Delaunay having gone to Switzerland, about Duchamp having gone to New York, and felt that it was actually their duty as Frenchman to be engaged in the protection of their country. I think that these ethical issues are there in Matisse’s work. The refusal of decoration, as Matisse said is, “the limitation of means”—like the limitation of means in daily life then. To Matisse, painting was the equivalent of living inside of an extreme situation and therefore feeling that kind of total freedom available to it. We know that there are far more illegitimate births during wartime because people feel they might be dead the next day. Matisse is not only doing the best he can, but also taking more chances, and refusing ostentation. In this context it’s interesting that in 1914, as Matisse was moving into this kind of austerity and restriction of means, the Cubists were actually picking up on Matissean color. So you find Picasso in Avignon in 1914 painting bright pictures, and Delaunay moving into even brighter color harmonies as well. We also know that Matisse refused to have a one-man exhibit in Paris while the war was on, because he felt it was wrong to draw attention to himself while his countrymen were fighting and dying. And, of course, this is one of the reasons why many of these paintings really weren’t well known, because they weren’t seen publically until sometimes a lot later. “Bathers by a River,” and “The Piano Lesson” weren’t exhibited until 1926. Likewise “The View of Notre-Dame” and “French Window at Collioure” were not shown until 1966. “Portrait of Auguste Pellerin” wasn’t seen outside the collector’s home until 1982, and was never in an exhibition until the Matisse retrospective in 1992. Stephanie and I talked about how Matisse wrote of his discomfort seeing Moroccan troops on the streets of Paris, and then he went down to Marseilles and again saw a lot of Moroccan troops coming in the port and probably said to himself, “why are these colonial soldiers being brought up to die in France?” Is that feeling overtly expressed in “The Moroccans”? Probably not; but the kind of seriousness of the picture reflects the fact that it was done at a serious time when there were difficult issues happening in the world; and we know from the history of warfare that it’s the time when people are having to make decisions and compromises and take actions, which in normal, peaceful life would just be utterly unacceptable. Yet, in extreme situations this is what happens. In that context, these pictures couldn’t have been painted at any other time rather of that moment. One of the revelations of the exhibition for Stephanie and I was, because we were dealing with such a small period not only did we have the opportunity to do a lot of detailed technical examinations but we had a lot of encouragement to do a lot of archival work on what Matisse thought about the war, what was happening in the art market, what was it like for him or other artists to be working through those difficult times. I think it’s easier to empathize with the technical part because, you know, painting is painting—what is harder is to really get inside of that situation and see what it must be like from there. I’m from a military family, so have thought a lot about wartime conditions. But I didn’t realize that in 1917, for example, one of the attempts to shift from the stagnancy of trench warfare was to start mining enemy positions, and that, in one instance, when the British dug under a German position, the general leading the operation was asked, “is this going to win the war?” And he said, “No, but it’s going to change the geography.” And the explosion was heard in Dublin. So you can imagine what it was like in Paris. Windows break, shelves drop. The war was very near.

Rail: Well again, the criterion of pleasure, shouldn’t that also be looked at as a legitimate healer of suffering? I think it’s fair to say that, and painting is capable of doing that. Matisse’s painting certainly has that undeniable element.

Elderfield: I agree; and I think that, on the one hand, pleasure is being given with its opposite, the coldness and the darkness and the mortality outside of it. But, also, I think you’re absolutely right in that Matisse was also working through as well as in this state, and offering an experience that is not cold and dark at all. This is one of the reasons we care so much about important works of art. It’s not merely pleasure in the sense of having a great time; neither is it merely solace. But there is a beneficent quality to these great canvases. As I said earlier, I have known these pictures really well for a long time, but I still go into some of the rooms in the exhibition, and I feel a chill, which is a mixture of awe, disturbance, and delight. Extraordinary.

Contributor

Phong Bui

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