MATISSE: “Abnormal to the Last Degree”

The man who created this exotic and compelling art was not easy to know. In 1913, the New York Times dispatched Clara T. MacChesney to interview “The King of the Fauves” in his home outside Paris. Aware that Matisse’s work was revolutionary and “abnormal to the last degree“, Miss MacChesney was scarcely prepared for the “ordinary, healthy, individual” who greeted her as she walked into the studio. ” I found not a long haired, slovenly dressed, eccentric man,” she wrote, “but a fresh, healthy, robust blond gentleman, who looked even more German than French.”

Met:The model's sculpturesque body, languorously stretching on the couch, exudes sensuality and carnality, enhanced by the warm rosy red color scheme. The mood of "luxe, calme et volupté" is clearly palpable. Yet, contemplating the work, one gets the impression that the artist somehow distanced himself from the erotic content of the picture while leaving the excitement of recognition to the viewer. Despite their attempt at authenticity, the paintings appear carefully staged and full of theatricality. The theme of odalisques during Matisse's Nice period is central not only to his paintings, but also to his sculptures, drawings, and prints. Source: Henri Matisse: Reclining Odalisque (Harmony in Red) (1999.363.44) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Matisse, sensing her surprise, exclaimed : “Oh, do tell the American people that I am a normal man.” More sophisticated observers than Miss MacChesney, then and throughout Matisse’s life, often sensed a discrepancy between the art and the stout man with clipped beard and rimless professorial glasses who created it.

“…It was a fine line he was walking, and in the best of his works he walked over it, as it were, taking expressive leaps that made little natural sense. Their irrationality could no longer be rationalized as a demonstration of nature at its most surprising. They came to exist in and for themselves, as a manifestation of the artist’s own irrationality. As Matisse wrote in a 1938 letter, “nature — or rather, my nature — remains mysterious,” and it was through his irrational expressive leaps, overthrowing nature, that he conveyed his own mysterious nature.”

Matisse. Bathers By a River. Michelle Leight:In "Notes of a Painter" Matisse wrote of his art making: "What I seek is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker, be he a businessman or a writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue." If this seems overly simplistic, he remains one of the most sublime and monumental artists of all time. For Matisse, who had known struggle, art was the healer, the oasis, the wellspring of hope and joy when life was less than perfect, colorless and unforgiving.

He was a man, wrote Leo Stein- who with his sister Gertrude was one of Matisse’s earliest patrons- who demanded ” a place for everything and everything in its place, both within his head and without.” He was ” the type of the great master,” wrote Picasso’s mistress Fernande Olivier. “Clear, of an astonishing lucidity of spirit, precise, concise, intelligent.” And, she added shrewdly, “perhaps much less simple than he wished to appear.” To the mercurial Picasso, Matisse was simply an enigma : “North Pole” and “South Pole” he used to say of Matisse and himself.

Few painters have lived more completely in and for their art, few have been able of such concentration and such unremitting effort. Younger artists like to cite Matisse’s trials with his Barnes Foundation mural,  “Dance I” , which he labored on for more than a year , only to discover that through no fault of his own it had been painted several inches shorter than the space assigned to it. Characteristically, he refused to make minor adjustments, but instead spent another eight months developing and executing an entirely new design. Looking into his ” interesred rather than interesting eyes,” Gertrude Stein sensed this stubborn power in him; one always had the feeling, she wrote in characteristic prose, ” that he was greatly expressing something struggling.”

Kuspit:All his life Matisse was a connoisseur of woman’s body, and she was sometimes -- conspicuously -- the phallic woman, as I have argued elsewhere. It was Matisse’s mother that lifted his spirit and liberated his creativity during a youthful sickness -- it seemed implicitly mental, however physical it also was -- by giving him a box of colors during his long convalescence. He used this gift of art to explore Mother Nature’s body, devoting his life to it, in search of the mystery of its creativity -- the mother’s and nature’s generative power, which he experienced as healing -- and its even more mysterious self-sufficiency. It had to be because her body was simultaneously feminine and masculine, passive and active, receptive and productive --consummately whole -- that she was so creative, spontaneously, vigorously, yet without apparent effort, which is the way Matisse wanted his art to seem.

“Matisse does not so much dominate his female subjects, as admire them, out of need for the creativity hidden in their bodies. Albert Elsen notes “the almost complete departure of the male model from Matisse’s figural work” after 1906. The Serf (1900-04), a Rodinesque sculpture, is his most famous image of a male, and it is not a happy one. He is a downtrodden, melancholy figure, for all his muscularity, implicitly helpless and passive — unconsciously castrated — as his armlessness suggests. Is he Matisse’s surrogate, the emotionally inept, oppressed side of the vital, vigorous figure in the 1906 self-portrait? Was his Fauvism an attempt to break the mood embodied in The Serf? Was it an attempt to once and for all assert the vitality he felt he was losing, all the more so because he was aging? (He was in fact the oldest of the Fauves, born in 1869, and already in his 30s when the Fauves — Vlaminck (b. 1876) and Derain (b. 1880) were in their 20s — exhibited together for the first time in 1905.) Matisse gave up on the male model because he needed woman to save him from the “inner conflict” — his own words — that plagued him all his life. Identifying with her by expressing her body, he could absorb the wholeness of her being. ( Kuspit )

Visitors who saw him before his easel, meticulous in tweed jacket and tie, sensed neither the struggle nor the joy he took in his work. He was a courteous, contained, intense man who could so lit

imagine diversion away from his studio that he could remark: “it has never amused me to amuse myself.” Aside from his trips, taken always in connection with his work, he moved for fifty years, with migratory regularity, between his various studios on the Riviera and those in Paris and at suburban Issy-les-Moulineaux in the summers, where his wife and children usually remained.

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