Henri Matisse did not concern himself only with painting, when what would be termed “fauvism” was coming forth in the summer of 1905 when he was in Collioure with Andre Derain. He also drew continually, and pondered the possibilities of transplanting the Fauve style of painting to sculpture.
“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.” (Donald Kuspit)
In his book on Matisse’s sculptures, Albert Elsen defines these Faive characteristics of sculpture as “foreshortening, informality, and angularity of pose, absence of tasteful decorative accessories and the blatant immediacy with which the effects of the figure are propelled toward the viewer”. All of these describe Reclining Nude I that Matisse sculpted at Collioure during the summer of 1907. There in 1909, he began one of his most radical sculptures, “La Serpentine”. Here he used as his point of departure a tawdry photograph of a naked model; live models were not to be found in Collioure.
Viewed in this light, Back IV represents not merely the last in a sequence, but rather Matisse’s definitive statement of a theme that preoccupied him for more than two decades. Albert Elsen has written:
“For the fifth time [see below on Back 0] he organized his ideas, and the relief reflects the more nearly perfect order and clarity of his thought. All zones sustain each other more harmoniously. In this last transposition of the composition, each area impresses one as having been equally considered, and no single section is realized at the expense of another. The relief is more complex and sophisticated in its reductiveness than comparable figures in any of his previous drawings or paintings. Matisse had extended himself beyond prev
efforts to realize the body as a single form” (op. cit., p. 192).