In art sometimes, the more things change, the more nothing is the same. The paper cutouts were Matisse’s final flowering; a last expression of this articulation of traces of solitude and gaiety, what he called “the eternal conflict between drawing and color”. Ever simplifying, ever synthesizing, younger at eighty, than at thirty, he sat in his wheel chair, put aside paint brush for scissors, and filled his last years with patterns of pure color. That Matisse would abandon oil painting and adopt a new technique so late in life surprised many, although it need not have been. Matisse had always been and extremely experimental and unpredictable artist with a deep-seated fear of stagnation….
The Fauve-”wild beast” painters treatred their pigments, according to Andre Derain, one of the group, “like sticks of dynamite, exploding them to produce light.” More prosaically, what Derain, Matisse, Vlaminck, Friesz, Dufy, and Braque, the principal Fauves, wanted was to use color not only to express light but also to construct space.
When they spoke of “expressing light” by color, the Fauves meant that they did not want simply to copy light but to render it chromatically. This of course, had been a prime concern of the impressionists in the nineteenth-century, and the Fauves, and especially Matisse, freely acknowledged their indebtedness to impressionist researches in the field of light. Gauguin, who was also deeply indebted to the impressionists, expressed the problem succinctly: “I have observed,” he wrote, ” that the play of light and shadow by no means creates a color the equivalent of light… What, then, could be the equivalent? Pure Color!”
The Fauves were quite ready to follow the impressionists in their use of pure color, but they deplored, as had Cezanne, the lack of form and structure in impressionist painting. Gauguin, in the coarse of making ” the first thoroughgoing organization of impressionist methods” , avoided the impressionist tendency to formlessness but failed, according to Matisse, ” to construct space by means of color, which he uses excessively as an expression of feelings.”
Because the Fauves, like Cezanne and Gauguin, had rejected the use of a traditional, linear perspective, they relied heavily on the space-building power of color, which depends on the tendency of cold colors-blues and greens- to recede and warm colors-reds, oranges, yellows- to advance.
In practice, the Fauves produced a painting characterized by very shallow depth, heavy bounding lines, thickly rolled impasto, distortion of contour, and explosive color juxtapositions. There was a certain amount of bravado in all this, and in general Matisse remained more orderly and constructive than his colleagues.
His greatest painting of the period- and a landmark in the history of modern art – was that Pagan mural, the “Joy of Life” ( 1906) , which combines Fauve color- yellow ground, pink sky, flame-red trees- with the echoing , curving, fluid forms that would in time become almost a signature in Matisse’s work. The picture was a watershed in Matisse’s career, for in it he abandoned the realistic tradition for the first time since leaving Gustave Moreau’s studio. His fascination with the bacchanalian round of dancing figures in “Joy of Life” was so great that he later made it the central theme of his panel “Dance” , which was commissioned in 1909 by the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin and which is probably Matisse’s best known work.
The poet Guillaume Appolinaire, who was a close friend of Picasso had this to say about his relationship with Matisse: “If you were to compare Henri Matisse’s work to something it would have to be an orange. Matisse’s work is a fruit bursting with light,” whereas “a painting by Picasso is animated by life and thought and illuminated by internal light. Beyond that life, however, lies an abyss of mysterious darkness.” Picasso preferred to work late into the night, sleeping till noon, completely at home in the surreal world of dreamscapes and altered realities. He did not care too much about his surroundings: they merely facilitated his ability to paint from his prodigious imagination.
Matisse loved the light of Southern France, which infused his life and his work. His living environment was vitally important to him, the eternal aesthete. In documentary photographs luscious flowers adorn his studios, bedroom and living rooms. Fruit lies abundant and ripened to perfection in bowls. Beautifully patterned cloths drape the tables and exquisitely patterned Oriental rugs lay on the floors. Everything is in readiness should Matisse feel the sudden urge to assemble a still life or create an exotic environment for an odalisque. Seeing the women in studio photographs before they are transformed into odalisques show the monumental power of Matisse’s imagination. This was one of the great achievements of the Fauves, the ability to do away with a drab gray dockyard or an unremarkable woman and – with a few masterful licks of pure pigment immortalize them in a radiant world of joy and color.