Henri Matisse

HENRI MATISSE (1862—) has come to be regarded, by outsiders at any rate, as a leader of this movement of “Wild Men,” partly through the number of his pupils, partly through the clear enunciation of what he believes to be the principles involved. These he explains as “simplification, organization and expression.” That he may have de-rived this triune motive from Cézanne, of whom we have yet to speak, does not alter the fact that Matisse has been their chief spokesman.

The ideas embedded in this phrase are individually not new. If there is any novelty it is in bringing them into such concise and effective unity. It is a fact, moreover, that they are practically identical with the principles which are being relied upon to reorganize the social and economic conditions. Substitute for expression the economic equivalent, efficiency, and you have the secret by which the barons of finance and industry have acquired their bloated power, and by which alone their power can be checked in the interest of the public. For the system embodied in the ideas has come to stay; and the problem which confronts the statesmen of the present time is not to overthrow the results of trust-combination, but to discover how the benefits of efficiency as the result of simplifying and organizing production can be extended from the strong-boxes of the few to the well-being of the many.

The ideas, in fact, are so intrinsically a part of the great movements of the day that Matisse’s advocacy of them in relation to painting must needs command attention. As a priori propositions they are immediately acceptable. The test in his own case consists in his application of them. Let us realize at the outset that he inherits from impressionism the decorative intention of a canvas. When it came to simplification he seems to have argued that he must divest himself as far as possible of his original academic training; he must get back of all acquired learning,. whether derived from Italy or Greece; and must try to look at nature through the eyes of the primitive artist who had nothing but instinct to rely on. So he took counsel of the carved wooden images of aboriginal Africans.

Such organization as these exhibited was an instinctive recognition of certain rude relationships; for example, the connection and difference between the advanced planes of the nose and the retiring hollows of the eye-sockets; between the chunky surfaces of the cheeks and the angular incision that indicated the mouth.

When it came to the question of expression, Matisse performed the feat of auto-suggestion, which discovered what he was looking for in the thing in which he had made up his mind it was to be found.

One point, however, he overlooked. The primitive man shared Matisse’s instincts as a decorator, but was entirely unbothered by acquired ideals of harmony and rhythm. He transfigured a block of wood into his vision of nature and was satisfied. Not so the modern man. Accordingly Matisse, in his need to secure an absolutely harmonious and rhythmic arabesque to his compositions, has found it necessary to ignore his vision of nature. In a certain picture, for example, one of the woman’s’ legs “came out” longer and bigger than the other. It was regrettable; Matisse admitted his temporary failure ; but to have reorganized the legs on a basis of natural observation would have interfered with the harmony and rhythm of the whole.

Is this a pose, people ask, or simply foolishness? Apparently neither ; but the result of a quite naïve instinct that compels him to push on, no matter how he stumble. Moreover, he is possibly less shocked by the violation of form, because it is not form but the expression inherent in the movement of form which he desires to render. He and all the new men have this at least in common : that they are sick of the photo-graphic side of modern painting; the outcome of naturalism and impressionism, satisfied to give the actual appearance of an object. They affirm, with truth, that the camera has invaded this field and is capable of thoroughly exploring it ; that the painter, if he is to recover an exclusive territory for his art, must push those means at his disposal in which the camera cannot emulate him. He must carry simplification beyond the camera’s limited capacity to simplify and must rely especially upon that which is absolutely outside the camera’s ability, namely, organization. Thus he leaves photography to play with the representation of form, while he, like El Greco, will subordinate, and if necessary, sacrifice or violate, form for the sake of the supreme end expression.

Now to most people El Greco is insufferable. They don’t like him and don’t wish to; for he upsets their cherished maxim that a spade should resemble a spade. However, until you have not only appreciated what El Greco set out to do but are also enthusiastic over his achievement, you cannot begin to be in a position to study Matisse and many other moderns sympathetically, much less understandingly For Matisse is no more a freak or a crazy man than was El Greco. But there is this great difference between their motives. The Toledan artist’s instinct was religious ; and his expression spiritual; while the expression and instinct of Matisse are alike governed by the senses.

In the summer of 1910 I found him in his country studio working upon two large decorations, Dance and Music, for a private house in Russia. Each composition involved a group of nudes seen upon a grassy summit, partly against the sky. The latter was blue; the grass a lively green and the figures vermilion; the pigments being pure from the tubes, except for some mixing of white to render the variety of tones.

This choice of color scheme may have been suggested by the frequency with which it occurs in Russian pictures, where the landscape is quite usually enlivened by a red barn. The use of the vermilion for the figures occasions the eye a temporary shock, but reason suggests that it is only pushing some degrees further the decorative convention of Puvis, who rendered his flesh colors in slightly lower tone than that of the reddish brown ground. The effect, however, in Matisse’s canvas is barbaric, which may well have been the artist’s intention, and assists the primitive, elemental, one might almost say rudimentary, expression of the whole. For the rhythms of these dancing figures are those of instinct and nature. Matisse explains that he derived inspiration for them from watching the soldiers and ouvriers dancing with their sweethearts at the Moulin des Galettes; and added that the ballet at the opera interested him but was too artificial; in fact too organisé. He searches for the natural impression and then does the organizing for himself. And in the case of the Dance, organization and simplification were schemed to produce an expression of purely physical abandonment of lusty forms to sense intoxication. Contrasted with the dynamic delirium of this canvas was the static character of the Music panel. A nude youth stood erect playing a violin, the tension of his body as taut and vibrating as that of the strings. Beside him was seated a woman playing upon two pipes, the fluting freedom of the music being remarkably echoed in the mobile, willowy arabesque of the figure’s torso and limbs. There was also a man who sang. His limbs were gathered up close to his body very much in the attitude of a jumper, while through the wide opening of the mouth his whole nature seemed to be draining out. There were other figures, but the above are sufficiently suggestive of the abstract character of the conception and treatment. I understand that they have been changed, in order to approach more nearly the movement of the other canvas.

This seems to me significant, for the Dance was animal in feeling, compared with the subtlety of expression of the Music. It suggests that the bias of Matisse’s imagination is physical; that it is deficient in the finer qualities. Even on the physical side he is gourmand rather than gourmet. In his technique he does not exhibit the Frenchman’s sense of craftsman-ship; his surfaces and contours are as uncouth as those of his African wood carvings.

To a considerable extent this is probably intentional, a means of discouraging the eye from dwelling upon externals and of drawing the imagination to the inner movement of the forms. Yet, if so, the purpose is but a part of the sophistication which seems to be the worm i’ the bud of Matisse’s art. Perhaps inevitably; for a man trained in the traditions cannot strip himself naked of memories and experiences and profess to consort with aborigines without being conscious of a pose and without to some extent becoming a victim to it. But he is still in the vigor of his life; and may yet abandon the rôle of a protester and theorizer and follow implicitly and naturally the call of his instinct; not the instinct that he has tried to pare down to that of a primitive wood-cutter, but his own.