Before even tackling a rudimentary view of this extraordinary exhibition, and all it arouses in the observer – and I am thinking of Henry James urging us to observe, observe (would that we could do that, as he did and transfer it into words, as he did) – I read Matisse on his working method: “When I didn’t know what color to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I used black as ballast to simplify the construction.” The force of this exhibition at Kasmin Gallery is anything but simple, despite the grammatical and only apparent bareness of its title. But then, who ever said the bare or the black and white were simple?
I often remember Robert Motherwell speaking of Matisse and the most important lesson he had learned from the master painter: how to use black, he said. We recognize over and over the significance of that black for Motherwell’s Elegies for the Spanish Republic and more.
Needless to say, there is always more. But right now, thinking back to the impact of this exhibition, I will just say what I can, selecting a few images. First and at the very end, because of the chronological dating, there is a work that indicates something more about Matisse’s working desire: in “The Sword Swallower” of 1947, from the illustrated book Jazz (Paris: Teriade), the text of the sword-statements being swallowed up reads: « ‘l’esprit humain, l’artiste doit apporter toute son énergie, sa sincerité, et la modestie la plus grande pour écarter pendant son travail les vieux clichés/ the human spirit, the artist should bring all his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest possible modesty to set aside during his work the old cliches.” Matisse did just that. Here, in this exhibition, curated by Paul Franklin, is the proof.
Fittingly, the exhibition starts with precisely that spirit of observation Henry James was so keen on and of which he was the surest developer. This engaging self-portrait of Matisse etching is both rapt and slightly skewed in its rabid concentration. It sets the stage for a prolonged visit or, as required by certain physical instabilities, in this case, a far briefer one than desired. It urges us to imagine what it might feel like to be observing ourselves observing.
We leap forward to the great year of 1929. We might see an engaging straightforward shower scene with the checkers of the floor and those of the tiles responding neatly, and the speckles surrounding the bare torso giving off a rather cozy effect. And another bath scene — what a Matissean rendering: a necklace, a frill at the sleeve, ruffles in the skirt, and the hair of a favorite dog companion, how comforting is all this.
Dating from the same year is one of the oddest and most captivating works in this show — “Nu assis et portrait de Mme Cézanne” (“Seated Nude and Portrait of Mme Cézanne”), 1929. I find it – perhaps due to my ignorance, but that is easily acceptable — full of mystery. What a bizarre work, full of longing, from the girl/woman posing. What is she thinking, or perhaps dreaming, her head on her arm: something like this perhaps, “Could he paint me, being as he was, the greatest of all painters, rather as he painted his wife Hortense?” is she wishing Matisse would compose her portrait in that calm way, despite the many ultimate differences between them?
Resting her head on her arm, with that faraway expression, she makes a thoughtful, dreamful model posture, the opposite of the frontal pose of Mme Cézanne, certainly aware of her straightforward wife-ness sitting for her portrait. Such a captivating doubling here: it sets us to thinking about doubleness and, as a contrast, singularity.
And then, we arrive at the most over-the-top of the 1929 images, the 1929 “Nu renversé près d’une table Louis XV” lithograph. What an extraordinary upside-down-nesss, displaying so much and surrounded by all this display and ornament in frontside layers of buds and flowers and leaves, alongside the entitled table and the flowers in the vases with all the buds with the model’s echoing bud-like nipples and her beaded anklet and all the sense of too-muchness to match the Louis XV table and the epoch.
Now, and this is for me the center of the fascination here, we make it around to the extraordinary “La chevelure (The Head of Hair) Poésies de Mallarmé,” 1932. We remain astonished by the over the top and again upside down-ness of the face, all the more for having seen that 1929 spread out nude extravagance of surrounding and enclosing ornament just seen! How simple is this set of swirls and loops – and how elegant, the vertical swerves anchoring those very wonderful loops and grandiloquent statements of such wonderfully patterned hair in its natural setting, as if in a forest more civilized than primeval.
In the glass cabinet, we see on the facing page, the French original of a Mallarmé sonnet, one of the most surprising of all, which has been at times translated in a beflowered and well-nigh rococo style appropriate to this somehow mannerist interpretation of this already intricate sonnet, like a rococo vision in this glass cabinet. I find this juxtaposition startling. Paul Franklin, who curated this exhibition, assures us he took it from the 1932 original of the Matisse/Mallarmé publication, so Matisse is obviously the one who set all this up. I would have come to this exhibition just to see this startling facing poetic double work. Any time.
So let me give three translations of this sonnet: the first one is by Patricia Terry and Maurice Z. Shroder, two beloved poets, long gone, and the following two are by the great Australian poet and translator and scholar, Rosemary Lloyd:
Now when we look up from the glass cabinet — perhaps exhausted in that contemplation — we look toward the calm and radiantly composed, stable and upright head on the right wall, this straightforward “Fairy in a Luminous Hat, Souvenir of Mallarmé.” Just the globes tranquilly atop the head, and echoed by the necklace, everything round and at ease, bordered by the uninterrupted lines sloping downward, we meet a Matissean Mallarmé totally devoid of any loops and swirls, entitled to clarity, far from that inpleated sonnet for which at least three translations felt necessary.
In this amazing exhibition of Matisse in black and white there is one painting definitely not in white and black, but, behind the white and black outlines of the still life, there is a faint burst of orange rising up behind the table…and indeed, we can feel the sameness of the strokes’ direction: As he said, “My destination is always the same, but I work out a different route to get there.”
It feels quite as if one detail of surprise – this startling orange—had to find its place among the rest, among these so totally Matisse dwelling places.
Let me state the obvious: it is this very sameness of his “destination always the same” that enables us always to recognize a Matisse, just by the simplest of lines. Take this 1944 single-line shriek of anguish, below:
Just a final gasp!
This reminds me of that monologue by Jean Cocteau, fittingly called “La Voix humaine (The Human voice),” in which the entire drama of a women being deserted by her lover works out from her would-be flippant pretense to her voiced realization that this is indeed the end, as she coils the telephone wire around her neck to finish the play and the life.
Here Matisse takes not the greatest symbolist poet, but rather a 1944 Montherlant : “Pasiphae: Chant de Minos,” with the words, “L’angoisse qui s’amasse en frappant sur ta gorge (The anguish increasing as it strikes your throat).” We cannot not feel attacked in our own throat and being.
No one else could possibly, has ever done this with a line — this exacerbation of a white line against a blackness, the tension, the implied scream, this repeated anguish in this exhibition imported from the Mallarmé sonnet translated above in three versions: “Ses purs ongles”—”Midnight. Anguish holds aloft on pure nails, those onyx dedications, her lamp of many evening dreams burnt by the Phoenix.” How not to see this screaming line with its capitalized “Anguish” in relation to the stable and upright head of that Fairy in her luminous hat, so incarnating the extremes of Mattisean black and white, finally such a display of genius? Anxiety indeed.
In T.J. Clark’s essay “Madame Matisse’s Hat,” he shows us how “the anxious Matisse, the madly anxious Matisse,” implied his contempt for literalness as he answered a studio colleague’s question about what clothing Madame Matisse was wearing for this painting: “Black, obviously, black.” (Answering T.J. Clark’s essay in the London Review of Books of August 14, 2008, Edward Burns pointed out that Madame Matisse, modeling for her husband, always wore black.) It was about artifice and the mind above all, answering by “the most flagrant example of a general de-realization of means and materials, a forcing and negation built into the very texture of resemblance. It is about having the immediate and passionate – having colour, in other words – become a matter of mind.” He quotes Hilary Spurling’s “The Unknown Matisse” in finding “an act of will in a field of artifice” and ends by his own blazing statement: “And all the colours of the rainbow are black.”
“HENRI MATISSE, Matisse in Black and White” is on view by appointment at Kasmin Gallery (297 Tenth Avenue), through December 19, 2020.