… translations …

Although this large exhibit covers most of Matisse’s painting career, it has a specific focus: to bring together examples of the many pairs, trios and series of copies and reinterpretations of notably similar subject matter and composition, such as Le Luxe I  and Le Luxe II, above.  Usually (when the order of their creation is known) Matisse’s versions move from greater realism and detail to abstraction.

In this he’s like van Gogh who called these kinds of versions of his own work “translations,” and I think that’s a profound term;  it sees “realism” and “abstraction” as different artistic languages connected by a bridge.   Since a key theme of the modern movement was a development toward greater and greater abstraction, it’s not surprising that Matisse’s versions show his fascination with exactly that:  the relationship between “realism” and “abstraction”.

Young Sailor is a good example.  It was painted from life, in a small town in southwestern France, with a teenager as a model.  In striking contrast, Young Sailor II  was painted not from life but from the earlier painting —Young Sailor I :  it’s a “translation”.   In creating Young Sailor II, Matisse also was thinking about van Gogh’s L’Arlesienne, which he loved and had tried unsuccessfully to buy for himself some time earlier.  One sees in Matisse’s Young Sailor II  an overall pink background like in one of van Gogh’s version of L’Arlesienne , and also van Gogh-like tense lines, “simplifications” and “deformations”, as artists called the new abstractions.

Here comes a value judgment: van Gogh’s painting of L’Arlesienne  — a photo of it is on hand in the exhibit — has much more psychological and emotional depth than Matisse’s — it’s a portrait.  Matisse’s sitter is more incidental to the painting.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically so that, although that’s not its main purpose, one can follow major periods, influences and the locales in which he worked through most of Matisse’s career.  In Still Life with Purro I, for instance, we seem him absorbing ideas from Cezanne, such as modeling form through color, and multiple points of view, while in Still Life with Purro II we see him drawing more from the pointillist application of color of Paul Signac.

In the four paintings of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris (two shown here) from similar views that span the years from 1900 to 1914, we see the artist conjugating the “same” subject from representation to abstraction.   How different from Monet, who also paint series of cathedrals but for a different reason — to capture differing effects of light.

Matisse’s self-aware interest in the development and process of his own art led him to commission photographic records of the development of several paintings.  The exhibit includes a large series of photographs — a real treasure — one illustrated here, chronicling the development of the painting that finally emerges as The Large Blue Dress; an added fillip is the inclusion of the actual skirt of the dress sewn and worn by the model.

Matisse is a lavish, sensuous artist, his true subject above all is Joie de Vivre, the title of one of his paintings (not on exhibit here).  On the deepest level, his claim to fame, in my view, rests with his determination to paint something so elusive as “joy of life” — almost as elusive as, say, the light that Monet yearned to capture on canvas — talk about an impossible task!  Or the psychic bridge of inner emotional experience connecting human beings that van Gogh strained to construct.  By definition, mine anyhow, the great artists try to do what can’t be done and then — as far as is humanly possible — do it!

Not all of his many series are included, of course, but the gathering of so many pertinent examples has been done with fine curatorial intelligence and is highly illuminating. As others have noted, in Matisse joie de vivre can be tamed to merely decorative.  But many of the paintings are gorgeous.  And to see paintings that were certainly linked in the artist’s mind brought together, physically set next to each other, is truly a unique opportunity.  It’s hard to imagine it will ever happen again.

And making those comparisons for yourself as you go along … the game of “Look how he changed it!” is sheer fun.

Photo captions

  1. Le Luxe I, 1907, oil on canvas, 82 11/16×54 5/16 in (210×138 cm) Centre Pompidou, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris, Purchase, 1945
  2.  Le Luxe II, 1907-8, distemper on canvas, 82 1/2×54 3/4 in (209.5×138 cm), Statens Museum fur Kunst, Copenhagen, J. Rump Collection
  3. Young Sailor I, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 1/4×32 in (99.7×81.3 cm), Collection of Sheldon H. Solow
  4. Young Sailor II, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 7/8×32 5/8 in (101.3×82.9 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (1999.363.41)
  5. Still Life with Purro I, 1904, oil on canvas, 23 1/4×28 1/2 in (59×72.4 cm), Private collection
  6. Still Life with Purro II, 1904-5, oil on canvas, 11×14 in (27.9×35.6 cm), Private collection
  7.  Notre-Dame, ca. 1900, oil on canvas, 18 1/8×14 3/4 in (50×65 cm), Tate: Purchased 1949
  8. Notre-Dame, 1914, oil on canvas. 58×37 1/8 in (147.3×94.3 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, NY, acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and the Henry Ittleson, A. Conger Goodyear, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Sinclair Funds, and Anna Erickson Levene Bequests given in memory of her husband, Dr. Phoebus Aaron Theodor Levene, 1975
  9. The Large Blue Dress, 1937, oil on canvas, 36 1/2×29 in (92.7×73.7 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen
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