In his New Yorker review of the Henri Matisse exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Peter Schjeldahl confesses a curmudgeonly affection for Blue Nude (Memories of Biskra), the 1907 painting featured in the show, observing that the work infuriated Picasso, who remarked churlishly that Matisse could "either paint a nude or do a design, he can't do both," a delicious bit of trapped spite from the one painter who tried to have it all in Cubism and beyond!
Blue Nude, which Matisse took up in the aftermath of having a sculpture he was fiddling with shatter on him, seems to have angered a lot of people. After all, it was burned in effigy when the 1913 Armory Show moved to Chicago, a place that should have appreciated what Carl Sandburg called "broad shoulders" and other exaggerations of the flesh.
I confess, having seen the painting in person more than once, to being repelled by it and finally got around to asking why. When I discovered the surprising answer, I immediately fell in love with the painting. You, see Matisse has painted n voluptuous nude of a woman which includes the physical elements of a man. Blue Nude is a drag-queen picture disguised as the erotic memory of a woman.
How about those big feet, for starters? The head is a luminous thing of beauty which hallucinates back and forth between being that of an oriental girl and short-haired young boy. It is also screwed onto a thick neck like the cap on a pickle jar. The muscles of the arms are distinctly masculine, while a black boulder emerges from the zaftig, motherly ass like the sun on a cloudy morning.
Matisse was always great at adding frou-frou decoration to the edges of his paintings, a kind of lame distraction from his fundamentally erotic intentions, but what are his erotic intentions in Blue Nude? Plainly he enjoyed congress with his subject and he memorializes this by invisibly fusing elements of his own body (largeness, wideness, tallness) into hers! The charge of their coupling thus becomes far more dynamic than if he had actually included himself in the picture.
The trick of combining stark nude power with suggested androgyny is so perfect that one can almost forgive Picasso his resentment. And one can also marvel that even Andy Warhol in his "Ladies and Gentleman" series could not portray the bold ambiguities of drag as powerfully as Matisse does in Blue Nude.
"Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917," July 18-Oct. 11, 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).