If Picasso can be said to be always preoccupied with the present, even to the point of appropriating whatever mythos might seem to satisfy his creative cravings at a given moment, Matisse, especially in the great period of work currently drawing the crowds at the Museum of Modern Art, is always not only wistfully nostalgic, but consciously looking forward to future viewers looking back in time at his work.
This is the lesson of The Piano Lesson, a moment in time in which his son Pierre is captured forever not in music, but in silence. Matisse anticipates the heartbreak with which we now approach this painting by creating a memory and its attendant distortions. The light slicing across the piano is fleeting in its permanence; the boy is bisected into an ambiguous recollection; the piano teacher merely a small statue as if someone in the future were to ask, "What was her name?"
If you look at some old home movies, or read a diary or leaf through some old party invitations, the richness of memory is abruptly stopped by the hard fact of its randomness and of the small slice of past experience that such mementos represent. With sharp knife and severe brush, Matisse is prepared to do the selection for us, to provide us with the means of memory avant la lettre. The choice can be joyous as in the pouring scarlet wave of The Red Studio, it can be abstracted in the way one has trouble remembering a lover's face, as in Bathers by the River, it can be confusing as in the conflicting visages of Three Bathers with Turtle: the hidden visage, the chewing mouth, the benign profile, the afterthought of tortoise eternal.
Those who would criticize Matisse for his erotic fixations must understand that the pain of nostalgia, feelings trucked back into the past in a brushstroke, chains him. He is in mourning for a personal Eden. Perhaps this was because Matisse was always the oldest person in the room, separated by the distance of time. The clichéd euphoria of the cutouts, whose universal celebration was one of Matisse supposedly (finally) accepting himself, robs every Matisse that came before it of the essence which still powerfully appeals to us today. He knew our minds and our longings and our remembrances long before we were born and we see them reflected still in his paintings today.
"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).