To get an idea of Henri Matisse's personality in the studio, examining the behavior of David Hockney might offer a clue. Hockney's obsession with physical culture magazines, depicting men in jockstraps with an emphasis on their posteriors, when he decamped to Los Angeles in the 1960s, led him to focus on the single nude model as not just the locus of his own desires but as a means of command and control in the studio.
Just as Matisse used the dappled light of the Mediterranean coast to soften the hard lust of his female subjects, so Hockney employed the flat, unchanging light of Southern California to bedeck his essentially hardcore male subjects with innocence. As a result, Hockney's Man in the Shower becomes just another part of the scenery, rather than simply an erotic destination. Matisse's Bathers with Turtle, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, clearly foreshadows much of Hockney's breakthrough 1960s output.
The flat stretches of green and blue in Matisse's masterpiece envelop the fleshy curves of his female subjects in a warm glow that is quite opposite to the eroticized anguish in those very curves. In a similar way, Hockney used the brokenly uniform of light on water to transform the body from a lust object to a temple of naiveté.
It is fascinating to watch film of Hockney in this period directing his models, offering a hint of Matisse's own generalship. Hockney always knows what he wants, his directions are sharp, he is not afraid to make the model repeat multiple poses and actions ad nauseam and his hawklike eyes are filled with the satisfaction of an almost benign god. The subsequent light colors, so pleasurable to us as viewers, as they are in Matisse, serve as a palliative to the artist's initial randiness, like the sweet sleep after an orgasm.
Decades of academic critiques have sought to vitiate the power pretentions of these two artists. Linda Nochlin and Nancy Spero, for example, eviscerated the John Elderfield Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Art in America magazine in 1993, for taking Matisse's assumption of power over his subjects as received wisdom. But, if Hockney can buy into it, who is to deny Matisse's authority or, in contrast, the pathetic vulnerability of always being enthralled by whom you are looking at. After all, the models receive a sliver of immortality to which two great artists who pictured them remain, essentially, slaves.
"Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917," July 18-Oct. 11, 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 1001
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).