OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 1, part 1 & 2:
New Forms For Old Feelings: The First Decade
I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it.
Cézanne would never have interested me a bit if he had lived and thought like Jacques Émile Blanche, even if the apple he painted had been ten times as beautiful. What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety -- that’s Cézanne’s lesson; the torments of van Gogh -- that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham.
That is my goal too -- a calm, decorative effect; yet on the other hand everything pushes toward spontaneity and passion. . . . [Seurat] I found unsympathetic; for me, personal passion was missing. It was too academically calm. . . [but] I admire Gauguin very much.
Marcel Duchamp once said that "after 40 or 50 years a picture dies, because its freshness disappears. Sculpture also dies. . . . I think a picture dies after a few years like the man who painted it. Afterwards it’s called the history of art."(5) The painting and sculpture that seemed so outrageous -- surprising, even shocking -- at the beginning of the 20th century was almost a century old by its end, and had long since become part of art history. Indeed, it no longer seemed so unprecedented, so discontinuous with the rest of art history. Critics and historians traced its line of descent, showing that it sometimes reached back into the distant past for its method -- the patchwork of gestures in Paul Cézanne’s paintings, for example, were said to have a mosaic-like quality that produces primitive effects, as the German historian-critic Julius Maier-Graefe argued (and after him the critics Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg) -- however forward-looking it appeared to be.
Thus the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition seemed like a good strategy for renewing interest in the works that inaugurated modern art. "Make it new," said Ezra Pound, and the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition seemed to restore their aura and emanation by presenting those works in a new way. But is it really new? Doesn’t it banalize them, missing what is expressively and conceptually unique in them, implicitly regarding them as intriguing re-takes of the everyday world, as though to make it seem more enigmatic than it is? In the section of the catalogue devoted to "People," we are told that "the figural images that are among the most provocative are those that fragment, dissolve or otherwise ‘distort’ the figure, or those that show it in postures that seem incomprehensible, or in groupings or environments the reasons for which seem annoyingly obscure."(6) Such images are abundant in modern art -- distortion and fragmentation are the clichés that dominate understanding of the modern figure -- but the reasons why they have become epidemic are not examined in depth. We are told that the modern figural artist means to generate perceptual ambiguities and uncertainties, affording new sensations rather than telling old stories, even if the perplexing contradictions -- visual antimonies, as it were -- are composed into a kind of narrative. This formal, indeed, technical explanation of their illogic hardly does justice to the conspicuously "abnormal" character of the figure, which often seems disrupted to the point of absurdity, and sometimes seems on the verge of total disintegration. We have become accustomed to them, but from an everyday perspective they are strange indeed.
The figures that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque painted at the height of Analytic Cubism (1910-11) seem completely disintegrated, and as such only nominally figures. Indeed, they have a mosaic quality, being a patchwork of tessera-like gestures, each an expressive end in itself. They look like fragments of a shattered whole, as though Picasso and Braque were archaeologists who had pieced together shards of some murky ancient figures they dug up from the depths within themselves, even if the peculiarly archetypal result seems incomplete, indeed, a kind of chaotic construction of fragments that does not quite add up to a harmonious figural whole, however memorable. The conventional art historical explanation of them as rendering the figure simultaneously in two and three dimensions -- as both flat and rounded -- misses the motive for this simultaneity. When, later, Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror (1932) splits her face in two, with each side clearly suggesting a different emotional state -- her profile is pale mauve, the rest of the face bright yellow, with a splotch of red marking the cheek -- he is surely doing more than showing his cleverness.
My point is that the innovations of modern art, for which it is justly famous, cannot be explained exclusively on formal grounds. Indeed, their formal appearance is a consequence of deeper issues. "ModernStarts" goes far in changing our ideas about what started in modern art, but not far enough. Let me make my point by examining in detail Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), perhaps the most famous, sensational work of art produced in the first decade of the 20th century. Indeed, it has been called the first truly 20th-century painting. Picasso’s painting was so avant-garde -- so unpredictable, unprecedented -- that it made the avant-garde art that preceded it seem quaint, indeed, obsolete. Paradoxically, Picasso was almost excommunicated from the avant-garde for painting it. Henri Matisse initially thought it was a hoax or joke, ridiculing modern art. No doubt he felt threatened by it. Georges Braque, who had just met Picasso, and who was soon to develop Cubism with him -- Picasso remarked that they were tied together like two mountaineers or a married couple -- said to him that he "wanted to make us eat tow or drink kerosene." In other words, Les Demoiselles was in bad taste, even to those ready and eager to accept anything avant-garde.
And that is part of its point: the disavowal of what had hitherto been regarded as good taste, as though that is what art is ultimately about. The undermining, overthrowal and dismissal of the whole idea of tasteful art is central to its message. Its lack of taste -- its contradiction and refusal of taste, as though to deny that the value of a work of art resides only in its tastefulness, that only the consensus of taste, which is a social measure, makes it significant -- is what makes the Les Demoiselles revolutionary. In a sense, it is truly avant-garde because it refuses to be pleasing, because it disaffliates itself from the usual measure of artistic success -- to give pleasure, or to represent pleasure in a pleasurable way, the way, for example, Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) (1905-06) does. A somewhat more tempting, very different grouping of naked young women, it was painted only a short time before, but suddenly seemed passé, both in its attitude and forms. It was the anti-sociality -- it was much deeper than a matter of being "tasteless" -- of Les Demoiselles that Picasso’s colleagues intuitively recognized and found offensive. And that anti-sociality was rooted in the expression of painful feelings.
Stripping the veneer of taste from art, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles plunged into the depths of existence, showing that art could be an exploratory expression of the most inescapable, urgent issues of human life: sexuality, sickness and health, and the nature of reality, all interconnected, however subterraneanly. It is the content of Les Demoiselles that counts -- Picasso’s effort to make a certain emotional content manifest -- and that is responsible for its form, which has been adulated and analyzed as though the content was simply an occasion for its novelty. But it is the other way around: it was Picasso’s attempt to render an all too human content that generated his formal innovations, which do not exist in and for themselves but serve an expressive and dramatic purpose. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles is innovative because it is one of the first 20th-century paintings to give modern form to human pain -- to find means to convey suffering that seemed true to the modern sense of the problematic character of existence.
It is anguish -- rage and hysterical fear, one writer has said -- that is responsible for the primitivized, grotesque female figures in Les Demoiselles, not Picasso’s eagerness to be different, to be formally contrarian. It is Picasso’s discovery and use of what were then alien, bizarre forms, derived from African sources, to express and suggest his personal sense of alienation, and the experience of the bizarreness of reality -- female reality -- that follows from and accompanies it, that makes Les Demoiselles the expressive and conceptual model for all subsequent 20th-century art that dares call itself avant-garde. Paradoxically, the qualities of depersonalization and derealization that inform Les Demoiselles, and that are responsible for its aura of abstractness, make it one of the most personal, emotionally realistic paintings of the 20th century. The trauma it caused Matisse and Braque reflected its own traumatic character. When Picasso’s dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler remarked that Les Demoiselles seemed "mad or monstrous" to those who saw it, they were unwittingly registering its traumatic content, which was in bad taste. Thus the collector Sergei Shchukin mourned the work as a "loss to French art," which had always been tasteful. But then Picasso was Spanish, and there was a longstanding fascination with the mad and monstrous -- the grotesque -- in Spanish art, as Diego Velazquez’s portraits of dwarfs and Francisco de Goya’s "Quinta del Sordo" paintings indicate, not to mention many Spanish paintings of religious martyrdom.
The fear of woman, which haunts Picasso’s art, and leads him to distort them into grotesque, dangerous monsters -- the psychoanalyst Wolfgang Lederer suggests that this is a standard apotropaic defense against them -- makes its first serious, sustained appearance in Les Demoiselles, as does the grotesque as such, which also recurs again and again. Even when Picasso presents woman as the object of tender love, rather than simply as a sex object, fear remains, signaled by distortion, if not to the point of grotesqueness, as in Les Demoiselles, where woman is exclusively an object of sexual lust. The women in Les Demoiselles are all prostitutes, and the artist -- and implicitly the male spectator -- is surveying them, trying to choose one to have sexual relations with. The spectator of Manet’s Olympia (1863) is put in the same position; one can’t help wondering whether Les Demoiselles is competing with this equally notorious painting. (Picasso in fact saw it in the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where Jean-Auguste Dominque Ingres’s The Turkish Bath (1862), a picture of a harem, was also exhibited.) The strategy makes for instant engagement with the figures, who nonetheless are kept at a distance by their abstractness, even as their primitive character is a projective expression of Picasso’s own primitive lust. Picasso is drawn to them, but phobic about them. He is famous for his sexual prowess, so what is he afraid of?
In fact, there was a kind of spectator-protagonist in the initial sketches for Les Demoiselles: Picasso himself, making a double appearance, as sailor and medical student. These male figures, expunged in the final version, show that the painting was originally more of a narrative -- a moral narrative -- than it appears to be in its final version, which looks like an exhibitionistic spectacle. (It is as though the parade of prostitutes were a chorus line in the Folies Bergères, except that their faces are weirdly made up, as though they were freaks in a sideshow.) The sailor was at the center of the picture, surrounded by the prostitutes -- rather savage-looking whores, as Mary Matthews Gedo says -- while the medical student appears at the far left margin of the work, lifting a curtain to display the scene. He would be a kind of impresario or pimp if he were not holding, in his right hand, a skull, as though in warning of the unhealthy consequences of sexual indulgence with anonymous prostitutes. Picasso is a libertine who has become aware of the disaster that he might bring upon himself, which is what has taken the pleasure out of the scene and destroyed the allure of the prostitutes.
We know that in the autumn of 1901, at the start of his Blue Period -- Les Demoiselles is the decisive stylistic break with it -- Picasso observed prostitutes being treated for venereal disease at the St. Lazare Hospital in Paris. We also know that he was a regular patron of houses of prostitution in both Barcelona and Paris: the skull, a memento mori, makes it clear that Picasso was aware of the mortal danger of sexually transmitted disease. Picasso may have had such an infection, acquired from a prostitute: thus the medical student represents the reality that has caught up with the pleasure-seeking sailor. The women in the final version of Les Demoiselles are mad and monstrous because they are an allegorical personification of sexual disease, which can cause madness and death, as Picasso knew. We are indeed a long way from the sexually benign women in Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre.
Les Demoiselles is an unhappy picture, for it is about the possibility of sickness and death, and conveys an age-old identification of woman and death, derived from the depletion and dejection (as Aristotle thought) that follows sexual excitement and pleasure. Unlike Matisse’s painting, Les Demoiselles is not about sexual fulfillment -- sexual letting go in orgiastic intimacy -- but an individual’s deliberate sexual inhibition, the worried restraint of an anxious man who has suddenly realized that sex, which is life-affirming, might lead to death. Picasso’s picture struggles with the complexities of this paradox -- the peculiar relationship between sex, as the deepest expression of life, and death, which ends it -- even as it suggests Picasso’s conflict about women and sexuality. The contrast between the foreground still life of fruit and porrón, a Spanish wine vessel, and the women -- the death symbolized by the suppressed skull has passed into them, giving them an oddly predatory look, like vampires -- epitomizes this conflict. Les Demoiselles is a cautionary parable, and, in a sense, Picasso’s first truly mature as well as truly original work: it is not all gloom and doom, like the fatalistic pictures of his Blue Period, nor subliminally tender, like the subtly erotic Pink or Circus Period works, but rather a synthesis of the two, conveying ambivalence: Les Demoiselles is fatalistically erotic. It is about the terror of raw, unempathic sexuality, life-threatening sickness and elusive health, and the realization that what looks seductively real is in fact an illusion created by one’s own desire. It seems no accident that it was painted in the same decade in which Sigmund Freud wrote Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905).
That the picture has a pornographic dimension seems clear from the fact that it was originally titled The Philosophical Brothel, an allusion to the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). This title was conferred by Apollinaire, who admired Sade, and who wrote pornography himself. Picasso in fact made a number of unphilosophical drawings of his early brothel experiences, the beginning of a lifelong series of Picasso erotica. It was given its present title by the poet André Salmon, on the occasion of its first public exhibition in July 1916. Picasso apparently thought the title somewhat puritan, and declared it nonsense. It was also nicknamed Les Filles de Avignon (The Girls of Avignon). "Fille de joie" is a French term for prostitute and "Avignon" is the name of a street in Barcelona on which there was a brothel that Picasso frequented. One wonders if Apollinaire and Picasso thought of sexual intercourse as sadistic rape -- a common enough male fantasy -- expressing indifference to the identity of the woman involved, and misogyny in general. One certainly doesn’t expect to have an intimate, personal -- let alone durable -- relationship with a prostitute. She is there to be used and disposed of. But those in Picasso’s pictures remain fixed in his memory, because of their menace.
I am suggesting that the distorted appearance of the women in Les Demoiselles -- the famous formal innovations, which range from the flattening of their round breasts, the general schematic treatment of their bodies, reducing them to a kind of two-dimensional mannequin, and, most conspicuously, the transformation of their faces into static, affectless masks, climaxing in the bizarre appearance of the two women on the right, whose faces are no longer simply masklife but have become monstrous masks, barbarically expressive but nonetheless inhuman -- expresses Picasso’s complex attitude toward women. It is a mix of desire and disillusionment, which ever after informs his attitude to life and art. Sometimes the desire is more aggressive and angry -- hardhearted -- as in Les Demoiselles, sometimes it is tender and caring, as in a softer Nude of 1905, but the disillusionment seems consistent, and, I will argue, informs Picasso’s greatest formal invention, Cubism.
The epistemological problems it raises -- the suspicion of representation and reality it embodies -- are the direct expression of Picasso’s disillusionment, more particularly, his sense that things are not what they seem to be in the everyday world, however much they are the case. He dissects them to discover they are hollow at the core -- a flurry of insubstantial facets with no inner reality, which is the point his Cubist sculptures make with particular clarity, as Guitar (1912) indicates. Picasso shows the hollowness of the everyday objects in his world because he disbelieves in them, even as he acknowledges their existence. Disillusionment has turned reality into a theatrical construction, as though it was willed make-believe, a mastered dream -- like the nightmarish Les Demoiselles -- which is one way of defending against it. Picasso attempted to turn life into art -- experience into performance -- as completely as possible, so that he would not feel vulnerable to it, especially to the women with whom he lived his life. Indeed, women had caused him great suffering, he said when he was old -- Gedo thinks this is because he always picked women whose personalities resembled that of his mother -- which seems confirmed by his stormy relationships with them. Distancing himself from life by staging it, as though he was a spectator watching a sporting event, Picasso attempted to master what he could never completely master. Cubism is an attempt to control uncontrollable reality even while acknowledging that it is traumatically out of control -- disjointed and dissonant, like Les Demoiselles -- and thus a source of anxiety. It is no accident that Picasso, who thought of his art as autobiography -- pages of a diary, as he said -- was drawn to Cézanne’s expression of anxiety, no doubt because anxiety, as Freud said, signals danger to the self.
Picasso was fascinated with Cézanne’s Temptation of St. Anthony, with its perversely posturing nudes, and made numerous studies of Cézanne’s paintings of bathers, which influenced Les Demoiselles. But to think of this influence as purely formal is to miss its emotional underpinning, just as it is to reduce Picasso’s painting to an innovative rendering of a traditional harem, with the harem now a barren modern brothel for commoners rather than a luxurious preserve for aristocratic customers, and thus more sordid than exotic. Indeed, it is a mistake to separate form from emotion; all form is the symbolic expression of emotion, as the philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer argue. Picasso’s problem in Les Demoiselles was to find forms adequate to the intensity of his emotion -- his sexual anxiety. He probably had doubts whether he could sexually perform with the prostitutes, now that he was aware that he could become sexually diseased -- one can’t help wondering whether he began to think of all sexual desire as a disease -- and perhaps die. What makes Les Demoiselles unique is that Picasso found new, convincing forms to express an old, deep emotion -- indeed, an archetypal anxious response to woman, ultimately fear of symbiotic engulfment.
In fact Les Demoiselles threaten to overwhelm the male spectator -- implicitly the missing sailor -- absorbing him into their brothel space, making him a slave to his desires, all the more so when they are perverse: there is always the danger that one may not be able to leave -- certainly not unscathed -- the sexual hell one dared enter. The prostitutes are in fact ritualistically arranged, as though preparing to sacrifice the male victim in their center on the small table on which the still life rests. Indeed, the drapery the second figure on the left holds in her left hand ends in the sharp point of a knife. It touches the altar-like table -- the fruit on it can in fact be regarded as a kind of offering -- its menace amplified by the scimitar-like wedge of melon. Thus the prostitutes haughtily lure Picasso with his own desire, and he had to break the hold of their siren song by making their bodies ugly and unsavory, thus exorcising them.
In the 1930s, reflecting on the tribal masks he first saw in the Trocadéro Ethnographical Museum in 1907, Picasso stated:
The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. There were magic things. . . . The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators. . . . They were against everything -- against unknown, threatening spirits. . . . I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! . . . They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren’t talking about that very much) emotion -- they’re all the same thing. . . . Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting -- yes absolutely!(7)
This statement was made under the influence of Freud-inspired Surrealism, but it nonetheless conveys a disturbed attitude to woman, perhaps informed by a wish for perverse, experimental practices -- the illicit, "irrational," "irresponsible" sex symbolized by the prostitutes. In fact, the mouth on the mask of the lower right hand woman has been interpreted as an anus or vagina, so that her merger with the woman above her implies anal intercourse or fellatio. Picasso apparently owned 40 postcards of African women made by the photographer Edmond Fortier, suggesting his erotic fantasies of what has been euphemistically called primitive sex -- certainly his interest in having "different" sexual adventures. My point is that Les Demoiselles conveys Picasso’s interest in "alternative," "liberated" sexuality, in which woman is an instrument of desire -- a sexual machine, an idea which re-appears, with a vengeance, in Dadaism and Surrealism. Picasso’s Demoiselles in fact have a brittle mechanical look, their bodily parts awkwardly synchronized to form a primitive machine, made to carry out primitive functions.
When Braque said that he wanted to "translate [the] emotion" that woman aroused in him "in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight," he was rationalizing in formal terms what in Picasso was stark irrationality, showing that he understood next to nothing about Picasso’s true feelings and expressive power. Les Demoiselles made a strong impression on Braque, but it was the wrong one -- he experienced it as "anti-aesthetic," rather than anti-woman. He did not understand the intensity and depth of Picasso’s response to woman -- his raw sexual hunger -- or else had a more shallow, everyday response to her, as suggested by his appreciation of her "natural loveliness." Certainly this is a long way from the evil spirit Picasso experienced her to be in Les Demoiselles. "Woman is the most powerful instrument of pain that is given to us," wrote J. K. Huysmans,(8) the author of A Rebours (Against Nature), the quintessential decadent work of the fin de siècle. Picasso agrees; Les Demoiselles is decadent in spirit, however much its primitivizing style represents an ironic new birth for Western art, even as it suggests the decadent sexuality of the brothel. In fact, Braque was unconsciously trying to repress and contain Picasso¹s decadent irrationality -- sexual madness and terror -- by theorizing it away in a rationalistic French manner, without realizing that no amount of pseudo-enlightened formal analysis could ever make rational sense of it.
Objectivity was already up for grabs in the 19th century, when various mathematicians had questioned the mathematical adequacy of Euclidean geometry, as well as its accuracy as a representation of reality. In 1887 Henri Poincaré argued that the principles of geometry, and of science in general, were not absolute truths, but relative conventions, of heuristic value but otherwise inconclusive. In a sense, the modern frame of mind can be said to begin with this idea, which unavoidably informed art -- made it truly modern. The popular if confusing notion of the fourth dimension emerged; it was supposedly perpendicular to the three dimensions of everyday space. E. A. Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by a Square, known in France, told the story of a square elevated by a circle above the plane of the Flatland. The square surveys it from above, seeing through all the geometrical shapes residing on it, hypothesizing that they have more dimensions inside them, a mad notion which leads to the square’s downfall and confinement to a madhouse. The fourth dimension thus afforded what Jean Metzinger called a "free and mobile perspective" on the other three, and implied that there may even be more, suggesting that reality was more mysterious than it looked, and that our knowledge of it was uncertain. It became an unknown terrain. In Cubism, art ventured into this terrain; it also did in Fauvism and Expressionism, which found it in the subject rather than object.
Fauvist and Expressionist distortions acknowledge the relativity and uncertainty of subjective reality, just as Cubist distortions acknowledge the relativity and uncertainty of objectivity reality. The subjectively distorted appearances of Fauvism and Expressionism have objective implications, just as the objectively distorted appearances of Cubism have subjective implications. The avant-garde artist is pressured by the dizzying uncertainty of the world of feelings within him as well as the world of objects outside, which make great demands on him. The fourth dimension became his way of dealing with them, and of privileging himself. The philosopher Charles Hinton compared the special mental powers one needed to become conscious of the fourth dimension to the special mental powers the artist needed to become conscious of the ordinarily unconscious process of making art. Presumably this would make for a profounder art. Thus, putting himself in the position of the fourth dimension -- a kind of mystical coign of vantage that afforded an overview of reality and ecstatic insight into all its dimensions -- the artist regained control of reality, however uncanny it had become. The Theosophist Charles Leadbeater thought that the higher consciousness to be gained from viewing the world through the lens of the fourth dimension and in "astral vision" were essentially the same. Identification with the fourth dimension gave the artist a new kind of omniscience and omnipotence, all the more so when the fourth dimension became associated with duration -- H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine: An Invention (1895) made the connection -- which suggested to the avant-garde artist that he could view the world from the perspective of time, just as traditional artists once thought they could see it sub specie aeternitatis, in emulation of God.
The ephemerality of avant-garde movements has been much noted, suggesting that time was indeed of their essence. Perhaps this is because it is hard to sustain the freedom, spontaneity and intensity of expression that they valued. The vital moment mattered; the effort was to convey what the philosopher John Dewey called "an experience." This attitude seems far from the traditional effort to immortalize appearances, giving them a grander-than-life reality. It was hard, after all, to continue to be a wild beast (fauve), or to sustain subjective expression -- the eruption of an image from the unconscious depths, which was the German Expressionist ideal -- or to hold the transient dynamics of an appearance in steady focus, as the Cubists realized. Exciting freshness is what mattered for the early avant-gardists, countering their self-doubt. For the Fauves the immediate sensation of luminous color epitomized freshness; color was also important for the German Expressionists, but it was conceived of as more spiritual than natural. Color becomes muted in the Analytic phase of Cubism -- but it remains alive and well in the Orphic Cubism of Robert Delaunay -- and a vector-like line comes to the fore as a carrier of energy, if not exclusively.
Whatever the means, there was a struggle to maintain the sense of the timely and lively, even though it eventually had to give way to more stable forms, conducive to a more contemplative relation to the image. The difference between Matisse’s Le luxe I (1907) and Le luxe II (1907-08) makes the point succinctly. The sketchiness of the former is replaced by the clarity of the latter. The female figures acquire clear contours and flatten, their bodies reduced to a schematic, streamlined minimum. Sky, sea, land, and drapery are no longer agitated blurs, but smooth planes, with a touch of texture to suggest movement. Everything freezes in place; the three figures -- studio nudes in a variety of contrasting positions -- form a right-angle triangle, rather than a loose arrangement of interacting forms. Composition is imposed, integrating forms that tended to disperse. Fauvism ends with Le luxe II, however much the Fauvist appreciation of color remains intact. But color is now no longer a moving stream of sensations, sometimes abruptly changing course, but a static plane, a gently modulated surface.
Fauvism officially begins with Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904-05), which has been described as the movement’s manifesto. Its title is the second line of the refrain in Charles Baudelaire’s poem L’Invitation au Voyage (1854). Baudelaire and his beloved will arrive at a place where they can "love to our hearts’ content," and "everything is harmony and beauty, luxury, tranquillity, and delight." The painting is clearly about pleasure, as the assemblage of female nudes suggests, but, noteworthily, the figure of the artist himself remains fully clothed, and at a loveless remove from the scene. One can’t help thinking of an elder looking at so many young Susannas. His emotional separateness is confirmed by the fact that the darker handling of his figure puts him in a different space than the nudes, who are all more luminous, however now and then flecked with dark strokes, suggestive of shadow. Thus even in paradise there is conflict, tension.
The handling is clearly pointillist in character -- the stippling of primary colors forms an optical tension reminiscent of Georges Seurat -- and the painting was in fact purchased by Paul Signac, Seurat’s disciple, who brought it with him to St. Tropez. But where Seurat’s work was grounded in color theory, Matisse’s choice and arrangement of colors was not, which is why, already in 1905, he painted such fluid works as The Open Window, Interior at Collioure and The Roofs of Collioure. Located on the French Riviera, like St. Tropez, Collioure is also a Mediterranean world of fresh, luminous color and open space, inviting Matisse to abandon the Pointillist preoccupation with systematically applied and scientifically understood color. The Pointillist "theory of complementaries. . . is not absolute," he declared. Instead, he relied upon "upon instinct and feeling, and on a constant analogy [of colors] with. . . sensations."(9) "Instinct and feeling" became the catchwords -- battle cries -- of Fauvism.
Any and seemingly every means were used to convey them. André Derain used seemingly arbitrary, harsh colors -- red, green, and yellow -- to render landscape, and Maurice Vlaminck used crude, dense impasto, perhaps most noteworthily in his 1905 Self-Portrait, where the wild handling and lack of finish seem meant to grate on one’s visual nerves. Indeed, Vlaminck, enamoured of what he regarded as the primitive impulsiveness of Vincent van Gogh, and, along with his friend Derain aware of African sculpture -- he claimed he was the first artist to "discover" its potential, in 1904 -- stated: "I heightened all my tone values and transposed into an orchestration of pure color every single thing I felt. I was a tender-hearted savage, filled with violence. I translated what I saw instinctively, without any method, and conveyed truth, not so much artistically, as humanely."(10) Fauvism seemed full of what was experienced as visual violence, savagery and instinct, recalling Paul Gauguin’s art: Vlaminck wanted to carry Gauguin’s pursuit of the primitive -- the primordially human, uncluttered by the trappings of civilization and thus presumably more authentic (a romantic return to natural fundamentals familiar since Jean-Jacques Rousseau) -- into 20th-century painting, giving it a revolutionary new edge.
Not only did he "not want to follow a conventional way of painting," but "to revolutionize habits and contemporary life -- to liberate nature, to free it from the authority of old theories and classicism."(11) As he said, he hated artistic uniforms and discipline -- he compared Cubism to a military regimen, and thought museums were places of funereal monotony, not to say mausoleums -- and adored children. "I try to paint with my heart and my loins, not bothering with style."(12) Fauvism marks the beginning of the avant-garde repudiation of the museum and style, signifying the historically given and presumably true and tried rules and regulations for making art -- André Breton was also skeptical of museums, and Willem de Kooning’s art has been called "styleless" -- in an impossible search for total personal liberty and complete originality. This repudiation of governing principles and prescriptive orders -- "no rules exist, and examples are simply life-savers answering the appeal of rules making vain attempts to exist," Breton wrote in 1928(13) -- continued to motivate avant-garde artists until postmodernism, when it was realized that codes were inescapable -- that one’s originality and freedom always had a style, and for that matter a precedent.
Fauvism is the full-fledged beginning of what is in fact the most free-wheeling style in 20th-century painting, namely, direct, instinctive, self-reflexive painting. Ironically, it is the century’s most durable painting style, perhaps because it was felt to be the most inwardly necessary, to use Wassily Kandinsky’s term. It involves a paradox: seemingly unconditional surrender to the material medium with the hope of finding one’s True Self in it, to use D. W. Winnicott’s term. Direct painting attempts to articulate what Anton Ehrenzweig calls the inarticulate hidden order of inchoate, volatile, protean impulse that is the fundament of art and the self, conveying the idea that there is a certain mercurial art to being oneself. Perhaps the ultimate goal of instinctive painting is the uncompromisingly original expression of feeling, which is itself regarded as the origin of expression. As Matisse wrote, "expression. . . does not consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face or betrayed by a violent gesture," but rather "the whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. . . . Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings."(14) Intuitively direct painting does not simply mean squeezing paint directly from the tube onto the canvas (this was already no longer novel when Vlamink did it, with all the vehemence he could muster), but the exploitation of painterly texture as an expressive end in itself -- independently of whatever image it might catalyze (supposedly always secondary) -- in a total, so-called all-over painting. Direct painting reached a grand climax in the "oceanic" Abstract Expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock, which are at once consummately decorative and emotionally engulfing. They climbed all the way to the painterly peak that was first consciously glimpsed in Fauvism.
Matisse was the most important of the Fauves because his paintings were the most aggressive. He did the most violence to observed reality -- distorted, or rather exaggerated certain aspects of its appearance -- to make his own latent violence manifest. Above all, he generated a sense of conflict, just barely resolved, at least on a technical level. The collector Leo Stein, the first owner of Matisse’s 1905 Portrait of Mme Matisse, with its infamous green line splitting her face in half, called it "the nastiest smear of painting I had ever seen," noting "the unpleasantness of the putting on of the paint." This provocative, daring painting, which defies the ordinary perception of reality, is a long way from Raoul Dufy’s Street Decked with Flags, Le Havre and Derain’s London Bridge, both 1906, which are far more conventional, both in structure and color, however intense the color. Color is used to fill in pre-ordained structure, that is, an outlined existing scene. It remains familiar -- loses the estranged quality of Matisse’s portrait, generated by the de-familiarizing effect of the unexpected green line. They had not yet understood its lesson, that color should function as structure -- that a stable picture could be convincingly constructed of planes of excited, seemingly unstable color. The merger of color and structure made the portrait seem unpredictable, which had a vitalizing effect, even as it demonstrated that lyric color could have an epic effect. It is as though one suddenly came upon Mme Matisse, and was startled by the unexpected line of luminous green on her face, which seemed to distill the reflection of a plant that had caught the light. One had a new sense of the dynamic immediacy of perception, and of the uncanniness of reality.
Color and structure are seamlessly merged -- experienced as indistinguishable, in a kind of epiphany -- in Harmony in Red/La desserte (1908), Dance I (1909), Dance II, and Music, both 1909-10, post-Fauve works that intensify the colors of Matisse’s Fauvist paintings while extending them in broad planes. The difference between the colors becomes more emphatic than ever -- the tension between the greens, blues, and reds seems excruciating, and each seems more provocatively explosive in itself -- even as they are pulled together in a magnificent, mythic reconciliation and simultaneity. The brilliance of Matisse is that he could create a sense of grand harmony with no lessening of tension and intimacy. Colors are raised to fever pitch, making harmony an unexpected revelation, subliminally felt but emotionally inexplicable.
Matisse has monumentalized his wife’s head, even as he has dramatized it. Despite his assertion that human passion and violent gestures are not what artistic expression is about, the fact of the matter is that his wife’s face has a passionate expression which is intensified by the violent green gesture that suggests his contradictory attitude to her. The striking gesture is expressive in itself, so much so that it stands out of the composition, disrupting it -- all the more so because it sharply contrasts with the blue helmet that his wife’s hair has become -- however ingeniously integrated into its play of greens and reds. The unconventional green gesture in fact drops from the helmet -- it seems to seep from the eccentric little triangle in it, a brooch that has become a symbol of her psyche -- like the perpendicular of the fourth dimension, conveying duration in what otherwise is a relatively immobilized, mask-like face. Because of this unique green line, which is like a knife that cuts through the center of the picture -- without it both picture and face lose their expressive edge and emotional distinctiveness -- Mme Matisse’s face seems more overtly impassioned than Matisse’s own in his Self-Portrait of 1906, wearing a sailor shirt as though to emphasize the primitive underside of his personality -- the instinctive aggression and dark passion evident in his face -- as well as the seemingly unsophisticated, crude character of the painting.
But both faces have undergone an expressive transformation, indeed, a kind of hysterical conversion into masks. They retain the semblance of familiar human appearance, but it is as though they are flat stones that have been turned over, revealing an unfamiliar emotional terrain underneath. Oscar Wilde, and the decadents in general, argued that one can express with a mask feelings that a face dare not express socially. The use of masks, African or otherwise, is a heritage of decadence -- a way of achieving perverse expressive effects. Indeed, the faces of Matisse and his wife are not only powerfully expressive masks but textural Rorschach tests. One can find one’s own strong feelings in the seemingly spontaneous texture, which stimulates one’s own expressive spontaneity, in part because one can’t make intellectual sense of it. One has to bypass the repression barrier, and the defensive tendency to intellectualize -- to invent or find or impose cognitive form -- that keeps it in place, in order to be creatively expressive, that is, express the creativity of one’s unconscious. Seemingly formless textural gesture -- the signature of primary process, as it were -- becomes the way to do so. Indeed, Matisse’s brilliance has to do with this ability to synthesize, in a singularly concentrated image, the primary process fluidity of textural indefiniteness and the secondary process definiteness of the fixed mask.
Matisse’s brooding portraits seem to prepare the way for what Picasso’s hysteria achieved in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: the conversion of the female face into what is in effect a death mask -- a demonic mask that reeks of death, if death involves the destruction of individuality and intimacy. Replacing a European face with an African mask, Picasso has in effect deprived his prostitutes of any identity of their own, as well as suggested that they are beyond the pale, which is to double the death sentence on them. He has also found a way of breaking the taboo surrounding death: he suggests its effect without showing its reality. Picasso’s African masks convey more subtly what the skull he eliminated from his original composition bluntly stated, suggesting that what is at stake in Les Demoiselles is not just the threat of physical death from sexual disease but of psychic death from associating with the living dead -- the prostitutes who, without feeling or reservation, have sex with desperate men, for money rather than love. It is their inner apathy -- the peculiar emotional heaviness, dead weight feeling and lack of expressive tone of Picasso’s prostitutes -- that is their real immodesty. Their impassive faces externalize it by becoming motionless masks.
But Matisse cannot go as far as Picasso did: he cannot convert the whole female body into a grotesque, dead thing, as his Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907) makes clear. Painted in the same year as Les Demoiselles, Matisse’s female nude retains a certain natural presence. Indeed, she is not in a desolate brothel, but surrounded by a flourishing nature, whose abundance her voluptuous body symbolizes. She is the healthy antidote to the poisonous Olympia and the monstrous Demoiselles. She has not been dehumanized, turned into fossilized wood -- Picasso’s punishment for her lack of love, which he needs more than sex (is this the subliminally human point of the story of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne?) -- however distorted her appearance. But we do not read Matisse’s nude as abnormal, however deformed she may seem -- however much her sexual desire not only makes her restless body glow from within, but seems to be expressed through the projection of her buttocks, exaggerating them into prominence. Indeed, they have a phallic quality which anticipates the phallic nose of Jeanette V (1916) and the phallic braid of The Back III (1916), both of which concretize in three dimensions the extended green line that decisively marks his wife’s nose in her 1905 portrait.
All his life Matisse was a connoisseur of woman’s body, and she was sometimes -- conspicuously -- the phallic woman, as I have argued elsewhere. It was Matisse’s mother that lifted his spirit and liberated his creativity during a youthful sickness -- it seemed implicitly mental, however physical it also was -- by giving him a box of colors during his long convalescence. He used this gift of art to explore Mother Nature’s body, devoting his life to it, in search of the mystery of its creativity -- the mother’s and nature’s generative power, which he experienced as healing -- and its even more mysterious self-sufficiency. It had to be because her body was simultaneously feminine and masculine, passive and active, receptive and productive --consummately whole -- that she was so creative, spontaneously, vigorously, yet without apparent effort, which is the way Matisse wanted his art to seem.
On one level, Matisse consciously brings together the front and back views of a woman’s body -- it is their convergence that creates the effect of deformation -- which are traditionally kept separate, as in Carmelina (ca.1903-04). Her back is reflected in the mirror which shows Matisse painting her, while she faces us with a kind of confrontational arrogance. On another level, Matisse unwittingly conveys woman’s potency by twisting her body so that the buttocks confront us. Indeed, they are unshadowed, unlikecthe thigh that is their pedestal. The thrust of their curve is so great that the blue earth bends to accommodate and echo it. The earth rises a bit, forming a more gently rolling curve, which itself is echoed by the grand curve of a branch above it. Thus the strong shape of the buttocks ripples through the upper half of the picture, creating a kind of halo of curves that suggests the sacredness of the nude, and shelters her from the world beyond her natural paradise. Or is she the snake in paradise, as her twisting shape suggests? Like the green line on Mme Matisse’s face, the perpendicularity of her buttocks suggests the fourth dimension. Indeed, a sense of movement is conveyed, implying time. But to be perpendicular is also to be erect -- to be in the upright position, which is to defy gravity and thus establish one’s autonomy, as Erwin Straus argues. Matisse is not so much subjecting woman to what the feminists call the male gaze -- it has been said to be especially evident in expressionist imagery -- as acknowledging woman’s sexual autonomy and, more broadly, self-assertion. Already in Carmelina, which is an indoor studio scene, we sense a certain autonomy and assertiveness -- the sense that she will do with her body what she wants to, and that she is inherently independent. I think Mme Matisse’s green stripe, making her nose emphatic, also signals her independence and individuality.
Matisse does not so much dominate his female subjects, as admire them, out of need for the creativity hidden in their bodies. Albert Elsen notes "the almost complete departure of the male model from Matisse’s figural work" after 1906. The Serf (1900-04), a Rodinesque sculpture, is his most famous image of a male, and it is not a happy one. He is a downtrodden, melancholy figure, for all his muscularity, implicitly helpless and passive -- unconsciously castrated -- as his armlessness suggests. Is he Matisse’s surrogate, the emotionally inept, oppressed side of the vital, vigorous figure in the 1906 self-portrait? Was his Fauvism an attempt to break the mood embodied in The Serf? Was it an attempt to once and for all assert the vitality he felt he was losing, all the more so because he was aging? (He was in fact the oldest of the Fauves, born in 1869, and already in his 30s when the Fauves -- Vlaminck (b. 1876) and Derain (b. 1880) were in their 20s -- exhibited together for the first time in 1905.) Matisse gave up on the male model because he needed woman to save him from the "inner conflict" -- his own words -- that plagued him all his life. Identifying with her by expressing her body, he could absorb the wholeness of her being. That identification seems all but explicit in the drawing Artist and Model Reflected in a Mirror (1937), where the artist’s sober figure -- he’s wearing tie and jacket -- seems to emerge from the doubled body of the female nude, who takes up most of the picture’s space, suggesting how all-encompassing she was for Matisse.
Matisse eventually consolidated his understanding of her body’s inherent expressiveness by abstracting it into a calligraphic arabesque, a "plastic sign" of the body’s material plasticity as he said in his 1939 Notes of a Painter on His Drawing. The arabesque conveys movement in an intricate hermetic whole, turning it into a kind of abstract script. Two small sculptures, Reclining Figure in a Chemise (1906) and Reclining Nude I/Aurora (1906-07) seem to begin the process of converting vital body into abstract sign -- static mass into dynamic emblem. Matisse often used sculpture to experiment with new expressive possibilities. Elsen thinks he felt freer in the medium than in paint. Working in the round, he could test the limits of bodily expression, distorting the nude until it seemed unusually expressive -- conveyed the inner urgency of instinct -- while appearing natural. It was a fine line he was walking, and in the best of his works he walked over it, as it were, taking expressive leaps that made little natural sense. Their irrationality could no longer be rationalized as a demonstration of nature at its most surprising. They came to exist in and for themselves, as a manifestation of the artist’s own irrationality. As Matisse wrote in a 1938 letter, "nature -- or rather, my nature -- remains mysterious," and it was through his irrational expressive leaps, overthrowing nature, that he conveyed his own mysterious nature.
However many extreme, risky, non-natural expressions appear in his sculptures, it was in his paintings that their drama was most realized, perhaps because the spatial complexity that made them weirdly awkward was more striking on a flat surface. Thus, while the small sculptures may be on the way to the Blue Nude, they show little trace of its irrationality and daring: it was only when Matisse abruptly elevated the buttocks of the nude, so that they were on the same level as her breasts, thus conveying the extreme plasticity of her body, that he achieved a startling new expressive effect -- the first new feat of true expressive daring he was able to perform after the green line in his portrait of his wife. It is in fact the sculptural plasticity and projective power of the jutting buttocks -- they are a kind of grand sculptural gesture, a piece of sculptural bravado -- that makes them seem especially expressive on the flat surface of the painting. They would lose a good deal of their drama and tension in the round, where they would seem a misguided exaggeration of nature, losing their emotional meaning. Their uncanniness is clearer in two rather than three dimensions, where it is more likely to be read as an arbitrary, however playful, distortion than a visual parapraxis -- an unpredictable expression of the unconscious. The nude would thus lose the inner depth the unrealistic "outwardness" of the buttocks gives it. It is because they are so "out of it" -- break the line of the figure so forcefully -- that they are so deeply of it. For Matisse, sculpture was a point of departure not a climactic expressive statement. His "Jeannette" series (1910-11?) and "Back" series (1909-29) are didactic statements of a transformative process that was worked out, with great labor as well as spontaneity, in Matisse’s early paintings, where it seems more consummate and vital. Neither sculptural series has the epitomizing clarity of Matisse’s "Blue Nude" series of 1952, nor the calligraphic succinctness and primitive intensity of the cut-outs -- sculpted paintings, as it were -- in Jazz (1947).
Matisse’s complexity -- the highly differentiated character of his Fauvist works -- elevates him above all the other Fauves, who faded into conservative inconsequence and redundancy after their Fauvist surge. Matisse had staying power, not because he trimmed his sails, as they did, and regressed to pre-Fauvist style, however loosely "modernized," but because he put his expressive color and gestural dexterity to new, post-instinctive use. Matisse’s more sensational, irrational paintings -- one can add The Woman with the Hat (1905) and Interior with a Young Girl/Girl Reading (1905-06) to the list -- are not really representative of what became his ultimate ambition: to create a new kind of reflective, meditative, decorative art, modern in its energy and drama, traditional in its contemplative clarity, intimacy, and scope. It would have a new integrity and wholeness without sacrificing vibrancy and expressive power. It would be broadly planar with no loss of sensation. On the contrary, the fleeting sensations diffused in stippling and broken gesture would be concentrated in a dense plane of single and singular color, like the red plane in Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon (1888). Primitivism would be stylized, forming the basis for a new sophistication of line and composition, with no sacrifice of the "charm, lightness, freshness" of sensation, as Matisse said. Drama would not be forfeited but absorbed into a larger harmony
Already in 1906 we see works -- Still Life with a Geranium, Still Life with a Rug, Marguerite Reading, Pink Onions -- that suggest this new ideal. It is even more evident in Marguerite, Still Life with Asphodels, La Coiffure, all 1907. The transition to it is clear in the difference between The Young Sailor I and The Young Sailor II, both 1906, as well as between Le luxe I and Le luxe II. Still Life with a Rug and Marguerite Reading deftly mix the gestural and planar modes. It was in these new works that Matisse struggled toward his true vocation: to create "an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue."(15) Matisse’s ambition was remarkable, and remains virtually unique in 20th-century art: to invent a new art of harmony, at once cognitively and emotionally satisfying, a visual art that would overcome the dissociation of sensibility -- the split between reason and feeling -- that T. S. Eliot regarded as the disease of modernity. It would be an art of healing and reconciliation, in which opposites merge to synergistic aesthetic effect. His is the only 20th-century art that deliberately sets out to do emotional good. It has a calming effect, with no sacrifice of cognitive and perceptual complexity, and vitality.
Remarkably, Matisse’s ambition bears its first fruits in the first decade of the century -- between 1908 and 1910, in such works as Harmony in Red/La desserte, Dance I, Dance II, and Music, as well as Bathers with a Turtle, Game of Bowls (both 1908), Nymph and Satyr (1908-09) and Bather (1909). The high color and energy of Fauvism has ripened into a new sense of decorative drama. It is at its most subtly intense in Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1909) and Still Life with a Pewter Jug and Pink Statuette (1910), as well as his portraits of his son, Pierre (1909) and Jeanne Vaderin (1910). Matisse is at his most relaxed and harmonious -- deceptively simple -- with a domestic subject matter, although not always, as the jarring contradictions -- between family and environment, and between the members of the family -- in The Painter’s Family (1911) indicate. His color contrasts tend to be more stark and his handling more impulsive in his pictures of exotic women, such as Spanish Woman with a Tambourine and Algerian Woman (both 1909). Their colorful flair appealed to his externalizing Fauve side, while the domestic scenes appealed to his more introspective reflective side. They represent the poles of his emotional world. Indeed, for all their balance of perception and feeling, it is the autonomy of interior life that Matisse is after in his pictures. Despite their careful observation, they remain unapologetically subjective.
A picture by Matisse is a kind of hortus conclusus or inner sanctum -- indeed, his studio was his sanctuary from the world -- in which the emotional flavor of sensation-saturated things and people, all seen many times but still offering something new to be seen -- Matisse is ever-alert to a new visual surprise -- unfolds like a flower. Each picture conveys, with seeming immediacy, what it means to cultivate one’s own garden -- one’s own perceptual and emotional garden. Matisse’s paintings are slower and harder perceptual going than they seem, however quickly one gets -- or thinks one does -- their overall expressive point. They are not easy to see, all the more so because they do not lend themselves to piecemeal seeing, like Cubist works. When Matisse said that he wanted to condense his sensations into a total composition, he implied that he also want to distill them into a stimulating, seductive perfume that would resonate in every part of it. Thus Matisse returns to taste, but it is not foreordained, but rather the result of a mingling and compressing of incommensurate sensations in a pictorial alembic. It is intense compositional and emotional pressure that gives Matisse’s pictures their peculiar pungency and disarming innocence -- their aura of virginal perception and elegant immediacy. Of all 20th-century works they are most against what Breton called "miserabilism," that is, the depreciation of reality instead of its exaltation.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
(1) Jack D. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art (New York: Dutton, 1978), p. 36
(2) Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views (New York:
Viking, 1972), p. 45
(3) Quoted in Donald E. Gordon, Expressionism: Art and Idea (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 72
(4) ModernStarts: People, Places, Things (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999).
(5) Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Viking,
1971), p. 67
(6) John Elderfield, "Representing People: The Story and the Sensation," ModernStarts, p. 39
(7) Quoted in Neil Cox, Cubism (London: Phaidon, 2000), p. 81
(8) Barbara Beaumont, ed., The Road from Decadence, From Brothel to
Cloister: Selected Letters of J. K. Huysmans (Columbus: Ohio State
University Press, 1989), p. 131
(9) Flam, p. 38
(10) Quoted in Sarah Whitfield, "Fauvism," Concepts of Modern Art, ed.
Nikos Stangos (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 21
(11) Ibid., p. 16
(12) Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 144
(13) André Breton, Surrealism and Painting (New York: Harper & Row,
1972), p. 35
(14) Flam, p. 36
(15) Ibid., p. 38