Princeton University art historian offers alternative view on Matisse

Alastair Wright challenges popular notion of a painter of relaxed pleasures and sensuous colors

By: David Campbell
   Princeton University art historian Alastair Wright, in his book now available in paperback from Princeton University Press, challenges the popular view of Henri Matisse as the painter of relaxed pleasures, the master of decorative line and sensuous color whose art didn’t challenge his contemporary audience.
   "The great cliché about 20th-century art is that Picasso is the dangerous one, the cubist, less sensual, and then Matisse is the guy who loves color, a sensuous relaxed guy, both in life and in painting," said Professor Wright, an assistant professor of art history at Princeton.
   "The main thing I hope to have done is to have us look again at these paintings and see how difficult they are, how they challenge traditional ways of invoking the classical tradition," Professor Wright continued. "People look at Matisse and they say, ‘I’s so beautiful, he’s such a great colorist.’ These are not straightforward paintings — that’s important."
   The book, titled "Matisse and the Subject of Modernism," offers an analysis of the French painter’s most important early works during the period 1905 to 1913 and the public response to them. Professor Wright argues that Matisse’s early-20th-century audience saw in his sensuous style a deeply disturbing challenge to French national identity and to critics’ assumptions about artistic originality.
   During this period, there was an attempt by the French and other nations to trace their cultural inheritance to the classical tradition. A style of paintings that gained popularity sought to represent this supposed link between the contemporary and the modern, such as Maurice Denis’s 1906 painting "Bathers/Beach with a Small Temple." In it, women, some in classical drapery, as well as modern attire, are shown bathing on the French coast with a classical temple visible on the cliff behind them.
   Matisse, Professor Wright explained, also worked in this style, but twisted it in a way that disturbed his viewers and their expectations, such as his paired 1910 paintings "Music" and "Dance." The figures in them invoke the classical world like those in Denis’s painting, but they are not beautiful. Rather, there is something brutally simplistic, barbaric and Germanic (a big no-no for the French public at the time) about them. And Matisse’s colors are strident and intense, not the faded fresco-like colors of Denis’s beach scene.
   Also, critics of the time held that good painting should reveal the soul of the painter — one of the great complaints against painters thought to be following someone else’s style too closely was that they were producers of pastiche. Some found Matisse’s work hard to deal with, the author said, because some of his paintings, while clearly original, "quoted" from other painters’ style. An example is his 1904-5 painting, "Luxe, calme et volupté," which disrupted critics with its use of pointillism.
   Professor Wright said Matisse could be said to stand at a juncture in the history of art when the tradition of representational painting, going back to the Renaissance, was ending and abstraction in art was beginning. The conflicting pull of tradition and modernity are evident in Matisse’s work.
   "He’s the end point of this great tradition of representational painting and he wants to be part of that tradition," the art historian said. " But he also wants to challenge it."