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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Henri Matisse

Everyone has favorite artists; and one of the joys of writing about art is getting to share my favorites with others. On the flip side of that, everyone has artists that grate on them. I've encountered people who detest Norman Rockwell, who can't stand Picasso, who wish never to see another Cezanne, and those who could do without the garish gals of De Kooning. In general, I'm pretty tolerant of most types of art and most artists. But I too, (I must confess) have at least one artist that rubs me the wrong way. If it weren't for the fact that, historically speaking, he's pretty important, I might be able merely to ignore him, but alas, he's one of the more omnipresent art influences of the twentieth century--Henri Matisse.

As one of the three founders of the Fauvist movement in French painting during the first decade of this century (along with Vlaminck and Derain), and easily the leader of this group, he stands with the likes of Picasso, Cezanne, Monet, and Duchamp as seminal influences in modern art. And it's not really Fauvist painting that I dislike. Fauvism is about color and what's not to like about color, even that which is totally expressionistic rather than rational. Nor am I bothered by the work of either of Matisse's henchmen. Derain's wild landscapes are "hot"--exciting. Vlaminck takes some getting use to, but there's a sort of Van-Gogh-like swirling excess of paint and color that delights the eye.
The Red Room (Harmony in Red),
1908-09, Henri Matisse
The Blue Lady, 1837, Henri Matisse
I think what bothers me most about Matisse is the flat, wallpaper, paper doll quality that marks his work, especially once he begins to depart from the emotional "freshness" of Fauvism and starts laboring over his creations. I've seen progressive stills of his work over the course of some four weeks.  Typically, Matisse would hire a model, spend a day or two brushing in the essence of the sitter, then begin working and reworking the painting in the absence of the model for several weeks, scraping and scratching away at half-dried paint, layering on more and more paint to the point that the end result is not only tiresome when compared to the work of other artists, but strikes me as a travesty when compared to his own initial efforts. His Red Room (Harmony in Red) from 1908-09 strikes me this way. So does his Lady in Blue (1937).  Actually, most of his interiors are like this. In all fairness I must say a few of his pieces I find tolerable, The Joy of Life from 1905-06, for instance. But even here, his sensuous lines, colors, and brushwork, which are quite lovely, continue to be plagued by a disturbing tendency toward flatness that I find most annoying.

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