Archive for May 9th, 2010

We’ve all lived with modern art all our lives.  Our parents lived with modern and, if they were lucky, our grandparents.

It’s easy for us to forget what a momentous achievement that was. And it was the achievement of just a handful of artists: Cezanne, Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Matisse,  Klee and some early followers. These artists worked against discouraging odds, societal opposition and financial insecurity. With the exception of Braque, all these men came from professional, middle class families.  If you think Matisse painted the way he did because, well, because that’s just how modern artists paint and you take his work for granted, please, consider the fact that he was born in 1869.  He was a Victorian!  Try to refresh your mind on what the Victorian world looked like and what these middle class people valued.  Victorian means heavy carved dark furniture and tasseled maroon velvet curtains; gilded bric-a-brac and ghastly flowered wall paper; strangulating whale bone corsets, humongous hats with dead birds on them and respected men going to brothels with everybody knowing about it; the inevitability of child abuse and the nobility of women dying in childbirth; the romance of tuberculosis; authoritarianism—everything operating in a rigid hierarchy; the rightness of racism; the glory and grandeur of warfare—dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; and the heroism of being able to sit through long operas without the need to get up and pee.  Victorian art authorities liked to look at sumptuous bulging fabric, pink nipples, the tense glutimus maximus of a Roman soldier who had the good sense to at least wear a helmet  and long dead mythologies that offered more opportunities for the  display of nubile mammary formations and an oppressive, anemic compulsiveness in technique.  All of Gustave Moreau’s art looks like this.  In Hilton Kramer’s words, it was “excessively elaborate, precious, morbid and ornamental–and about as remote from the modernity of Matisse as the mind can imagine.”  (http://www.observer.com/node/41576)   But Gustave Moreau was Matisse’s teacher.

Even if you didn’t know this, Matisse’s energy and virility is riveting. When you contemplate the world he came from—Victorian repression and Moreau’s impotence—his achievement is unexplainable.  Unlike Picasso, he didn’t think of himself as a revolutionary.  He didn’t think he was against anything. “It has bothered me all my life that I don’t paint like any one else,” he said.  I interpret that to mean, painting truthfully is hard work and painting like every one else would be more comfortable.

I wish we could draw a lesson from Matisse  about how to become an artist.  But there is no prose translation of his work.  You can only experience it, if you’re lucky, and walk away a changed person.


Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 will be at the Chicago Art Institute until June 20, 2010


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