If there is one art work at the Henri Matisse; Rhythm and Meaning exhibition that best encapsulates the French artist’s place in art history it might ironically be the one that is least Matisse-like. Titled Nu Debout (1892) it is classical study of a male nude. As such it is completely bereft of any of the characteristics of Matisse’s art; his bold use of colour and a reduction of form. This is not surprising; this drawing was made by Matisse long before he settled upon his modernist voice or distinctive language and was made by the artist as part of his application to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of the arts).
This was a time when an artist’s talent was measured against his or her ability to faithfully capture reality. To an uneducated eye Matisse’s figure looks passable, good even, however, if you study it closely there are ‘flaws’; one of the feet and hands are not rendered in any detail. This prevented Matisse from being accepted, according to Patrice Deparpe, one of the co-curators of the exhibition. Matisse was later admitted to study art but held onto this drawing. It did not function as a reminder of his failure, but in his mind, encapsulated his rejection, revealing an early resistance, or maybe inability to conform to the criteria for good art as set by the academy.
Today, we are so familiar with his modernist art, with the impact it had on graphic, textile and interior design, that we overlook his rebellious spirit, his desire to upturn accepted notions of art. In this drawing he is mindful of conforming, though he can’t completely do so. This makes it such an interesting, though superficially banal document.
However, in the absence of any large, bodly coloured artworks at this exhibition, which would better capture his irreverent spirit in full throttle, you are forced to seek out the hidden value in this collection on display at the Standard Bank gallery. A rich encounter with a Matisse artwork or works is all about ‘feeling’ the sensations that his bold use of colour and forms evoke – the artist famously spent over a decade trying to recapture an underwater experience in Tahiti.
Ill health seemed to have paid dividends for the artist Henri Matisse. It was while recuperating from appendicitis in his early twenties that he first discovered his passion for painting, when his mother gave him some paint and paper to occupy him. Much later, in his late sixties, it was another physical setback - being wheelchair bound after battling cancer - that he stumbled onto his cut-out method of art making, which allowed him to merrily cut shapes with scissors while sitting upright in bed. These physical limitations informed his art in a profound way for he was prevented from laboring over details in his painting and his cut-out- mode. He was forced to do as little as possible and ironically this turned out to serve him artistically, leading to him evolve a distinctive modernist vocabulary.
“His art demonstrated the audacity of simplicity,” observed Françoise Gilot, the artist who accompanied Picasso on visits to Matisse’s home.
It probably was too expensive to bring the more large-scale cut-out works or paintings which would deliver on a more sensory experience of Matisse’s approach. It is a pity for this is the quality of his art that is most prized; experiencing his bold manipulation of colour. Matisse’s art was sensory driven; emotion, nostalgia, loss, joy, the core sensations attached to humanity are relayed through a visceral confrontation with his vividly-coloured reduced forms. The encounter you wish you could have with the Matisse’s art is sort of withheld in this exhibition, which is dominated by lithographs and drawings. The collection of cut-out prints for his book Jazz is a highlight, but they are small reproductions.
Perhaps shows boasting these prized western names should come with an entry fee as they do in other countries. It might make them less accessible for some but at least you could be guaranteed of an unforgettable encounter. This exhibition is interesting, but it is a very quiet introduction to one of France’s boldest artists.
Matisse’s African inspiration, which guided him towards reduced forms, might allow his art to enjoy an aesthetic bond with our continent but it is also what makes for uncomfortable socio-political baggage. His ‘primitivist’ notions depended on pejorative ideas about African expression and society as ‘primitive’ - ideal and naïve. This aspect drew criticism of the gallery’s staging of the Picasso exhibition about decade ago. The South African co-curator Federico Freschi has suggested that this feature, however negative, can be used to revisit the criticisms the Picasso exhibition evoked. In the press release the organisers – the gallery in partnership with the French Embassy and French Institute of South Africa – urge that instances of cultural appropriation should not prevent us from enjoying Matisse’s art.
An upfront acknowledgement of Matisse’s appropriation of African forms (made obvious through a collection of African material culture from the Wits Art Museum) and adherence to primitivist ideology appears to have neutralised any criticism or maybe the young people who are most concerned about appropriation of African forms are more interested in the ways that white hip hop stars do it, or fashion designers who plunder African inspiration from time to time when the 'ethnic' look is back in. Maybe it is because Matisse is less well-known in South Africa - it is interesting to consider what locals might think of Matisse now, after this exhibition.
Matisse worked with his flaws, exploited them even, but his place in history, as determined by new generations and the baggage that might come with his position as a white male is one he might never have anticipated. Only curators can now 'work' with these 'flaws'.
Matisse prized, lightness and beauty, the decorative. This aspect ties up with what is occurring in contemporary art in South Africa (and elsewhere), where so much art is indeed decorative and light. Of course, now our artists are breaking with tradition in assuming this approach to art as a way of challenging conceptualism and the instrumentalisation of art that defined the country's political struggle. It also has to do with the commodification of art - pretty works are easier to sell. The Matisse show is well-timed in that it gives credence to this design-driven art turn - it sets an historical precedence. The curators might have done well to perhaps have shown some examples of this kind of designery-art that floods our art fairs and galleries and made the link obvious. Or maybe that link is for us, the viewers, writers, society to make.