Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Matisse at SF MOMA

I love to revisit the permanent collections in our various museums. We are lucky enough to have a very nice (if small) collection of Matisse's works at the SF MOMA. I remember when I first saw this piece at the old SF MOMA on Van Ness. When you got off the elevator on the top floor, it was facing you as you entered the museum. Even now, in 2007, although not as well placed as it was in the older museum, it still has the power to shock and impel.

In Femme au Chapeau, Matisse took the familiar form of the salon portrait and turned it on its head. He discards perspective, shadows, and three-dimensional space, in fact, any attempt at realistic portraiture. The subject is Matisse’s wife, Ameile Matisse. She is seated in a chair with her back turned somewhat toward the viewer. Her head is placed exactly in the center of the canvas, topped by a huge Edwardian hat. Her gloved hand rests on the arm of a chair and she carries a fan in her other hand. She looks over her shoulder at us, her small head tilted, with a look that is vulnerable, determined and melancholy.

Madame Matisse looks at us from beyond a barrier of color, her face overshadowed by the huge hat, which takes up the upper third of the picture frame. But what a face, what a hand, what a chair – all bursting with vibrant, indeed garish color! Her mask-like face hides more than it reveals, yet still shows a melancholy sadness that comes across through the strong colors. The colors are not blended and discordant, seemingly dashed upon the canvas with strong and fluid brush strokes. She looks at us but from a psychological distance; the bright colors both attract and then repel with their acid harmonies. The painting still radiates a ferocious energy that is at odds with the vulnerable melancholy on her face, the down turned drop of her mouth and the guarded expression in her eyes.

Impressionist paintings seem to glow with an internal light and generally reflect a sunny, peaceful world. The light from Femme au Chapeau is neither sunny nor peaceful but emanates from the flattened surface. The flat areas of color around the red-green, orange-blue axis invite us to view the surface of the painting but never invite us into the space as did the softer, more inviting space of Impressionist painting.

In this work, Matisse painted from his own emotional response, rather than from an attempt to reproduce (more or less realistically), on canvas what he saw in front of him. His brilliant and harsh colors give the painting surface a force and vibrancy. He was composing a painting, not describing nature, a person, or a thing. Femme Au Chapeau verges on the edge of abstraction but does not go over. reflecting Matisse's own definition of Fauvism as "The search for intensity in color, the substance being unimportant. Reaction against the diffusion of local tone in the light; the light is not suppressed, but expressed in a harmony of intensely colored surfaces.”

For Matisse, the Fauvist period was only one stage in his artistic life. He would later reject what he saw as some of the more excessive aspects of Fauvism, but it could be argued that it was Fauvism and his experiments in color that liberated him emotionally and enabled him to paint the calmer and more decorative works that were to come. We are the beneficiaries of his struggles and for me, his works never become boring. I find something new every time I look.


Further reading:
Elderfield, John, The “Wild Beast” Fauvism and Its Affinities. Oxford University Press, New York, Toronto, 1976
Guichard-Meili, Jean. Matisse. Praeger, New York and Washington, 1967
Janson, H.W. The History of Art, Volume II. Prentice Hall, Inc, and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1995
Spurling, Hilary. The Unknown Matisse: A life of Henry Matisse: The Early years, 1968-1908. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998.


Civic Center said...

I hate to say itm but I really, really preferred the tiny Museum of Modern Art on the two top floors of the Veterans Building to the current fancy new building on 3rd Street. For one thing, there wasn't that much space so it was used wisely, and that Matisse and a Frida Kahlo were two of the first things one would see, which would put one in a trance. Thanks for the reminder.

Nancy Ewart said...

I mostly agree with you; the old space was better managed and the scale was more appropriate to the permanent collection. I always looked forward to getting off the elevator and greeting Madame Matisse who never ceased to amaze me. However, the new SF MOMA works better for art work of the last 50 years. The enormous pieces by Johns, Stella, Still and others show well in the over sized galleries but I always wonder why half a floor (or more) is devoted to furniture (and not very interesting furniture at that). However, the gaps in our permanent collection are more painfully apparent in the new space - only one Hans Beckman? One O'Keefe? Why have Yves Klein's overdone blue piece and not some other more interesting artist?