PRINT December 1978

Matisse the Representational Artist

“I shall be guided by a sentence on the first page of your letter. You write: ‘Panorama and traces, flâneur
and arcades, modernism and the unchanging, without a theoretical interpretation—is that a material which
can patiently await decipherment?’ The understandable impatience with which you searched the manuscript
for a definite signalement [characterization] has, in my opinion, led you astray from it in some important respects . . . ”

Letter from Walter Benjamin to Theodor Adorno1

WATTEAU, DELACROIX, CÉZANNE, MATISSE: four names which stand for—along with much that does not unite them—the development of a particular use of color. For the first and last of this quartet that use of color becomes grand and decorative through a delight in the frivolous, if not the trivial, as it does too in some of the works of Delacroix, while in Cézanne its role is, of course, more sober.

Decorative art is relaxing, an idea that has a bad name at present, not least because many critics—better to call them adversaries—of culture seem to believe that any art that is not shrill and discomfiting, if only through tedium, is thereby politically compromised. The reverse is closer to the truth. If art is capable of telling us anything at all about ourselves it can only be said to do so by way of its capacity to manipulate the terms of the sensory and spiritual life of its own time. And thus, to depict something is to some extent to acquiesce in it and its contradictions. That, I think, is the thrust of Baudelaire’s observations on the artist’s relationship to modern life.

On top of which, one would want to add that to be perpetually on the defensive is to lose by default.

Frivolity assumes the exercise of charm, with, things being as they are in Western society, a concomitant degree of sexual arousal. I make this point with a special sense of what Poussin might have meant when he said that “color adds charm to a painting”; and one ought also to acknowledge that in this sense the decorative is a willful violation of anything like a Platonic view of art—which returns us to the moralistic carping mentioned above.

Decorativeness in art, like sex appeal, is to a large degree a function of fashion. One is reminded, and, as always, with the telling expression “this year’s model” in mind, of Wilde’s claim that he once saw a milliner’s advertisement on a Paris bus which recommended that “with this hat, the mouth should be worn slightly open.” Woman as Decoration is the other side of the coin that has Woman as Inspiration on its obverse. This is, assuredly, a coinage which many want to see as having become inflated beyond the point of recovery. But that’s their problem: archetypes may be subject to infinite reform, but hardly to abolition.

In any case, having implied that the erotic plays this sort of part in Matisse’s art, I ought now to explain why I feel it necessary to make such an obvious point. My answer is that this may be obvious in a general way, but few seem to have drawn the right conclusions vis-à-vis this eroticism’s implications in particular.

The particular implications are these: Matisse’s employment of women is of an order that makes it obligatory to reorganize the sense in which his painting is in some essential sense representational—which may in itself explain his own reticence or evasiveness on this aspect of his achievement. In considering his work in this light one may observe something about 20th-century life that one might otherwise (intentionally or even, conceivably, unintentionally) miss. Certainly, and by no means at the least, one may at the same time come to some understanding of an aspect of the problem that Matisse must pose for the abstract painter.

Matisse’s women are generalized and blank. They radiate a charm unmarred by idiosyncrasy; or, rather, like Titian’s young men, they are individuals considered within the framework of a type.

Matisse’s evasiveness on the subject is to be expected, or it is at least typical of major artists where fundamental questions about their work are concerned. It can, however, be exasperating. The man persists in describing his work in terms of color and line alone. Yet, confronted with the work itself, no one could deny the difference between flesh, flowers, fabric. Those who do engage in such denial are of course all around us, painting oversized homages to Matisse that, crippled by taking him at face value, look like nothing so much as the kind of diagrams art historians like to draw over paintings to show how they work, filled in with a version of Matisse’s color.

Matisse’s paintings trap the spectator in an alternation between oblique and direct address that, in its use of representation, thereby leads one toward a conscious involvement with the necessity of repression in art appreciation. This repression, becoming in itself an aspect of art (by conversion into sublimation), strives to be partial rather than total: it is repression in the interests of distance and analogy, i.e. of maintaining a distance that makes the analogy possible.

To say that repression here becomes an aspect of the art is to return to the earlier point regarding decorativeness and its use of charm as a key to relaxation. Sublimated repression disperses arousal into a more urbane satisfaction with how well things go together—the complete suffusion of the whole by that which is recognizably pleasant. It is here that one may begin to talk about Matisse’s use of line and color, but it is also here that one must take note of the historical fact that that use of color and line is always chic, precisely in the couturier’s sense of the word.

Matisse’s paintings of the 1930s and ’40s depicting women in interiors were hung—and in many cases still hang—in precisely such interiors (if not the very same ones) as those which appear in the paintings. They are, in this, wholly bourgeois heirs to Watteau’s pastorales: they engage the chosen—and represented—milieux and tastes of the class which consumes them. This is not the kind of direct relationship that exists between Matisse’s and Delacroix’s North African paintings. It is, rather, the inadvertent but “inevitable” product of Matisse’s decorativeness.

A painting from 1948 provides a good—if, in its generalization of the woman, extreme—instance of all that I have stated so far. Called, typically, Plum Blossoms, Green Background, it shows a woman, dressed in red sitting at a table, also covered in red. On the table are the plum blossoms of the title, and behind them and the woman is the green background. The extremes of foreground and background are reconciled by the use of blue, a color that also emerges just in front of the woman, where it serves to propel toward us the flowers behind which she sits, while attracting to itself the gray receptacles that surround it. The plum blossoms are to the left of this group. They interact with the green background exactly next to where the woman is sitting, she on one side of the picture’s vertical axis and the plum blossoms on the other. That is why I am prepared to talk about Matisse engaging us in some kind of displacement. We are led to the woman’s face by a pyramid of yellow pears, denoting solidity in the pears and the opposite in the flower petals. The face itself stares out, literally, featurelessly. The face appeals, through representation, to the similarly soft but solid pears; it is opposed, as the pears are opposed by the flower petals, by the ceramic hardness of the vase in which the plum blossoms stand.

It is here, when one sees the point of this diagonal tension between the near-middleground—the vase—and the far-middleground—the face—that one is also aware of the drama at the heart of this painting when considered as a painting—as the work of a master. It is here, also, and as it were in the same breath, that one is brought into inescapable confrontation with Matisse’s dependence on representation, with the fact that is relevant for us to recognize the vase as a vase and the face as a face in order that we may be moved by the subsumption of the qualities of both into oil paint.

People like to talk about Matisse’s use of “paint as paint.” It is reasonable to do so, but only, it seems to me, if one is prepared to admit the role of the subject in that interest. Matisse brings to paint, as to that which he paints, the “gentle brutality” recommended by Baudelaire. There is, in short, a parallelism between his subject and its mode of depiction.

I have suggested in passing that Matisse has been the source of much bad abstract painting. Needless to say, I am not using the adjective “bad” as it is used, with enthusiasm, by the protagonists of that conformist eccentricity that one hears so much of nowadays. But I should also like to venture that, as one would expect, Matisse has been an important source for the best contemporary abstract painting too. And when I talk about the best contemporary abstract painting I mean the work of Ryman and Stella and one or two others. In the work of these artists, as I have suggested elsewhere, one is always engaged in a series of displacements, the consciousness of which always leads one to analogize pictorial experience—one’s sense of “paint as paint”—with experiences that are, to use an anachronistic expression, more worldly. The disappearance of the figure was a concomitant of Abstract Expressionism to be sure, but as a cultural necessity (to whose hypothetical explanation I intend to return in these pages) it is a disappearance perhaps most elaborately symptomized here in the blankness of Matisse’s woman’s face.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe



1. T.W. Adorno, “Correspondence with Benjamin,” trans. Harry Zohn, New Left Review, September–October 1973, p. 74.