PRINT October 1992

Henri Matisse: Armchair Agonist

To Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse was the fascinating enemy necessary to help him find himself. The discovery of Matisse, he said, was more important for him than the discovery of Cézanne; and what Matisse epitomized for him was the sensuality of painting.1 At first, around 1906-7, Matisse turned Duchamp eagerly toward “a particularly intense Fauvism.”2 Then, after swallowing the painter whole and raw and rapidly digesting him, Duchamp revolted against him and Fauvism and painting itself, which came to represent to him not so much physicality as emotion, and above all explicit eros. Fauvist painting, especially Matisse’s, aimed for erotic immediacy and intensity through color. This sense of direct erotic expression became intolerable to Duchamp, and his art became a defense against it. Art had to be under control, on its intellectual guard. It could not be allowed expressive—disruptive—license.

Duchamp turned the work of art—and the female body—into an erotic machine, making both of them safe and inorganic.3 I think he envied Matisse’s sensuality, indeed Matisse’s treatment of virtually the entire cosmos, from intimate still life to grand landscape, as a kind of sensuous body, inherently desirable and pleasurable. The pathetic fallacy at its happiest made Duchamp unhappy. He could not master the feelings that the body—particularly the female body—evoked in him, which is why he had to turn it into a machine. Duchamp’s conceptualism was built on the dead body, whereas Matisse’s Fauvist expressionism made the body preternaturally vital. The whole idea of art as expression—explicitly advocated by Matisse in those years—was too personal for Duchamp;4 in fact Duchamp became expert at depersonalization, while Matisse used art to personalize—everything.

The peculiar thing is that Matisse himself, after his own brief Fauvist fling (1905-7), also retreated from expression. Though he was never as furtive and inhibited as Duchamp, he too came to treat the body conceptually: as he himself said, he began to condense the sensations it offered him into emblems or “arabesques,” which eventually became esthetic ends in themselves.5 For Matisse, corporeal experience led more or less directly to autonomous form. And art had less to do with representation than with form-making as such—with the invention of form for its own transcendental sake (if also as a symbol of self-determination, of the heroic, typically Modernist attempt to construct an autonomous self).

For Matisse as for Duchamp, to be avant-garde came to mean rejecting direct expression, particularly the expression of desire. Art was to have little or nothing to do with spontaneous, instinctive feeling. Instead, the artist’s task was to conceive of form that seemed necessary, unconditionally ideal, in itself. The experience that Matisse tried to arrive at in his paintings may have come from nature, but was intended to constitute a dismissal of nature as beside the true point: the esthetic validity of “pure form.” The revolt against expression was also a revolt against nature, and the revolt against nature was also a revolt against desire, which art always seemed to express blindly, outsmarting the control of mind.

For Matisse, belief in pure form amounted to a moral conviction. His idealization of organic body was an attempt at transcending bodily instinct—at not just repressing but erasing it. Yet even the purest of Matisse’s idealizations hint of impulsiveness, as in the edges that sharpen the sublimity of his late cutouts. Matisse was stuck in a dilemma: he repudiated Fauvist expression and representation in favor of pure form, but this only transformed desire, rather than escaping it. In his Fauvist work, desire was overt; in his pure forms (if they can really be described as such), it was covert, even cabalistic. Color purified is still color, and form purified shows telltale signs of desire, such as the excited “stutter” of Matisse’s line, the para-praxis that makes it convincing.

Matisse’s art is almost an object lesson in the ironies of trying to make form hermetic and self-referential. Unconsciously conceived as an antidote to instinct (and as such a sort of self-repression), “purity” unexpectedly becomes a means of intensifying instinct, a refined expression of the self at its most inward. Even Matisse’s most idealist works suggest that the idea of pure form is peculiarly absurd: it may once have been esthetically progressive, but it was always emotionally conservative. What gives pure form its expressive power is subliminal desire. Pure form is in fact a “transcendental” expression of desire, that is, a presentation of desire without a desired object.6 It is a way of simultaneously repressing and glorifying eros, for it removes the erotic object while honoring eroticism’s idealizing impulse. Here desire speaks for itself, as it were, in a subtle insidious whisper that gets under your skin rather than knocking you over, as it can when it addresses a particular body. This is the difference between Matisse’s elegant series of “Nus bleus” (Blue nudes) from 1952 and his violent, Fauvist Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra of 1907.

Matisse’s art was an organic, erotic way of responding to the organically, erotically experienced. Even his conscious efforts to geometrize the organic—the post-Fauvist lesson he learned from Cézanne and Cubism—turned into unconscious efforts to organicize the geometric. For Matisse, even axiomatically given form was subliminally erotic; at least his art made it seem so. The pendulum swings back and forth in his work, in whatever eccentric rhythm, between the avant-garde “truth” of autonomous art and the emotional and physical reality of experience. And Matisse is helpless between these extremes. In a Sisyphean effort to get beyond self-expression to pure conception and construction, he goes over the same avant-garde ground, reenacts the same avant-garde dilemma, again and again: he wants to extract the essence of form, but this essence turns out to be instinct. In Freud’s famous metaphor, the ego thinks it is controlling the id the way a rider controls a horse, but in fact the horse goes where it wants.

The direction of Matisse’s art over time ostensibly leads from the impure to the pure, from the instinctive to the ideal, as in the two versions of Le luxe from 1907 and 1907-8, the two versions of La danse from 1909-10 and 1931-32, as well as the sculptures in the “Jeanette” series, 1910-16 (?), and the “Nu de dos” (The back) series, 1909–ca. 1931. But this shift intensifies instinct rather than neutralizing it—the idealized, purified, clarified, essentialized, “intellectual” form turns out to be more “primitive” in import than the form that starts from an obviously “primitive,” physical point of departure. It is not that the avant-garde process of idealizing the organic body into pure form doesn’t succeed, but that pure form is instinct at its most ingeniously expressive.

This is why many people find Matisse ultimately more academic than avant-garde. His figures seem in the end more familiar than the avant-garde’s radical experiments; as Pierre Schneider points out, the female nude, the form to which Matisse pledged his greatest artistic allegiance, “has been at the center of academic teaching,” indeed “its pinnacle.”7 But the astonishing thing about his works is their devotion to pleasure, above all the pleasure of desire, particularly when it is explicit and unembarrassed. What is remarkable about Matisse is his consistent effort to create an art of pleasure and happiness in defiance of the misery and tragedy of the world.8

Matisse’s art has always been described as hedonistic, but the question is the quality and motivation of its hedonism. For him, pleasure was intimately connected to health. His desire for “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter”9 must be seen in the context of his belief that art’s “role is therapeutic rather than aesthetic,” that “it seeks to ‘relieve,’ to ‘alleviate,’ to ‘heal.’”10 For Matisse, to make art meant to “generate the luminous,” to the extent that “reality with its train of shadows” almost came to be banished from his work.11 This meant quite literally the elimination of shadow—and even, in a radical economy of means, of the substance that casts shadow—and finally the paradoxical conception of blackness as a color, in complete denial of its association with emotional darkness.12

And yet, as Dominique Fourcade is perhaps the only writer to notice, a sense of “solitude” and “fatal renunciation,” amounting to “a kind of insistent existential loss,” informs even the brightest, most light-filled of Matisse’s works, as their peculiar emptiness—“negative” space—suggests.13 And despite Matisse’s wish for “an art which could be . . . a soothing, calming influence on the mind,”14 he suffered from what he himself called “inner conflict” that he despaired of resolving.15 In a 1938 letter, Matisse wrote, “There are so many things I would like to understand, and most of all myself—after a half century of hard work and reflection the wall is still there. Nature—or rather, my nature—remains mysterious. Meanwhile I believe I have put a little order in my chaos by keeping alive the tiny light that guides me and still energetically answers the frequent enough S.O.S.”16 The answer to that S.O.S. was art, color, which earlier in his life had arrived at a moment of despair over being sick. “At the age of twenty,” Matisse was "quite ill with appendicitis and during his slow convalescence . . . his mother gave him a box of colors to help him pass the time.17 This illness occurred at the crossroads of his life: at a time when his father was pressuring him to be a lawyer while he himself was thinking of being an artist.

It was a battle between the pleasure principle of color and of the mother and the reality principle of the father’s colorless law. Through his mother’s gift of the box of paints, pleasurable art won out; painful reality was defeated, as the voluptuous “lawlessness” of Fauvism would soon confirm. Matisse undoubtedly believed, however unconsciously, that his mother’s gift had healed him, indeed, in the deepest sense, had saved his life. I think that healing, women, art, and color became inextricably entangled in his mind: art was mothering, and mothering was curative. The theme of his art became the mother, endlessly reiterated in the guise of the female model. If his increasing idealization of the female form removed its erotic attractiveness, this only reflects a displacement of Matisse’s feeling for his mother, exciting and tempting “mistress” of his emotions. His mother had given him his vocation, and in one form or another he celebrated her ever after.18

A similar sense of liberation occurred after a life-threatening medical operation in January 1941. The operation, Matisse acknowledged, “had a profound psychological effect upon him,” and “completely rejuvenated him”: having “completely prepared for my exit from life, . . . it seems to me that I am in a second life.”19 Indeed, he said, his painting after his close call with death was “free” in a way his work had not been before—except in Fauvism. Matisse was obsessed with freedom and freedom of expression. As he said, “One can’t live in a house too well kept, a house kept by country aunts. One has to go off into the jungle to find simpler ways that won’t stifle the spirit.”20

Yet just as Matisse never unequivocally achieved pure form, he also never unequivocally achieved health. The two were in effect the same: the question of being avant-garde was the same as the question of being healthy. That is, the struggle to achieve ideal form was the same as the struggle to overcome inner conflict and achieve inner equilibrium. Matisse’s quandary, then, was “spiritual” as well as physical. But whatever the bodily and mental stress he was in, he never stopped making art, never stopped insisting on the pleasure of art as a weapon against the pain of life. It is the refusal of despair that makes his work of such profound existential importance, and its eloquent ambiguity—its uncanny mix of instinct and ideality—is its sign of greatness.

Donald Kuspit is Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Andrew Dixon White Professor at Large at Cornell University. His forthcoming book is entitled The Dialectic of Decadence.


1. See Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett, New York: The Viking Press, 1971, p. 22.

2. Duchamp, quoted in ibid., p. 23.

3. See Robert Motherwell, “Introduction,” in ibid., p. 12.

4. In “Notes of a Painter,” 1908, Henri Matisse writes, “What I am after, above all, is expression.” More particularly, “Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.” Reprinted in Jack D. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, New York: Phaidon Press, 1973, pp. 35, 36.

5. Matisse, in “Notes of a Painter on his Drawing,” 1939, speaks of the calligraphic “arabesque” as a “plastic sign” (ibid., pp. 80-82). He discussed this idea in detail, especially in his “Conversations with Aragon [On Signs],” 1943 (ibid., pp. 93-95).

6. Sigmund Freud wrote, “The most striking distinction between the erotic life of antiquity and our own no doubt lies in the fact that the ancients laid stress upon the instinct itself, whereas we emphasize its object. The ancients glorified the instinct and were prepared on its account to honor even an inferior object; while we despise the instinctual activity itself, and find excuses for it only in the merits of the object” (“Three Essays On Sexuality,” 1905, Standard Edition, London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953, 7:149). Freud did not believe that instinct had an inherent object, only whatever caught its fancy, by reason of circumstance or necessity or, more usually, some combination of the two.

7. Pierre Schneider, Matisse, trans. Michael Taylor and Bridget Strevens Romer, New York: Rizzoli, 1984, p. 96.

8. There is perhaps one exception to this. According to Schneider (ibid., pp. 618, 737), Matisse’s friends were astonished that no signs of the tragedy of World War II appeared in his art. But Matisse’s artist’s book Jazz, produced shortly after the war, in 1947, is full of tragic themes and figures—albeit in stunningly pleasurable forms.

9. Matisse, quoted in Flam, p. 38. In 1949, some forty years after he made this remark, Matisse reiterated that “art should not be worrying or disturbing—it should be balanced, pure, tranquil, restful” (ibid., p. 124). Some critics have said that Matisse’s post-Fauvist obsession with harmony and wholeness made his art inwardly traditional, however modem it looked; but this is to ignore his own distinction between classical and modern unity and beauty. “In the antique, all the parts have been equally considered. The result is unity, and repose of the spirit. In the moderns, we often find a passionate expression and realization of certain parts at the expense of others: hence, a lack of unity, consequent weakness, and a troubling of the spirit” (ibid., p. 42). Matisse tried to reconcile the two, creating the perversion of beauty called modern beauty, that is, the achievement of the effect of unity by the idealization of passionately expressed parts.

10. Matisse, quoted in Schneider, p. 10.

11. Ibid.

12. When questioned about the “violent, brilliant” colors of the Vence Chapelle du Rosaire, which “have no shadow,” Matisse responded that sacred light had none. And when his economy of means in the chapel was considered too extreme, he remarked that “Gregorian chants consist of very few notes” (quoted in Schneider, p. 671). On the occasion of a 1946 exhibition called “Black Is a Colour,” Matisse said that “black is a force” like any other color, and as “luminous” (quoted in Flam, pp. 106-7).

13. Dominique Fourcade, “An Uninterrupted Story,” trans. Joseph Simas, in Jack Cowart, ed., Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art, and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986, p. 57.

14. Matisse, quoted in Flam, p. 38.

15. Matisse, quoted in Schneider, p. 10.

16. Matisse, quoted in Fourcade, p. 57.

17. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse: His Art and His Public, exhibition catalogue, 1951, reprint ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1974, p. 13.

18. Marcelin Pleynet, in Painting and System, trans. Sima N. Godfrey, Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1984, pp. 45-46, makes a good deal, but not enough, of the effect that the gift of the box of colors had on Matisse’s art. Woman was idol in his painting, as L’idole (The idol, 1905-6), makes explicit. This meant the unconscious absolutization or idealization of every woman into a potential mother. As Schneider writes, “Women . . . reign as mistresses over his painting”; their “beautiful inertia” and “necessary richness” are the qualities of the good mother (p. 63). My belief that Matisse identified color not only with his mother but with healing is supported by John Hallmark Neff, who observes that whether or not Matisse was aware of theories of color healing, his ideas agreed with them (“Matisse, His Cut-Outs and Ultimate Method,” in Cowart, ed., Henri Matisse: Paper Cut-Outs, exhibition catalogue, Saint Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum, and Detroit: Detroit Institute of Art, 1977, p. 35 fn. 37). Neff notes that “Matisse’s use of violet in a portrait of his studio and later in the Vence chapel would have been considered appropriate by [Roland] Hunt,” who wrote the influential Seven Keys to Colour Healing, 1971. Could Matisse have read the remark of Leonardo da Vinci’s that Hunt quotes? “Our power of meditation can be increased tenfold if we meditate under the rays of the Violet light falling softly through the stained-glass windows of a quiet church.”

19. Matisse, quoted in Flam, “Jazz,” in Henri Matisse: Paper Cut-Outs, pp. 42-43. In general, Matisse tended to become more innovative after an illness, as though radical creativity were the surest path to recovery.

20. Matisse, quoted in Flam, p. 58. Flam notes that Matisse lived in “a sort of jungle” (p. 95).