PRINT May 2007


WHAT IS IT ABOUT MATISSE the sculptor that he should be forever haunted by the specter of Matisse the painter? Matisse is, to my mind, one of the most important (and modern) sculptors of the first half of the past century. Yet he has never been thought so—in part, perhaps, because he was not exactly boastful about this side of his production. Accordingly, the two major American exhibitions that have during the past twenty-five years concerned themselves with his sculpture have not quite seemed content to let it stand on its own, instead framing it in relation to his work in two dimensions. This is immediately evident even in their titles. The first, “Henri Matisse: Sculptor/Painter,” was curated by Michael P. Mezzatesta at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth in 1984; the second, “Matisse: Painter as Sculptor,” a major traveling exhibition, opens next month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, following its two-part premiere this spring at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center. Co-organized by Dorothy Kosinski of the DMA, Jay McKean Fisher of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Steven Nash of the Nasher, the current show gathers some forty-five works—more than half the artist’s sculptures—along with their apparently obligatory backdrop of paintings. I have never been keen on this principle of mutual inclusion. Matisse’s canvases can be so lush and mesmerizing, and his sculptures so tough, that I always fear presenting the two together will inevitably make the latter, as Ad Reinhardt supposedly quipped, “something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” Yet the sculptures’ tether to the paintings inevitably persists, and the current exhibition allows us the opportunity to further explore the conceptual affinities and discontinuities between them.

I did not see the Kimbell show, but its catalogue suggests a near-absolute disconnect between the selection of its eighteen paintings and forty sculptures. Most of the canvases included in that 1984 exhibition seem to have been picked at random, and there was no attempt whatsoever to suggest a rapport between them and the sculptures. (This must have been the meaning of the slash in the title: a comparison based not on similarity but on disjunction, a wall between the two practices.) The three exceptions were Standing Model (Nude Study in Blue), 1899–1900, which relates to the sculpture Madeleine I, 1901, through the pose of the model; Still Life with Plaster Figure, 1906, in which Matisse depicts the plaster cast of his Standing Nude of the same year; and The Yellow Dress, 1929–31, in which the central figure’s overall configuration and eerie aloofness resemble that of Venus in a Shell I, 1930. These canvases suggest two types of links between Matisse’s painting and sculptures—similarity of pose or of general configuration and sculpture as an object depicted within a painting—which are, for the most part, operable in the current show, where the trio makes an encore appearance, along with twelve additional paintings and eighty or so drawings. For example, the juxtaposition of The Italian Woman and Portrait of Sarah Stein, both 1916, with the five bronzes of the “Jeannette” series (1910–13) is not as purely arbitrary as it might first seem: There is something in common between the dislodged shoulder of the Italian and the utter enucleation of Jeannette V, just as similarities can be found between the dead gaze and goiter of Sarah Stein (whose faceted facial features surge toward the viewer like a genie escaping its bottle) and the sinister “in your face” presence of the “Jeannette” series as a whole.

Through such morphological connections, the current show, in short, takes Matisse at his word, as its very title declares. For I understand the phrase “painter as sculptor” not simply to mean “painter as well as sculptor” (that we already knew), but to reflect two famous sayings by the artist. The first he made in reference to his cutouts: “Cutting straight into color reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptor.” This seems to me to be a red herring that led to the least satisfactory sections of the Dallas installation: a room containing four cutouts in the DMA and its counterpart gallery at the Nasher Center, where a wall was bombastically filled with all the plates of Jazz, 1947. As noted by Heather MacDonald in the catalogue entry devoted to the cutouts, Matisse was not a carver, and the metaphor here is purely linguistic (“The French word for scissors, ciseaux, is simply the plural of the word for chisel, ciseau”). Apart from the general notion of direct contact with the material (without, for example, the mediation of drawing) and, again, some vague morphological similarities, I cannot find any significant relationship between the cutouts and the sculptures—and even these two connections are not particularly convincing. For one, modeling clay is a very sensual, quasi-sexual act (as sculptor William Tucker emphasized at a related symposium in Dallas). The clay is soft, wet, and tender to the touch. Cutting paper is harsh, dry, and, in fact, not direct (remember the scissors?). Furthermore, the numerous works on paper presented in the show, many of them never exhibited before and on the whole excellently chosen, would tend to cast some doubt on the notion that drawing did not intervene between the artist and his material. As for the second question of formal resemblance between the sculptures and the cutouts, their rare visual connections tell us almost nothing. For Matisse’s cutouts are a celebration of the whole surface, his final demonstration, both magisterial and playful, that every point is as important as any other—in other words, that the age-old hierarchical division between figure and ground is no longer valid. His sculptures, by contrast, never attempt to merge with space, nor to use it as a kind of virtual material that he could shape or into which he could “carve” (as Picasso had done with his 1912 Guitar, followed by many artists over the past century up through Fred Sandback). No, Matisse’s sculptures are all about volume and about what, in volume, exceeds our purely visual and intellectual understanding and summons our bodies.

The second of the artist’s statements to which the show’s title alludes (and which it reverses, tongue in cheek) is his remark, “I sculpted as a painter. I did not sculpt like a sculptor.” This, I believe, is not a red herring but a plain misconception by Matisse of what he was doing. The statement is usually paired with another one in which Matisse says that he made sculpture “to order my sensations, to find a method that would absolutely suit me. Once I had found it in sculpture, that would help me in my painting.” Frankly, I doubt this. What could Matisse the painter have learned from Matisse the sculptor? Poses? These are common stock, and even if they originated in Greek and Roman marbles, they had long been translated into painting (even by Matisse himself, whose Le Bonheur de Vivre [Joy of Life], 1905–1906, functioned all his life as a repertory from which to draw archetypal figures). Could he have learned how light plays on solids? Except in his Nice period, this academic concern with the modeling of light and shadow in painting had been completely replaced by that of color interrelations (and, in any case, one does not need to make a sculpture in order to observe how it responds to light). Did he gain an intimate, bodily knowledge of the figure that might then spring forth, almost unconsciously, in painting? Matisse often mentioned such a mechanism of “identification” after he had been engaged in the Barnes Dance, 1931–32, but he was speaking of something that he felt he was at last able to attain in drawing and hoped to achieve in painting. Sculpture was never part of this equation (and he made only three after the Barnes mural). And, finally, as for Matisse’s representations of his sculptures in his paintings, here, again, we learn nothing much, except perhaps that he was partial to their general smallness (in his canvases they are most often dwarfed by plants, fruit bowls, etc.) and that he preferred to depict clay or plaster models (I’m not sure he ever depicted a bronze cast).

Matisse’s remark that he sculpted as a painter and not as a sculptor is followed by another claim that seems to me closer to the point: “Sculpture does not say what painting says. Painting does not say what music says. There are parallel ways, but you can’t confuse them.” In other words, even if one wanted to sculpt like a painter, one would fail. Many artists have tried (even though, paradoxically, they were not painters), and one of the most rewarding curatorial decisions in Dallas was to sprinkle the show with sculptures by other artists, thereby offering us some comparative material. “Sculpting as a painter,” for a man of Matisse’s generation, could have meant only two things: First, that the sculpture would be frontal, admitting—or, at the very least, privileging—only one point of view, as in the case of the works shown by Alexander Archipenko, Émile-Antoine Bourdelle, Charles Despiau, Alberto Giacometti, Jacques Lipchitz, Aristide Maillol, and even, surprisingly for me, Auguste Rodin; second, it meant that the sculptor would avoid clear and linear contours in favor of highly agitated surfaces in an attempt to imitate pictorial effects.

I shall address this last point first. The quintessential pictorial sculptor when Matisse began working in the medium around 1900 was Medardo Rosso, who wrote that he sought to “annul the material,” to make the beholder forget that he was looking at an object endowed with substance, weight, and depth. Rosso, whose art was then compared to that of the Impressionists, fashioned his wax surfaces so that light and shade created highlights that destroyed their contours, canceled out the relief, and, from a given point of view (for his works were also frontal), provided the beholder the illusion that he was looking at a painting. This is an illusion that Matisse never attempted, even when the agitation of his sculptures’ surfaces came close to Rosso’s, as in Madeleine II of 1903.

Never, I would argue, did Matisse wish to “annul the material.” Quite to the contrary, it is in his emphatic attention to the materiality of sculpture that he owes most to Rodin. Unfortunately, this is a point that the Dallas show fails to make, for two of the three Rodins on view—the large Jean d’Aire, 1895, from the Burghers of Calais group, and Meditation, 1885—belong to what I call the “public Rodin,” that of the marbles (carved by assistants) and the Salon bronzes, who could not have taught Matisse anything on this score. Against the public Rodin, as Leo Steinberg showed in a 1963 essay that remains the best ever written about the artist, stood the private Rodin, some of whose works Matisse saw at the old sculptor’s studio. This Rodin insisted on inscribing the process of production onto the work’s surface. He reveled in accident and the non finito look, in anything that spoke of labor (the scrape on the back of Flying Figure, circa 1890–91, and the wound on the back of Walking Man, 1900, are two of Steinberg’s favorite examples). Matisse no doubt admired this aspect of Rodin’s work and attempted to emulate it in The Serf (begun in 1900, shortly after his visit to the sculptor), one of the two sculptures through which he learned the art of modeling and for which he actually took the same model Rodin had used for Walking Man. (His other propaedeutic sculpture was his 1899–1901 “copy” of Antoine-Louis Barye’s Jaguar Devouring a Hare, also shown in Dallas.) Except for Henriette II, 1927, two small torsos of 1929, and Tiari of the following year, none of Matisse’s bronzes cover up the sweat and the mud; on the contrary, they highlight the material, dirty aspect of the process. The show includes many works testifying to this materialist impulse: the barely modeled rough rolls of clay of The Dance, 1911, which substitutes the élan and precarious equilibrium of Degas (as could be verified in Dallas, thanks to his inclusion) with the painful torsion of inert matter; the fractured waists of both Torso Without Arms or Head, 1909, and Standing Nude (Katia), 1950; and the highly visible gashes left by the knife in The Back II, 1913, and The Back III, 1916–17, for example, but also on the back of his most classicistic figure, the Large Seated Nude of 1922–29, whose pose was borrowed from Michelangelo. One wonders why the two most spectacular works in this regard were missing from the show (Seated Figure, Right Hand on Ground, 1908, with its Play-Doh-like lumps, and Upright Nude with Arched Back, 1904, with its broken arms), but there was still enough ammunition not to overlook the issue. We should be thankful, furthermore, for the particular castings of “The Backs” presented in the show, which have the best patina of all the sculptures on view. Their tan color has less sheen than usual, thereby revealing all the delicate modulations of the surface.

But what about the other sense of “pictorial sculpture,” what about frontality? Here, I must introduce another character into the fray—not because Matisse knew about him (in fact, he probably did not) but because he is a much better straw man on this score than Rodin, whose relationship to the question of frontality was somewhat stilted. Indeed, Rodin often solved the problem of offering multiple viewpoints from a fixed position via a pictorial trick that was as old as Raphael and was revived during the heyday of Neoclassicism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: that is, the presentation of the same figure from different sides, as in The Three Shades, 1881–86, and Cathedral, 1908, which was made from two casts of the same right hand. Rather, my straw man here is Adolf von Hildebrand, an extremely mediocre sculptor but one who in the late nineteenth century articulated perhaps the best theoretical justification for a pictorial, which is to say frontal, sculpture. Hildebrand held modeling in contempt as too physical and maintained that all sculpture should be, at the very least, a disguised relief, made of three planes that are staggered in depth and immediately legible from a set point of view. An actual relief would be even better, since the figures it contains within its frame are freed from competing with the infinite surrounding space, the mundane realm of everyday objects. (This position would later be taken to an absurd extreme by Clement Greenberg, for whom the best way to prevent sculpture from devolving into objecthood—a particular threat following the disappearance of the pedestal—was for it to be as flat, as pictorial, as possible.) As conceived by Hildebrand and the entire academic tradition, the relief presupposes a background representing an imaginary space from which the figures emerge, with the beholder filling in all the anatomical information that is concealed from view. The relief’s background functions like the picture plane as elaborated by Alberti during the Renaissance: It is a virtual plane, assumed to be transparent.

Matisse, however, disobeyed Hildebrand’s dictum, as is especially evident in “The Backs,” where the figure gradually becomes identified with the wall that bears it. The woman in The Back I, 1909, appears to be leaning against the wall, offering a “realist” justification for her strange pose, which willfully ignores the conventions of the genre (and the drawings shown in Dallas attest to this “realist” origin). In The Back II, the differentiation between the modeling of the back and the treatment of the background begins to blur, so that in certain light conditions the spinal column all but disappears. In The Back III, the figure is almost completely aligned with the limits of the “support.” And by The Back IV, 1930, she has become a simple modulation of the ground. Apart from the decreasing depth of her braid’s protrusion, there is no distinction between the hair that tumbles from her head and the space between her legs with which it merges. In short, on the one occasion where Matisse might actually appear to be “sculpting as a painter”—that is, when he is working within the format of the relief—he in no sense forgets the pictorial revolution that he had already carried out. He borrows his paintings’ characteristic anti-illusionism and “decorative” quality (Matisse’s name for the allover). Needless to say, this is a far cry from Hildebrand (and is, in fact, closer than ever to Rodin, whose famous “failed” monument, The Gates of Hell, 1880–1917, is an opaque mash against which the eye comes to an abrupt halt). But these works, being reliefs per se, are an exception to Matisse’s rule, and he may here be playing devil’s advocate by adopting the relief only to work against its conventions.

But let’s return to the issue of frontality—or rather, Matisse’s resistance to that condition. Indeed, all his other sculptures (apart from two juvenile medallions) command the beholder to circumnavigate them. A case in point is The Serpentine, 1909, which was modeled on a “small plump woman” in a photograph. Right at the end of his life, Matisse explained that he had sculpted her “so that everything was visible, regardless of the point of view,” and then talked of “transparency,” going so far as to suggest that the work anticipates Cubist sculpture. Here, I believe, Matisse was doubly mistaken. The anticipatory claim is easy to dismiss: “Transparency” was not at all at stake in Cubism, which, as I mentioned above, was involved with the transformation of space into a sculptural material via sheer binary opposition between void and nonvoid. This was something Matisse could never comprehend, simply because he did not understand that Picasso’s Cubism is a language whose transformational energy relies mostly on structural contrasts. More important in this context, however, is Matisse’s other mistaken claim: For, contrary to what he says, The Serpentine never allows you to see everything at once, no matter your point of view. As you move around it, it constantly expands and contracts like an accordion. Or, to employ another metaphor, the negative spaces open and close like the wings of a butterfly. One is constantly surprised by the multiplicity of aspects, which are absolutely unforeseeable from any given position. From the back, the minuscule, insectlike head presents a massive wave of hair that comes as a complete shock. Meanwhile, the joins of the arabesques formed by the trunk, the arms, and the left leg ceaselessly render the body invertebrate without ever negating its plumb line (the right leg is rigorously parallel to the vertical pillar on which the left elbow rests). You can circle The Serpentine a hundred times, but you’ll never manage finally to possess it. Its curvilinear dance of forms ensures its stubborn wholeness but also keeps it forever from being apprehended whole.

It should now be growing clear why I think Matisse’s sculpture is so important; and yet, ironically, one of the central facets of his achievement may be precisely what keeps it from being regarded as such. Indeed, as we have seen, his sculptural work requires prolonged attention—and a particularly focused circumambulation—to reveal itself fully. (Another impediment to recognizing his sculpture’s status may be its generally modest scale. He was not interested in the bold expressive gesture, and the only work that could be described as taking part in such rhetoric is Woman Leaning on Her Hands, 1905, but even that figure is too tiny to carry the abnormal pathos with which it is charged, and it ends up a kind of wriggling batrachian.) Matisse’s attention to movement, it should be noted, has nothing at all to do with representing it as such. Right from the start with The Serf, whose legs function as full brakes, he insisted on the figure’s stasis. The only movement, the only gesture, that interested him was that of the beholder. But he did not proclaim this or give you any hint. The multiplicity of aspects that characterizes his sculptures as you turn around them is not something you can predict from the first view. Further, it is not even something of which you are necessarily conscious even when in the midst of experiencing it. Why is this? Because Matisse makes sure that you will not be able to separate one aspect from the next, framing successive views as distinct images of the work.

I have, for example, always been struck by the lack of any articulation between front and back in Seated Nude (Olga), 1909–10, for me, Matisse’s best and most radical sculpture. This quality puts me in mind of Rosalind Krauss’s description of David Smith’s Blackburn: Song of an Irish Blacksmith, 1949–50, in her Passages in Modern Sculpture of 1977. In one of the best discussions ever of a piece of twentieth-century sculpture, Krauss elaborates the complete incompatibility and unpredictability of the various aspects of Blackburn as one turns around it, and describes the “grammar” of the work as that of an “extreme visual disjunction.” Although, as far as I know, Smith has never been associated with Matisse (his sculptural mentors are always said to be Julio Gonzáles and, above all, Picasso), I think that most of what Krauss writes applies to the best of Matisse’s sculpture. But there is a catch: She still feels compelled to speak of a “front view,” a “side view,” and a “back view,” while it is, I believe, impossible to do so with Olga. Moving around her, you suddenly realize that you are looking at her back, when a split second before you were looking at her belly. No matter how many times you repeat the journey, you can never pinpoint the exact moment at which the shift occurs. One cannot see it occurring, despite the fact that one is fully conscious of it, any more than one can anticipate the way the sculpture is going to look after taking another step.

We have now arrived at the true juncture where Matisse’s sculpture and painting meet—or rather, where the parallelism to which the artist alluded resides. This has nothing to do with the appearance of his sculptures in his paintings or the game of identifying shared figures and poses among them. Instead, the common goal of his best work in both domains is, to my mind, that of deflecting cognition, of preventing us from forming any kind of Gestaltist synthesis. I’ve written extensively on this aspect of Matisse’s painting, so I shall be synoptic here. Between Le Bonheur de Vivre and his (failed) encounter with Cubism in 1913–16, Matisse elaborates two pictorial strategies to derail our gaze, to make us lost: either excess of color saturation and size, or “decorative” excess that compels us to look at everything at once, so that we are forced to rely on our peripheral vision and lose control over the field of the canvas. Neither kind of excess is involved in Matisse’s sculpture. However, the will to blind us remains—blinding in the sense of preventing us from mastering the work we behold, from having a clear and consistent view of it as something we can ever fully grasp.

“Matisse: Painter as Sculptor” travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 9–Sept. 16; Baltimore Museum of Art, Oct. 28, 2007–Feb. 3, 2008.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum.