New York

Henri Matisse

C&M Arts

Matisse’s figurative sculptures have often been praised for their exploratory distortions of the body, but what this stunning miniretrospective made clear is the monumentality of his three-dimensional figures, regardless of their size. The smallest, Nu appuyé sue les mains (Woman leaning on her hands), 1905, is less than five inches tall, the largest, Le Serf (The slave), 1900–03, just over three feet, but each work has an epic presence. In the twenty-seven pieces on display, which date from 1899 to 1932, Matisse holds on to sculptural conventions—he is modeling rather than constructing here—even as he experiments with new approaches. In Henriette III, 1929, for example, the pedestal has been incorporated into the piece, but a traditional sense of hierarchical arrangement remains. Similarly, the “Jeannette” series of 1910–13, five heads tracing Matisse’s development from descriptive to so-called primitivist modeling, follows the norms of bust portraiture, for all the shock of the final piece, in which the genial Jeannette has become a phallic woman (a resemblance that was even recognized at the time).

Just as Matisse reworked figures from painting to painting, many of these bronzes have the look of glorified exercises. The artist himself implied that he sometimes worked out in three dimensions problems that he had created for himself in two. The sometimes brutal, sometimes caressing mark of the hand is evident throughout, if somewhat tamed in the streamlined Henriette II, 1927, and Tiari, 1930. In bronze, the works gain a solidity that belies their aura of flexibility. The constants of Matisse’s art—the precarious, even unnatural positioning of the female body to convey a sense of movement, the tension between abstract form and physical substance, particularly in the attempt to contain unruly female flesh without compromising its voluptuousness—are ruthlessly tested in his sculpture. Malleability predominates, and yet the figure or head, however abused, always remains intact, even self-contained (which seems to be another hangover from tradition). The struggle between transience (evoked through gestural touch and uncertain balance) and the stability, even durability, of human identity is unresolved. Matisse caught the modern spirit—the idea of creation through destruction—but he was too bound to the human image to follow through on the logic of annihilation implied by his own handling.

That said, many of the works clearly do violence to the female body. However classic they have become, they unfortunately harbor sexist, not just sexual, implications. There is more than a hint of sadism here; Matisse not only de-idealizes the female body in a very modern way, stripping it of symbolic import and traditional gracefulness, but perversely manhandles it until it seems grotesque. If Matisse’s treatment is aesthetically liberating—an encounter with the eternal feminine once again yields an artistic trophy—its inhumanity suggests the extent to which the studio model was an excuse for male dominance.

Donald Kuspit