When an artist embarks upon the “eternal” sequence, their existence transforms into a grand-scale archaeological excavation site. Individuals will delve into their past in search of clues, seeking the pivotal information that defines the enigma of their being: Why do they manifest in such a manner?
The recent exhibition “Matisse by Matisse” at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing garnered swarms of spectators each day throughout the summer season. Encompassing over 280 artworks spanning oil paintings, sculptures, drawings, ink on paper, prints, paper-cutting, books, illustrations, fabrics, and various other media, the 1,800-square-meter exhibition hall presented the inaugural comprehensive showcase of the modernist virtuoso Henri Matisse in China, inciting considerable reverberations within the artistic realm.
“The interplay between lines and colors has constituted Matisse’s lifelong inquiry. Matisse discerned at an early stage that, as an artist, the most paramount pursuit lies in forging an innovative modeling language, inventing symbols unique to his own idiom, a feat accomplished solely by artists who attain such distinction, thus inscribing their names upon the annals of art history,” expounded Patrice Deparpe, the director of the Matisse Museum in the Northern Province of France and an erudite scholar of Matisse’s oeuvre.
Among the pioneers of modernism, Matisse stands as an enigma in his own right. On one hand, he basks in the adoration of numerous admirers, his canvases radiating brilliance and captivating the senses. Even the most unacquainted spectator can scarcely resist the exultation that arises when confronted with his works. Yet, on the other hand, the essence of Matisse’s greatness remains elusive. Most of his paintings exude an air of incompleteness, as if his techniques have been deliberately dispersed, imbuing them with a deliberate naivety and artless charm. Scholars specializing in artistic research often grapple with the enigma of “why Matisse became Matisse.” His contemporaries, artists of the same generation, traversed more discernible paths. Whether through the channels of Impressionism, Cubism, or Post-Impressionism, these modern art movements that eventually attained canonical status were initially met with skepticism and exclusion from the artistic mainstream. These “young boys” congregated together to seek solace, their works spawning palpable traces of mutual influence and inspiration. However, Matisse embarked upon a relatively autonomous trajectory.
The rapture evoked by a humble rug
It must be acknowledged that, as an artist, Matisse embarked on his journey from a far humbler vantage point than Picasso. While Picasso was hailed as a prodigy from a tender age, Matisse did not wield a paintbrush until his early twenties.
Nurtured amidst the desolate plains of northeastern France, where leaden skies loomed overhead and monotonous brick houses punctuated the villages, Matisse bore witness to the industrial transformation of his hometown—a craft hamlet dominated by textile mills and sugar beet factories. “Where I hail from, even in the presence of a solitary tree obstructing the sunlight from four beets, it would be uprooted,” articulated Mattis. Throughout the initial two decades of his life, Matisse perennially grappled with the stifling confines of his birthplace, yearning for liberation.
The outside world permeated his existence through the traveling circuses that staged performances far and wide, beckoning Matisse with an irresistible allure to flee alongside the troupe. On another occasion, a peripatetic mesmerizer succeeded in entrancing the young Matisse, who found himself immersed in a vast sea of resplendent blossoms, swirling hues coalescing into intricate patterns. Subsequently, he ascertained that this psychedelic vista emanated from a diminutive carpet fragment beneath his feet.
This carpet may be deemed the very wellspring of Matisse’s aesthetic sensibility. In his subsequent works, one encounters copious employment of pen and ink to depict vibrant textiles, forsaking the notion of depth of field entirely, thereby transforming interior scenes into two-dimensional floral abstractions. His paintings are executed upon cloth, while his later years witnessed a proliferation of papercuts, akin to a paradise of patterns—an archaeological excavation of Matisse’s cherished childhood memories, ascertained by art historians.
In Bo’an, Matisse’s birthplace, the textile industry reigns supreme as one of the principal economic pillars. Vibrant dyes, vibrant dyes seep from the textile factories, suffusing the surroundings. The Matisse family, weavers for nearly three centuries, have textiles coursing through their veins, as if paint drips from their very beings. Weavers toil diligently outside their homes, looms lining the thoroughfares. Amidst the clamor, they diligently produce intricately woven motifs, bestowing a natural “adornmentand ornamentation” upon the mundane objects of daily life.
This environment of textiles, colors, and patterns shaped Matisse’s artistic sensibilities, infusing his works with a vibrant tapestry of visual elements. The influence of textiles can be observed in his use of bold and expressive colors, his exploration of pattern and repetition, and his fascination with the interplay of lines and shapes. Matisse’s art sought to capture the essence of beauty and joy, and his encounters with textiles in his formative years provided him with a visual language to express these sentiments.
Moreover, Matisse’s exposure to the world of textiles extended beyond his childhood experiences. Throughout his life, he surrounded himself with fabrics and textiles, which served as a constant source of inspiration. He adorned his living spaces with patterned textiles, collected rugs and tapestries, and even incorporated fabrics into his artworks. The tactile and visual qualities of textiles continued to inform his artistic choices and imbue his works with a sense of texture and richness.
In essence, Matisse’s artistic journey can be seen as a lifelong exploration and celebration of the transformative power of color, pattern, and texture—elements deeply rooted in his early encounters with textiles. The humble rug that captivated his young imagination became a touchstone for his artistic expression, influencing his choice of subjects, his use of materials, and his distinctive visual style.
As spectators engage with Matisse’s works, they are invited to embark on their own archaeological excavation, peering beneath the layers of paint and ink to uncover the vibrant threads of his artistic heritage. The enigma of “why Matisse became Matisse” gradually unravels, revealing a tapestry woven from the influences of his upbringing, his encounters with textiles, and his unyielding pursuit of beauty and joy.
Matisse’s artistic legacy endures, and his works continue to inspire and captivate audiences around the world. The “Matisse by Matisse” exhibition in Beijing served as a testament to his enduring influence, offering a comprehensive exploration of his diverse body of work and providing spectators with a glimpse into the mind of an artist who found inspiration in the most unexpected of places.
Another influence that cannot be ignored is of course Cézanne. So many painting schools after modernism claim Cézanne as their originator, “so much so that we can still see his legacy through a roomful of competing heirs… He is one of the few who influenced almost everyone.” one of the greatest artists,” said art critic Robert Hughes.
Matisse was obsessed with Cézanne. Before he had the ability to collect, he longed to own Cézanne’s “Three Bathers”. Because of her husband’s obsession, his wife Amelie had to pawn one of her emerald rings as a down payment to purchase the painting in installments.
They were newly married at that time. Before getting married, Matisse reminded his future wife that although he loved her very much, he would always love painting more. Amelie will realize all this in her future life – she has lost her beloved ring forever, and by the time Matisse finally collects enough money, the redemption period has passed. But Cezanne’s “Three Bathing Girls” was crucial to Matisse’s later artistic career. He always kept this painting with him. “Every time I take risks on the road of art, this painting is the moral support.” I got through those critical moments.” Matisse later said, “If Cézanne was right, I was right.”
Amelie’s parents were involved in a huge financial scam without knowing it. . This large-scale financial fraud swept the entire France, even the banks and the government were in crisis, and victims committed suicide across the country. Amelie’s parents were suspected of being related to the case, and her father was arrested and imprisoned. Matisse’s studio was also raided. Amelie’s family was threatened and forced by the deceiver. Although she was later proven innocent, Her parents have since become penniless social outcasts. Matisse suffered a nervous breakdown and could barely pick up a paintbrush for two years.
In order to wash away the shame, Amelie insisted that Matisse always wear a suit. This artist, who used to be raunchy in the past, adhered to this rule throughout his life. In the images left behind later, he even wore a formal three-piece suit while painting! Sometimes I put on a white coat, like a doctor or scientist. In winter, it is a woolen coat and a scarf tied meticulously. This elegant and restrained image was very different from the unruly avant-garde artists who were active in Paris at the time. However, their self-esteem and stubbornness that were unwilling to be defeated forced the Matisse family to show the world that they were a decent and polite family.
The Brutalists threw a bucket of paint at the audience
Under the attack of internal and external troubles, Matisse painted “Luxury, Calm and Joy”, an important work in his turning period. Judging from the picture, this painting is still a tribute to Seurat and Cezanne. Seurat’s pointillism brushwork and the pattern directly borrowed from Cézanne’s “Three Bathing Girls”, but he turned his back on Cézanne. The gentle use of colors, the painting is densely covered with Signac-like conflicting contrasting colors, overflowing with sensual joy.
Artists led by Rodin and Renoir began to establish the Autumn Salon in 1903. In 1905, when Matisse’s work appeared at the Salon d’Automne, people spoke harshly of him, and the critics were merciless. “Matisse is the embodiment of disorder. He represents a comprehensive and violent break with tradition… He is like a liar wearing a fool’s hat.” The
landscapes and portraits that Matisse exhibited at the Salon were all large in size. Not big, one of them is “Portrait of Madame Matisse: Green Line”. Amelie in the picture is given a straight green nose, which divides her face into two, one side is yellow with green, and the other side is cherry blossoms. The pink color, hair as hard as a steel helmet, flat face and three-dimensional black eyes reflect the influence of African sculpture. Matisse had just become obsessed with collecting such primitive African masks, and later recommended them to Picasso, which also became an important source of inspiration for Picasso.
Henri Matisse, “Two Girls, Yellow Dress and Plaid Skirt”, November 2-16, 1941, Nice, oil on canvas, 61.5cm × 50.2cm. Center Pompidou, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne-Industrial Design, on display at the Musée Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambrezy, France, 1996, Inv. Matisse Museum, courtesy Philippe Bernard
Because of the public outcry, Matisse banned his wife Amelie from visiting the exhibition, fearing that she would be recognized and face trouble in public, and even suggested that she go out to avoid the limelight. Matisse himself attended only once during the entire exhibition period. He was right to do so, and people really laughed at his paintings as much as they could.
Shame is everywhere. Matisse’s parents were indifferent to his painting career. Matisse brought one of his works back to his hometown and showed it to his mother. Her mother exclaimed in surprise: “This is not a painting at all!” – Matisse heard this and immediately picked up a knife to cut the painting. destroyed.
In addition to Matisse, the 1905 Autumn Salon also exhibited works by Derain, Gauguin, Rouault and others. In the center of the exhibition hall was a 15th-century-style bronze statue of a child by Marquette, an art critic Louis Wuxell couldn’t help but sigh: “Donatello (Renaissance sculptor, whose representative work is a bronze boy) among the beasts!” “It’s like throwing a bucket at the audience. The paint is no different!” His comment spread widely, and by the following year the group of artists had been dubbed the Fauvists.
Bad reviews abounded. purchase? Still not buying it?
”Fauvism” is famous, but it is a short-lived group. From the deviant color revolution in 1905 to the birth of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907, this genre only existed for less than three years. The members of “Fauvism” were not unified in style and opinions, and they did not output a formal theory. They just shared a love for bright, strong clashing colors. They deliberately retained the rough and fast surfaces and distorted shapes, allowing color to become the most primitive dominant energy in the painting, as if color itself is the gift of life. It should be said that the 1905 Autumn Salon that made “Fauvism” famous in one fell swoop was the only time that “Fauvism” artists performed on the same stage with a unified style. Soon they went their separate ways and each developed a completely different art. the way.
”Those young painters kept laughing at this painting, but Leo, Michael and Sarah stood seriously in front of the painting and were deeply attracted by it.” The three collectors who discovered Matisse’s brilliance came from The Stein family, Sarah is Michael’s wife. Three siblings, Leo, Michael, and Gertrude, moved from the United States to Paris, France. Gertrude Stein discovered the fame of Picasso and Hemingway. The home she shared with her brother Leo became the centerpiece of a moveable feast in Paris. One of the centers.
Leo was suspicious of Matisse’s works at first, especially the “Woman with a Hat” that was the most ridiculed by everyone. He thought it was “the most disgusting painting with smeared colors” that he had ever seen. painting”. But the situation is favorable to Matisse. Two adjacent exhibition halls are hosting a special retrospective exhibition in conjunction with the Autumn Salon to pay tribute to the late 19th century masters Ingres and Manet. The ridicule and uproar Manet caused in the official salons 30 years ago are still fresh in our minds, but history was ultimately on his side. The Steins reasonably connect Matisse’s current bad reception to the situation 30 years ago: those avant-garde works were once criticized.
This challenge excited the Stein family, and Leo finally bought “The Woman in the Hat” for 500 francs. It was a pretty good price, and the Steins had wanted to make a counteroffer, and Matisse was willing to give in because no other buyer had shown the slightest interest, and he was eager to close the sale to wash away the ridicule and criticism. But Amelie once again showed a strong character. She claimed to be the kind of woman “I will be able to deal with it even if the house burns to the ground.” She refused to give in and insisted that the painting must be sold at the full price of 500 francs.
She defended Matisse’s worth. The Stein family hung the painting in the most conspicuous place in their apartment, and they talked endlessly about Matisse’s avant-garde works to celebrities in the literary and artistic circles. Inspired by this adventurous collection, they even completely changed the style of subsequent collections. The classic paintings of the 19th century were left behind, and the new 20th century, with Matisse and Picasso, was right in front of them! With the help of the Stein family, the two artists began to have frequent contact. They spent many evenings drinking and talking together at the Stein family, stimulating and secretly competing with each other.
“Matisse is more dangerous than alcohol”
Matisse is different from his Impressionist predecessors. Although his paintings also emphasize light and color, the colors of the Impressionists are separated from the gorgeous outdoor natural light. Matisse’s color inspiration comes more from fabrics. The origin of the textile industry in his hometown has always given him Interest in natural dyes. The Impressionists borrowed the two-dimensional characteristics from Japanese Ukiyo-e. They began to change the classic perspective method of traditional Western painting, extracting lines from the block surface to make the painting look more flat. Matisse went further than them. He painted indoor scenes – whether still life or figures – as if they were a canvas. In his still life paintings, the textiles that serve as the background are often more attractive than the real protagonists, becoming the decorative subjects of the picture.
He would collect printed fabrics that excited him at Paris flea markets, and would often hunt for African and ancient Liberian sculptures at a small antique shop called “Papa Savage.” Given Matisse’s influence at the time, his interest in black sculpture soon set off a craze for tribal art among avant-garde painters throughout Paris.
Matisse was good at getting nutrients from the things around him. It is said that his way of handling lines was inspired by the childhood graffiti of his eldest daughter Margaret. At that time in Paris, the philosopher Henri Bergson was at the height of his power, and his lectures at the Collège de France were also a hot event in the city. Bergson focused on human cognitive structure and proposed the concept of “life impulse”, believing that time flows and all existence itself is dynamic.
At that time, Matisse was looking for new artistic possibilities from “transformation”. He was also an eloquent theory lover and read Bergson’s philosophical works every day. These theories that hit the pulse of the times inspired him very quickly. The clues can be found in his works: his most shocking masterpiece “Dance” was created at this time. Five naked men and women held hands and danced enthusiastically in ecstasy. It was the original “life impulse” of the pre-civilization era. Inspired by the Saldana, a folk dance from the Catalan region.
This painting was originally ordered by Moscow textile entrepreneur Sergey Shchukin, who was one of Matisse’s most loyal collectors. However, after “Dance” was exhibited, it was ridiculed by the audience and critics. The technique of ridiculing the pictures was inferior to that of children’s paintings, and the avant-garde felt that Matisse’s way of dealing with the body was too crude. Someone graffitied on the street – “Matisse makes people crazy”, “Matisse is more dangerous than alcohol”.
Hujin hesitated. He informed Matisse that he had decided not to buy the painting. When he heard the bad news, Matisse was experiencing the pain of losing his father. He suddenly suffered a mental breakdown, could not sleep all night, and even began to hallucinate. “The bed was shaking, and I could not suppress a small, sharp cry from my throat.” The doctor diagnosed him as suffering from depression.
“The East saved us”
Patrice Depalp, director of the Matisse Museum in the Northern Province of France, said that every time Matisse encountered difficulties in finding a new artistic direction, his solution was to travel. For him, foreign lands will bring new excitement and new visual experiences.
At that time, Paris was the experimental ground for all new arts. The trend of “Fauvism” soon passed, and each took the lead for two or three years. At this time, it was the turn of Picasso and Braque. Braque was once a disciple of Matisse. He was inspired by Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and the works of Cézanne, and drew some creative illustrations and submitted them to the Salon d’Automne. Matisse had already become one of the judges of the Salon. He saw Braque’s origin at a glance. His comment was that these paintings were nothing more than works composed of “cubes”. Braque’s work was eventually rejected from the Salon, and the new style received its official name: Cubism.
Cubism soon became so popular that Matisse was at a loss. In order to find a way out, he started traveling again.
On the road to modernism in Western painting, a saying that the forerunners like to say is: The East saved us. At the beginning, the East may refer to the Far East, Japan or China in Asia. Japanese Ukiyo-e and Chinese ink painting are refreshing to artists who have long been accustomed to the Western classical tradition. But later, “East” gradually became a vague concept, which to some extent refers to all foreign lands. Creators who desire to rebel against tradition are keen to seek new inspiration from other cultures, making cultural collisions a factor of change. On the road of Matisse’s painting, these foreign lands can be marked almost like road signs, such as Russia, Morocco, Spain, Tahiti…
Just to study Byzantine culture, Matisse spent nearly three years visiting art collections, antiques and relics. The complex patterns and graphic patterns in the Arab world injected a new artistic language into Matisse’s works. elements. In Spain, the Alhambra became the pinnacle of his vision. This royal palace built by the Moors in the 13th century embodies the ultimate complexity and sophistication. This fleeting world of representations and feather-light vision became Matisse’s constant pursuit in his subsequent works. He even left his family and settled alone in Spain for a period of time, learning the decorative patterns of the Arab world. In the postcards he wrote home, he described in detail the different design elements of the Alhambra Palace, completely ignoring his wife’s resentment.
This oriental sentiment frequently appears in his paintings. Not just patterns, Russian icon paintings, Orthodox “onion” churches, Moroccan flowers and wild plants, and beautiful women like Sudanese slave girls have all become Matisse’s oriental fantasy, just like the circus he was obsessed with when he was a child. The group is average. And he wore a formal three-piece suit to paint in the extremely hot Morocco. He even hired a Moroccan prostitute to stand on the roof and pose as a model for him between receiving guests. This is a fatal thing. , if her brother found out, “he would kill her.”
“Between sketching and oil painting, I choose paper cutting”
After World War I, the Russian Ballet director Diaghilev and the legendary composer Stravinsky visited Matisse, hoping that he could design the scenery and costumes for their dance drama “Song of the Nightingale”. This seemed like an opportunity to make the passionate dance he depicted in “The Dance” come to life.
The collaboration was not pleasant. Matisse’s obsession with fabrics offended Paul Poiret, the avant-garde designer responsible for making the clothes. According to Matisse’s design draft, Poiret’s team thought it would take three months to complete the costume. Matisse was so angry that he decided to do it himself. The experience of coming from a textile family gave him the confidence. He spread the fabric on Poiret’s cutting table, took off his shoes, grabbed the tailor’s scissors and jumped on the table.
He cut out the golden pattern he wanted from fabric, and then asked his assistant to sew it on the velvet. This act directly became the source of his paper-cut works in his later years. He was equivalent to making a set of paper-cuts out of fabric.
Matisse once expressed that throughout his painting career, the biggest confusion was dealing with lines and colors. For more than ten years, he focused on sketching and highly refined his lines. When the lines were perfected, it seemed that there was no room for other colors in the painting, and he had always been addicted to color. He wrote to a friend: “My sketches and my oil paintings are completely opposite.”
”Many people think that Matisse created paper-cut works in his later years because he had surgery and was unable to paint due to physical reasons. This is not the case. .The paper cutouts were his spontaneous creations, the solutions he found,” said Patrice Depalp.
Paper cutting is both lines and colors. Starting in 1943, Matisse began to focus on paper-cutting. His assistant would color the paper in advance according to his requirements. Then he picked up a pair of large scissors and cut quickly without thinking. His movements were impromptu and fluid, as if using a pair of scissors. Scissors sketching.
”I ‘paint’ directly with color, which ensures that the two methods can be accurately unified.” He cut out the sea of Tahiti with paper cuttings, and pasted birds, corals, herbs and fish all over the room to make himself feel It’s like being in the golden sunshine of the South Pacific again.
From armchair to chapel
Looking at Matisse’s creations throughout his life, it is almost difficult to believe that he was an artist who experienced two world wars. Compared with his peers who were worried about life and death and believed that art could be used as a dagger to throw a gun, Matisse’s works seemed like a paradise. , hardly presenting social problems, what he dreams of is “some kind of balanced, pure, and quiet art…like an armchair where people can rest.” He advocates sensual pleasure and believes that pleasure is an instinct that cannot be deprived of human beings.
The entire first half of the 20th century was turbulent and chaotic. In Matisse’s words, mankind seemed to be “collectively suffering from a disease of the soul.” His most important patron in life, Sergey Shchukin, would have understood how healing these paintings were in troubled times. Hugin’s wife died suddenly, and his two sons and brothers committed suicide one after another. It was Matisse’s art that gave him spiritual comfort. He collected 37 important works by Matisse and decorated his home into an art palace. It is said that the Russian billionaire often sat in his armchair for hours staring at Matisse’s paintings.
Matisse believed that shapes and colors contained energy. In later years, he was fond of saying that the colors he used had a “radiating radiance of kindness.” He set up his work like a fluorescent lamp at the bedside of a sick friend. He felt that his friend should be bathed in the light of color just like sunbathing. When the later abstract artist Rothko saw Matisse’s “Red Studio”, he was shocked by the fiery red color in the painting and cried uncontrollably. After that, Rothko also painted His own strikingly powerful red abstraction.
At the age of 72, Matisse almost died of an intestinal obstruction. He had major surgery and was bedridden for most of the rest of his life, but he felt like he had a new lease of life. “This terrible operation made me completely rejuvenated and became a philosopher.” This is no joke. After his brush with death, he became calmer and more focused. While many artists reach their twilight years, either dead or repeating themselves, Matisse leapt into a new realm and once again became a pioneer. The famous art critic Robert Hughes was known for his harshness. He did not have a high opinion of Matisse’s works between 1916 and 1930, but he was full of praise for his paper-cut works in his later years. The most advanced painting in Europe is also the most majestic. It is a correction of the ignorance and self-indulgence of abstract painting.” The
last peak Matisse climbed in his later years was the overall design of the Vence chapel at the age of 77. It is the most ambitious monument in his life. On display at UCCA, a model of the chapel represents Matisse’s final effort, which he himself described as “the culmination of a huge, sincere and difficult effort.” Crosses, altars, stained glass windows, tile paintings, priests’ vestments… all present a bright, simple and ultimate beauty that celebrates life and nature. That was art as he understood it: an instinct in search of paradise, ultimately leading from pleasure to sublimity.