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Matisse: The Misfit Northerner Who Ran Away from Everyone

Writing about Matisse is nearly a desire of mine, simply because he is arduous to comprehend. The curator of the Matisse Museum in the Northern Province of France and a Matisse scholar, when conversing with me about him, one word he stressed repeatedly was: northerner.

Later, I gradually apprehended the underlying meaning encapsulated within this term, which encompasses what we commonly perceive as quintessential French attributes: romantic, nonchalant, whimsical, rebellious… I apologize if it does not encompass individuals from northern France.

In the annals of art history, Matisse also embodies an enigma that eludes precise explication. Scarcely anyone can lucidly elucidate why Matisse “became Matisse”? Numerous artistic movements subsequent to him bore varying degrees of influence from his oeuvre, yet he himself encountered difficulty in discerning clues from those around him during his time.

Much art criticism fixates on the competitive rapport between him and Picasso. They are indeed adversaries. Within their ostensibly amicable relationship, one can always detect a subtle undercurrent of male animalistic discontent. Competition. They spurred each other on, but to be equitable, their painting styles are dissimilar. At various crucial junctures, they deliberately diverged from one another, striving to demonstrate that they were not swayed by the other party. In brief, their endeavors to differentiate themselves far outweighed their endeavors to influence each other. This kind of exertion culminated in two distinct peaks in divergent directions.

During those nocturnal sojourns in Paris, as novices in the realm of art, Matisse and Picasso frequently passed the time at the residence of Gertrude Stein, a renowned hostess of salons within Parisian literary and artistic circles, and an esteemed collector. The elegant and sartorially refined Matisse invariably dominated the discourse, captivating attention with his enchanting conversation. Meanwhile, the young and disheveled Picasso, hailing from Catalonia, struggled to articulate himself in French.

“Matisse would prattle on and on, leaving me without a word to interject. I could only utter ‘yeah, yeah,’ but it was utterly nonsensical!” Every time he departed from Stein’s salon, Picasso eagerly vented his frustrations to his girlfriend. Unbeknownst to him, Matisse remained outwardly composed, concealing the profound stress and anxiety that plagued him. Not only was he despondent, but he also suffered from acute panic attacks, nosebleeds, and chronic insomnia.

With Stein’s assistance, Picasso and Matisse exchanged artworks as gifts. This exchange carried tremendous solemnity. Accompanied by Stein’s brother and sister, they visited each other’s studios, meticulously selecting the pieces. Matisse chose a still life painting that Picasso had just completed. The painting brimmed with jagged edges and corners, imbued with a geometric cadence. Picasso, on the other hand, opted for Matisse’s portrait of his eldest daughter, Margaret.

Subsequently, Picasso and his companions promptly procured a set of toy darts adorned with suction cups and employed Matisse’s painting as their target. They gleefully hurled the darts at Margaret’s portrait, striking her eyes and countenance for amusement.

Upon retrospection of art history, it becomes readily apparent that the Impressionist pioneers embraced one another and bore resemblance to each other. Their canvases incorporated numerous borrowed and integrated elements. However, in the later period, the Impressionists began to diverge. With Matisse, the more sources I consult and the more paintings I behold, the more I perceive that it was centrifugal rather than centripetal forces that shaped Matisse. This discordant northerner repeatedly distanced himself from everyone, evading his idols, mentors, companions, rivals, and even his spouse on the path to painting, ultimately forging his own distinct identity.

I endeavored to encapsulate that divergence, encompassing all the facets that rendered Matisse “Matisse,” in a manner akin to an art review rather than an art report. Despite the absence of the subject of my interview, I endeavored to engage in a dialogue with him through my works, posing him queries, observing the northerner’s tenacity, evasive maneuvers, detours, measured refinements, and ambivalence, ultimately arriving at an understanding of him. None of this constitutes a unilateral, wishful endeavor.

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