Henri Matisse, 'Woman with a Hat'
Henri Matisse's portrait of his wife, Amélie Parayre, was first shown at the Salon d'Automne in 1905. The catalogue called it simply La Femme au chapeau. Journalists soon decided (or pretended) that Matisse's painting was scandalous, and the public turned up in droves to make fun of it. So far so predictable: the script was forty years old. But on 15 November something unusual happened. Two paragraphs of real and vehement criticism appeared in the Symbolist journal L'Hermitage, signed by the painter-critic Maurice Denis. Ever since, they have haunted our picture of 20th-century art:
What one finds above all, particularly in Matisse, is artificiality; not literary artificiality, which follows from the search to give expression to ideas; nor decorative artificiality, as the makers of Turkish and Persian carpets conceived it; no, something more abstract still; painting beyond every contingency, painting in itself, the pure act of painting . . . What you are doing, Matisse, is dialectic: you begin from the multiple and individual, and by definition, as the neo-Platonists would say, that is, by abstraction and generalisation, you arrive at ideas, at pure Forms of paintings [des noumènes de tableaux]. You are only happy when all the elements of your work are intelligible to you. Nothing must remain of the conditional and accidental in your universe: you strip it of everything that does not correspond to the possibilities of expression provided by reason . . . You should resign yourself to the fact that everything cannot be intelligible. Give up the idea of rebuilding a new art by means of reason alone. Put your trust in sensibility, in instinct.
LRB 14 August 2008 | PDF Download