Saturday, December 21, 2013

Don't Judge a Book by its Cover

Recently I visited the “Armory Show at 100” at the New-York Historical Society.  The exhibit continues until February 23, 2014, so if what I say about it whets your appetite, click here for more information:

That said, I do not intend to write about the exhibit.  As the title of this post suggests, I intend to write about our tendency to judge an event, a work of art, a person based on nothing more than a first impression.

My case in point: the hostile criticism Matisse’s painting, Blue Nude, provoked from the first time Matisse exhibited it in 1907 and subsequently when it was shown in the 1913 exhibit, “The International Exhibition of Modern Art,” held at the Armory. 

 “A nude woman, ugly, spread out on opaque blue grass under some palm trees,” Louis Vauxcelles wrote in “Le Salon des Indépendants” on March 20, 1907, where Matisse first exhibited this painting.  He added that the drawing appeared “rudimentary and the colors cruel.” (Gil Blas, p. 1)

When Blue Nude was exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913, students at the Art Institute of Chicago burned copies of Matisse’s work in effigy.  When Claribel Cone purchased the painting at the John Quinn estate sale in 1926, it was still an audacious acquisition.

In response to such criticism, Matisse said, “If I met such a woman on the street, I should run away in terror.  Above all, I do not create a woman, I make a picture." (translated by Flam in Matisse on Art, p. 132)

When I saw it at the “Armory Show at 100,” it lit up the room.

I had never seen the original.  Each time I visited the Cone Collection in the Baltimore Museum of Art, it was on loan.  No image I had seen, digital or printed, prepared me for the power of it.

Here it is:

                                     Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907, Baltimore Museum of Art

Patricia Cohen, writing in The New York Times, said: “So it is essential to remember that the original show, which introduced European modernists  like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Duchamp, Cézanne, Matisse and Edvard Munch to Americans, did not just present new art.  It required a new way of seeing.  Imagine Mozart hearing Metalica.” (10.27.13, p. 14).

It did not require a “new way of seeing” so much as an objective way of seeing.

If we should not judge a book by its cover, we should not judge a painting by its subject.

Ironically, Blue Nude, according to Dr. Albert Barnes, should not have shocked anyone.  Here are some of the sources in the traditions he said Matisse adapted:

Hanging, late 6th century, Egypt, Linen, wool, Met

Dr. Barnes wrote: “This Egyptian textile is an anticipation of distortion by which Matisse transforms a figure into an arabesque pattern (The Art of Henri Matisse, p. 248).

Here are two more:

Female Figure, Baule peoples, late 19th-early 20th cen., Barnes
Railing Pillar with Yakshi, Indian (Mathura), 2nd cen. AD, Barnes

Dr. Barnes wrote the following about the two sculptures:  “Exaggeration of rounded volumes to the point at which they appear detached from the body to which they belong” occurs in the Hindu and Negro sculptures above (The Art of Henri Matisse, p. 316).  This type of rounded projection is a central motif in the Matisse.

And here is another precedent I discovered:

The Queen of Sheba, Unknown artist, Persian, c. 1600

The arabesque motif and the setting of a figure within a patterned landscape anticipate key features of Blue Nude.

This is not to say the color relationships in the Matisse are anything less than boldly dramatic.  The composition is based on a series of echoing arcs and curves that relate the figure to the surrounding landscape, much as the Persian picture does.  However, in the Matisse, the paint application is vigorous throughout, the modeling rough and the transitions abrupt.  The bluish pentimenti (the adjusted “shadows” to the left of the right arm and left breast) build volume.  Exaggerated by over-painting, the pentimenti give the figure a monumental force. 

Rather than do a full analysis of this painting, I am going to move on to what I want you to do.

The students in my just completed seminar “Cézanne, Renoir, and Matisse” provided you this opportunity.

When I sat them in front of Renoir’s Young Mother, and I asked them to describe their reactions to it, a debate ensued.  A few students vehemently declared the picture unbalanced.

Here is the painting:

Renoir, Young Mother, 1881, Barnes

The issue concerns the two “still-life” objects to the left. 

No matter how many times I urged the group to confront this, as yet, unverified first reaction, they resisted.  I offered them the opportunity to debate.  They declined.  I suggested they disregard the already assigned comparison/contrast final project and substitute a full analysis of this painting in its place.  They said no.

I now am asking you to take this on.

Do I hear 150 readers sighing?  Are you thinking the following: “Really, now, at the Holidays?  You want me to do this hard work at this time of year?”

Yes, I do.

If we are not to judge a painting by its subject, if we are committed to objective analysis, we must do more than say so.  We must roll up our sleeves, put on our looking glasses (I am full of clichés today) and go to work.  We have the job of “uncovering” the art in the picture and/or to support our findings of “holes” (this is what Violette de Mazia labeled flaws in an otherwise coherent work of art). 

Let me know your perceptions by the middle of January.  Since this may take more than a few sentences, please email your analysis to me.  Click here to do so: 

Happy Holidays!