LOS ANGELES — Lips half open with limbs positioned to entice, the female figures of Henri Matisse’s odalisque paintings exude an undiminished sensuality. Now on view now at the Norton Simon Museum in Matisse/Odalisque, some of the artist’s finest odalisque portraits are joined by several other modernist works exploring the same subject. Spanning two centuries, Matisse/Odalisque contextualizes Matisse’s unique treatment of this Orientalist theme.
Or at least that’s what the wall text says. What it doesn’t say is that this small, yet representative, exhibition is also a retrospective of female sexual slavery and subjugation in modern art. Yet, as in the works themselves, the social realities and underlying sexism of the exhibition’s subject are buried beneath the surrounding rhetoric. Though not, as it turns out, very deeply.
Originally applied to chambermaids living in the sequestered quarters of female members of the Turkish court, the term “odalisque” came to refer to a harem slave or concubine in Renaissance France, which had numerous political and commercial dealings with the then powerful Ottoman Empire. Though a harem slave and a concubine were two very different stations in life within the Ottoman Empire, that they are conflated within the French definition is indicative of the underlying concept of the odalisque in Western thought. Namely, that she was an object for male sexual gratification.
Employed first in literature as an example of the moral superiority of Western monogamy over Eastern polygamy, the odalisque was transformed into an object of desire in the erotic paintings of the 19th-century Orientalism art movement. While the nude as a subject stretches back to antiquity, the odalisque trope is particular in that it emerged precisely at the moment of the Second French Empire, in 1830, when the French colonized Algeria, which had previously been part of the Ottoman Empire. It is through this moment that the exhibition enters.
Alone on the far wall of the exhibition is Pablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers, Version I” (1955), one variation in his monumental series based on Eugene Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers in their Apartment” (1834). Inspired by his visit to Algeria soon after its brutal conquest by France, Delacroix’s painting is more Western fantasy than social reality of life in a harem. The discarded sandal, the narghile pipe, the various states of undress, speak not to the women’s experience but to that imagined by their viewer. Alienated from their reality, the women become objects for the male voyeur. Appearing simultaneously everywhere at once, Picasso’s fragmented figures complete this abstraction by subsuming them in the field of painting just as the odalisque is subsumed by the desires of her male owner. Her surroundings are the labyrinthian prisons of slavery.
In between lies the rest of the exhibition, most notably three of Matisse’s odalisques who occupy the center wall. Each contains its own cues of female sexual exploitation with remarkable variance that nevertheless goes unremarked upon by the exhibition’s text.
Reclined on a flowered bedspread, the woman posed as odalisque in “The Black Shawl” (1917) is, as the wall text informs us, “the Italian known only as Laurette or Lorette” who Matisse depicted 50 times or more. Signs of her objectification and containment are apparent enough. The black silk of her gown winding around her body evokes ropes of bondage as she lays with her hands hidden or tied behind her head. Even her hair coiling across her shoulder seems to bind Laurette/Lorette.
One step over we’re confronted by “Odalisque with Tambourine” (Harmony in Blue) (1926). Painted in Nice, where, for “eight years, Matisse devoted himself to the theme of the odalisque,” the figure and decoration of Matisse’s constructed harem scene seem to merge. Her arms raised to strike the instrument mirror the arched mosaic behind her, while her pants match the green outline. The blue of her shirt is drawn from the mosaic’s geometric shapes and her nipples mimic the circular tiles. She is of the decorations and they of her, all objects of male, sensual pleasure.
At last we arrive at “Nude on Sofa” (1923). The landscape outside suggests provincial France rather than the Ottoman Empire. The vase of cut flowers creates a sense of peaceful domesticity. Only the square of wallpaper adorned with the recognizable shapes of Arabic decorative arts inform us we are still in the theme of the odalisque. But in this lies the crux: Matisse has transposed the fantasy of a sex slave into his living room, positioning female sexual subjugation as part of the everyday.
The exhibition alludes to the colonial origin of the odalisque as artistic trope through Achille Deveria’s “Odalisque” (c. 1830–35), in which, according to the wall text, “the painter emphasizes the sensuality of his scantily clad subject” placing her within “exotic trappings,” including slippers, a parrot, a coffee pot, and her cigarette. A cursory glance at Deveria’s painting confirms that the interpretations I have laid out for Matisse’s and Picasso’s paintings are not particularly complex. The symbols lending themselves to such readings exist quite literally on the surface. It’s simply a matter of naming the theme for what it is: white male fantasies of the sexual subjugation of women of color.
But so ingrained is exploitation in our understanding of female sexuality within (and outside of) art history that these incredibly basic readings recede into the background and are deemed somehow radical. Obscuring them further is the ubiquity of female sexual subjugation within this historical context, if not also our contemporary one.
Cookie-cutter wall text only normalizes the narratives created and propagated by a culture of exploitation. If not to acknowledge the gargantuan problems inherently bound up in these depictions of female sex objects, then one, at the very least, might say something more interesting than the exhibition “contextualizes the painter’s distinctive interpretation,” as if we have not heard and seen that enough times already.
It is not that these paintings should be kept in the dark, but that the light illuminating them needs to change. As currently presented, the works of Matisse/Odalisque can only be seen in part.
Matisse/Odalisque continues at the Norton Simon Museum (411 West Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena) through June 17.