I’m rarely taken aback by a Matisse. The reasons admittedly have more to do with personal taste than with aesthetic discernment, in particular an overriding interest in architectonic structure; in the “Matisseite” and “Picassoite” factions dividing Gertrude Stein’s pre-World War I salon, I would have definitely chosen the latter.
Still, it would be hard to argue that the leader of the Wild Beasts has come down to us untempered by time. We turn to his most radical paintings — “Luxe, calme et volupté” (1904-1905), “Le bonheur de vivere” (1905-1906), “Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra” (1907), among others — for the exuberance of their color, not for the unstable and alienating worldview that Analytical Cubism, promulgated by Matisse’s archrival Picasso, represents.
Between the end of the First World War and his final flowering as a semi-abstract collagist, Henri Matisse (1869–1954) settled into the role of the consummate Modern Master, turning out reliably beautiful paintings of traditional subjects: portraits, nudes, still lifes and landscapes.
The decorousness (and at times decorativeness) of the later work, in hindsight, is but a stone’s throw from the innovative early paintings, which, no longer startling, now appear to be as much about balancing color and composition as they are about fusing shapes and flattening out the field of vision.
Matisse also famously explored images of interiors, which might include one or several figures — sometimes foraying into genre painting — or none at all. Often he would depict a large window, which would provide the opportunity to contrast indoor and outdoor views.
“Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” (1948) is 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 inches, painted in oil on canvas. On the left, a window divided into four panes looks out onto a sunlit palm tree, whose fronds fill the entire window frame. Just below, there’s a fruit bowl on a pink table, and to the right, the Egyptian curtain.
The painting is owned by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. In the catalogue for the traveling exhibition Art Beyond Isms: Masterworks from El Greco to Picasso in the Phillips Collection (2002), Johanna Halford-MacLeod describes its imagery this way:
The wintry blackness of the curtain teems with life, its pulsating red and green motifs possibly metaphors for generation. The pomegranate [the semicircular shape in the curtain’s upper half], shown in section with its faceted seeds visible, refers to fertility, the vine to creative energy, and the spear motif in the curtain’s border to maleness. The palm tree, seen through the window, is a reference to longevity. Life-giving light from the swirling palm fronds, painted in slashes of green, yellow, and black against a bright blue sky, explodes into the darkness of the room, warming fruits—pomegranates perhaps—in a bowl on the coral tabletop.
Matisse painted this picture when he was 79 and living in Vence, in the south of France, where he had sought refuge in 1943 from the hazards of war. He had already produced a number of cutout collages, including his celebrated book, Jazz (1947).
“Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” is currently on view at the splendid and soon-to-close exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, Matisse: In Search of True Painting. It hangs in a gallery with several other interiors as well as reproductions of cutouts published in the magazine Verve in 1948.
In Art Beyond Isms, Halford-MacLeod connects the dots between “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” and the cutouts:
The Egyptian curtain itself was one that Matisse owned. Its bold and brightly colored appliqué design was a source for the paper cutouts Matisse was working on when he made this painting and which occupied him until his death six years later.
This historical detail provides a clue to why I found this picture more arresting than the similar paintings surrounding it. Those works, such as “Interior in Yellow and Blue” (1946) and “Large Red Interior” (1948), freely intermix painting and drawing, with objects depicted in black line over a monochromatic field.
While these works are refreshing in their liberation of color from form, the graphic charge in “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” is qualitatively different. The shapes are crisp, solid and collage-like; the lines act as color and the color reinforces the sharp divisions of the lines.
Take the six leaf-like shapes interrupting the narrow, leftmost fold of the curtain. Each is edged in white and composed of a single, flatly painted color. From the top, the colors are green, red, red, black, red and black. We accept the convention of filling an outline with referential color in the first three — green, red, red — but when we come to the fourth — black — the white line pops as a graphical element while the color signals a void in the sequence, an ambiguous hole undermining our illusionistic expectations even as it sharpens our appreciation of the passage’s abstract rhythm.
In the semicircle described by Halford-MacLeod as a pomegranate, the white paint boxing in the red-and-white seeds is especially thick, a quasi-sculptural intrusion on the thinly brushed-on surface. The impasto pushes these overlapping, diagrammatic strokes into three dimensions with an energy that is positively propulsive, establishing their primacy in a composition that otherwise militates against hierarchy.
That is to say, Matisse has painted not one picture but three abutted together: the window, the curtain and the still life. While each competes for your attention in its own dazzling way — the window in an explosion of short strokes, the curtain with an interlocking pattern of abstracted shapes, and the still life with a simple but blazing interaction of yellow, pink, black and white — to the postmodern eye the combination of components seem to betray a loss of faith in the ability of a single image to express the fullness of an artist’s vision. That the brushy painting of the still life would be diminished as an idea if it were not contrasted with the hard edges of the curtain or the vortex of brushstrokes denoting the fronds outside the window.
While Halford-MacLeod’s reading of the painting makes sense in terms of traditional symbolism — the same things could have been said about a 17th-century Dutch still life — the jangling, jazzy profusion of images deny the painting a conventional center of interest. The images, however, do not direct the eye to all four quadrants of the canvas, as Matisse does in his other interiors; instead they compact a heightened level of interest in three discreet sections.
To again take the work from a postmodern perspective, Matisse’s “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” can be viewed as more overt in its deconstruction of pictorial integrity than something like Willem de Kooning’s black-and-white “Painting,” which was done the same year.
Although de Kooning all but abandons outside references, he arrays his cluster of Matisse-like forms into an all-over structure, implicitly accepting compositional balance and stylistic consistency as articles of faith.
Matisse, on the other hand, shows no such fidelity, presenting his segmented images in ways that call to mind three stages of his career: the riotous strokes of the Fauvist period (the palm tree); the classicism of the middle decades (the tabletop and fruit bowl); the free-floating near-abstraction of the cutouts (the curtain).
In fact, the curtain’s raucous profligacy of shapes and high-contrast colors is so juiced up that it anticipates the cartoonish snap of American Pop, but this is not the only way the painting points toward the future.
It is important to clarify that by “a loss of faith in the ability of a single image to express the fullness of an artist’s vision,” I meant not a loss of faith in painting, which would be declared dead by certain influential academics within the next two decades. That inability is instead an intimation of the McLuhanesque world to come, in which the way that an image is presented is integral to its meaning, and the juxtaposition of various forms of presentation can create a set of meanings independent of the constituent parts.
Put another way, the future beyond this particular Matisse is far from the reductionist paradigm of the artist’s “View of Notre Dame” (1914), which embodied the experimental simplifications of his early work — an impulse that the Museum of Modern Art, New York, adopted as the focus of its 2010 exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917.
Rather, “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” speaks to a much more inclusive approach to visual signification, a complex interrogation of reality and its perceptions that takes art beyond isms, to cite the Phillips catalogue’s title, and toward the outside air.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
“Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” is currently on view as part of Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through tomorrow, March 17.