Friday, June 10, 2011

Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre

Sketch from the Stein collection, currently on view at SFMOMA.

 Le bonheur de vivre (The joy of Life, Barnes Collection), In the central background of the piece is a group of figures that is similar to the group depicted in his painting The Dance (second version).

According to Hilton Kramer "Le bonheur de vivre owing to its long sequestration in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, which never permitted its reproduction in color, is the least familiar of modern masterpieces. Yet this painting was Matisse's own response to the hostility his work had met with in the Salon d'Automne of 1905, a response that entrenched his art even more deeply in the aesthetic principles that had governed his Fauvist paintings which had caused a furor and which did so on a far grander scale, too."

Louis Vauxcelles was one of those who warned Matisse: “There must be no confusion between simplification and insufficiency, design and emptiness,”  he wrote, underlining here that even if the public seems ready to accept the structure of the image revealed by the schematic reduction, he cannot prevent the feeling of anxiety, a disagreeable feeling of “emptiness” produced by such a simplification.

Despite these proposed criticisms, Louis Vauxcelles did make an eloquent description of the painting:

In lounging attitudes, creatures with lovely hips, dream: one, standing, stirs, crosses her hands behind her head; others play Pan’s flute; at the right, a slender girl throws her arms behind her, encircling her lover’s head like a necklace, in a fresh embrace…at the center of the composition, a wild round. There are great qualities here: the masses rhythmically balance themselves, the green of the trees, the blue of the ocean, the pink of the bodies, immediately enveloped in the halo of complementary violet, in a harmony and marriage, produces a painting that emanates a sensation of refreshing joy.

Rhythmically balanced, harmony, marriage, refreshing joy: these are still the terms that resonate today. In time, Matisse would succeed finding the forms and the colors capable of gently immersing the spectator into the Eden-like world of the canvas, as Baudelaire, whom he so admired, had found through his words in his poem Invitation au voyage—words capable of bringing us to “there where there is but order and beauty, / Luxury, calm and voluptuousness.”

In Le Bonheur de vivre, the viewer is invited to walk along a path towards a vision of paradise. The design is simple, a schematic reduction of colors and shapes which frame the "opening" of the picture plane.  The opening, roughly triangular in shape, frames a horizontal plane upon which the nudes rest, their sensual biomophoric forms reflecting the curvilinear shapes of the trees. The soft blue, pink and green colors reinforce the calm flow of the piece with one color and shape blending into another. Unlike real life, there are no sharp edges in this Eden.

The Dance, 1910, The Hermitage, Russia

"The Dance" is a large decorative panel, painted with a companion piece, Music, specifically for the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin, who was one of Matisse's major collectors. Until the October Revolution of 1917, this painting hung together with Music on the staircase of Shchukin's Moscow mansion. After the October Revolution, it (along with the rest of Shchukin's collection) was confiscated by the Bolshevik government and not shown again for decades.

The painting shows five dancing figures, painted in a strong red, set against a very simplified green landscape and deep blue sky. It reflects Matisse's fascination with primitive art. He uses a classic Fauvist color palette where the intense warm colors against the cool blue-green background and the rhythmical succession of dancing nudes convey the feelings of emotional liberation and hedonism. The painting is often associated with the "Dance of the Young Girls" from Igor Stravinsky's famous musical work The Rite of Spring.

Matisse would pursue this dream of order and beauty through art for the rest of his life. In 1929, he confided to Florent Fels that “a picture [tableau] must be tranquil on the wall. It must not introduce an element of trouble and anxiety into the spectator’s home, but direct him peacefully into a physical state such that he doesn’t feel the need to divide or leave himself. A picture [tableau] must produce a deep satisfaction, the most pure repose and pleasure of the spirit fulfilled.”

Dance 11, at the Barnes Foundation. 1932

Twenty years later, in 1949, he declared to an American journalist: “Anxiety? It is no worse today than it was for the Romantics. One must dominate all that. One must be calm; and art should not be worrying or disturbing—it should be balanced, pure, tranquil, restful.”

And then to Gaston Diehl again, shortly before his death: “I chose to stay in the presence of my torments and worries in order to record only the world’s beauty and the joy of life.”
The Barnes Mural:
Hilary Spurling: The Unknown Matisse and Matisse The Master.

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