Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 14: Matisse

I was looking over the paintings I’ve posted so far, and it’s weirdly unrepresentative of my personal taste. I mean: Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob Jordaens, Jenny Saville, Lubin Baugin… these are fine artists but not exactly my particular favourites.

So here’s a particular painting that made a personal impression on me. The Piano Lesson, by Henri Matisse:

It’s a big painting, 8′ by 7′. It normally lives in MoMA, in New York. I’m not quite sure, but I think I must have seen it when the Matisse Picasso exhibition came to Tate Modern. It has stayed with me ever since, though it’s hard to articulate why. It’s something to do with the collision of modernism and formality, perhaps.

One reason I haven’t posted more of my personal favourites so far might be because I’m slightly protective of them; a little 500 pixel version is never going to be the same, and I want to do the paintings justice.

Is it weird that I worry about doing the paintings justice, rather than the artists?

The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling

The Unknown Matisse is the first of two volumes, taking our hero from 1869-1908. I actually bought it some time ago on Jee Leong‘s recommendation, but it has taken me some time to finish, mainly I think because the simple physical size of it makes it slightly awkward to read in bed. It’s not that huge, but it’s quite a fat volume and printed on large format paper to make space for some colour reproductions of the work. Which are, of course, lovely and very welcome.

It’s fascinating to read about the outrage that greeted paintings which now seem, if not tame exactly, at least uncontroversial. Indeed the first time he shocked the Parisian public, it was with a painting (The Dinner Table) that now looks positively conventional.* Over the past hundred years, outraging the public has become an explicit part of the job description for artists; but how much more satisfying to shock people not by placing a sculpture of Christ in a glass of urine, or exhibiting a work consisting of a room with the lights going on and off, but with a painting of a woman in a hat.

Not that Matisse seems to have been temperamentally inclined to shock people for its own sake. Some of the other modern artists obviously rather enjoyed the opportunity to wind up the public: André Derain came back from a visit to London with a classically tailored English suit made fauvist by the choice of a green fabric, with a red waistcoat and yellow shoes. Matisse, though, was more inclined to respectability: partially because unlike most of his contemporaries he had a young family, which meant he needed at least enough saleable work to keep them in food. But also because (through no fault of his own) he was caught up in the most magnificently baroque financial and political scandal I’ve ever heard of — really, it would merit a book by itself — which gave him enough experience of public notoriety to last a lifetime.

It’s a fine book, readable, evocative, well-researched.  Or at least it gives the impression of being well-researched, which is as much as I have the expertise to judge.

* Although actually, in one of their periodic fits of cynical outrage about the Turner Prize, the Daily Mail held a ‘Not the Turner Prize’ competition, open to the public, and the work in that suggested that there are still plenty of people in Britain who feel that the highest aspiration of the painter should be photographic accuracy. Preferably of tigers. Or steam trains.

‘From Russia’ at the Royal Academy

This is a seriously impressive exhibition. The full title is ‘From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg‘. It starts with a little room of Russian paintings from the start of that period; then you get a whole load of French paintings that were collected by two Russian art collectors, Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, and are now divided between various Russian state museums; then the rest of the show is of Russian paintings again, which are more or less heavily influenced by the French work.

The French section includes major works by most of the biggest names in French art — Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Bonnard — whereas with a couple of major exceptions in Chagall and Kandinsky the Russian artists are less familiar. It makes for a good combination; the French artists are immediately enjoyable while the Russians, simply because they are less familiar, require a bit more evaluation.

My favourite painting was probably Matisse’s Harmony in Red:

Harmony in Red by Matisse

Apparently, when the collector bought it at a Paris show, it was all blue instead of red, but Matisse asked to hang on to it for a few weeks because he wanted to tweak it. It must have been a bit of a shock to open it up and find it had completely changed colour.

Of the Russians: there were lots I quite liked including, unusually for me, the two Chagalls. Among the people I was with the most popular choice for a painting to take home would be Altman’s portrait of Anna Akhmatova. I think I’d probably take one of the three Malevich paintings called Black Square, Black Circle and Black Cross which are just black shapes on white backgrounds. That kind of geometrical minimalism is a bit mysterious: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Those ones worked, for me, though I’d be hard pressed to explain why.

This exhibition has an obvious relevance to the whole modernism and politics discussion, since Russia went through an immensely creative period in art and architecture for the first two decades of the C20th, and for a while after the revolution this radical art was embraced by the party; but then the regime ruthlessly crushed it. Artists may have supported radical politics, but politicians didn’t necessarily support radical art. A dislike of ‘decadent’ art was one of the things Hitler and Stalin had in common.

» The Matisse image is from the Artchive.

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