The Joy of Color, the Ecstasy of Form

A re-evaluation of Matisse as decadent sensualist -- brought to us via the Cone Collection at the MFA

In Matisse's brilliant interiors and lush portraits, every detail is a surprise, the whole orchestration a riot. To gaze at such works is to comprehend Matisse's single-minded convention that there should be pictures to hang on walls -- never mind why. That idea hardly seems a response to a world at war, in which many of his friends were killed, gassed or wounded. But war, like age and pain, is not to be seen in Matisse's works. He sought a world within a world, a space of pleasure, a room in which the inhabitants are wrapped in beauty. For Matisse, anything outside that reality did not count. His task was to spread joy, to create a world in which it was possible to be happy. Matisse's world is one of palpable hedonism, a world that is luxurious and has an atmosphere of rich fabrics, rare porcelains, floral opulence, heavy carpets, sumptuous cushions, ornamental women, and windows through which we glimpse yet another luminous world of palms, bright seas and manicured gardens. It's easy to distrust Matisse's realm, so much like a bubble of intimacy, when our world seems so remote, threatened, fragmented and bleak. These days, we almost expect an artist's work to be political, to be critical of the established order. Perhaps Matisse's sheer congestion of pattern and possessions, combined with virtues of beauty and calm, evokes guilty, quite delicious pleasures.

What is remarkable about Matisse, of course, is his consistent effort to create an art of Zen-like happiness in defiance of the misery and tragedy of the world. Matisse makes a science of pleasing (his exotic odalisques seem far more about painting than they are about sex). He treats the entire cosmos, from intimate still life to grand landscape, as a kind of sensuous body, inherently desirable and pleasurable. In general, his attitude toward voluptuous models is no different from his attitude toward plants, vases or tables, all of which seemingly meld as emblems or arabesques. For Matisse, belief in pure form amounted to a moral conviction.

Even so, works like Blue Nude or Interior, Flowers and Parakeets prove that Matisse was not some sweet, graceful artist, but a painter of bodies and spaces created by the most basic picture-making means -- that is, nothing but nervous, animated line filled with large areas of color. Blue Nude erupts with distortions that energize the picture with exhilarating rawness. The blue doesn't seem like an attempt to capture the light, in the manner of the Impressionists. It feels like emotion, mostly: a membrane stretched over the body's pink skin and humming with eroticism. His gift for pure color, as well as his courage to gamble deeply and raise the stakes of all-over pattern and real motif, has distinguished him from a century of painters with a high-keyed, faux-naif luxury style.

So although Matisse took as his subject the props of bourgeois escapism, he sought (with marvelously enjoyable results) to create an art of therapy, of redemption, through his pleasure principle of color and his staggering sense of freedom.

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