In the fall of 1914, as Parisians scrambled to flee the approaching German army, Henri Matisse fled to Collioure, the fishing village in southwestern France where he had developed Fauvism, modern art’s first movement. When the Matisses arrived in the south, their first order of business was to find a tutor for their children, whose school-town of Noyon was swiftly taken by the Germans at the outset of the war. Not only did the Matisses quickly find a tutor, they found fellow Parisian exiles Juan and Josette Gris, who, as it turned out, were lodging with the tutor. The Grises were broke and desperate for both cash and companionship. Matisse quickly set about finding them both income: He arranged a system by which Gertrude Stein would help out the Grises in exchange for paintings (Stein eventually reneged on the deal), and he insisted that Josette accept a model’s fees when she sat for a series of etchings. The two families became fast friends.
Almost immediately Juan Gris and Matisse found themselves to be kindred spirits. The two artists found themselves locked in long conversations about painting. Just as quickly, Gris’ strict gridded system of cubism, his interest in patterns and even textiles found its way into Matisse’s work. Gris’ period of peak influence on Matisse coincides nearly perfectly with the years examined by “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” on view at the Museum of Modern Art until Oct. 11. Surprisingly, even though the greatest untold ‘influence’ story of 20thC art is the Gris-Matisse relationship, this Art Institute of Chicago/MoMA exhibition all-but-ignores the importance of Gris to Matisse’s output in the years the show covers. (And as I note here, Gris’ influence stayed with Matisse for many years.) The show’s catalogue tells us only slightly more about the Gris-Matisse interaction than the exhibition does.
Gris’s greatest influence on Matisse was to lead him away from color and toward composition so strict and rigorous that it might be better called architectonic. Gris’ influence on Matisse is most readily evident in Matisse’s shocking late-1914 portrait of his daughter Marguerite, titled Head, White and Rose (above). That Matisse would experiment with Gris’ systems ‘on’ Marguerite (of whom he’d painted a more typically Matisseian portrait just a month or so earlier) was fitting: the Grises were especially fond of Marguerite and Juan helped her take up painting during the war years as she struggled through schooling and health problems. And when Matisse wanted to try something new and radical, he almost always relied on a family member for his experiment.
Head, White and Rose is one of Matisse’s most under-rated masterpieces. It is a pivotal painting between pre-Gris Matisse and post-Gris Matisse. Consider two 1913 paintings in the AIC/MoMA exhibition: Flowers and Ceramic Plate and The Blue Window (above, left). Both are color-soaked, full of color running into color. In Flowers and Ceramic Plate, a green plate runs into blue background. In The Blue Window, a yellow sculpture of some kind is separated from the blue background only by color. Ditto a vase with flowers. They are not set apart by black lines or kept apart via a grid or structure.
After Gris, Matisse embraces using black, both to outline objects and to confine them to place. Before Gris (and again, years later, after he ‘moved past’ his initial encounter with Gris), Matisse made dozens of paintings where he treated lemons, apples and other traditional French still-life objects the way Paul Cezanne did: They floated, they hovered, all the while defying traditional perspectival space. While in Gris’s sway, Matisse painted his four weirdest, most difficult and arguably most wonderful still-lifes.
Matisse started by re-working his own 1893 copy of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s 1640 La Desserte. It’s a particularly revealing choice: There was really no reason for Matisse to go back to a painting he’d already worked through unless he wanted to do something specific, in this case he wanted to consider Gris’s cubist methods. For two decades Matisse had worked through the new by applying it to something he’d seen in the Louvre, so it was time to try that again. The 1915 updating of the de Heem is a shocking painting with a big, black stake right down the center of the painting, anchoring a loose grid and holding everything down, in place. (Matisse used a similar stake in several Gris-influenced paintings, including MoMA’s Goldfish and Palette and in the Art Institute’s Bathers by a River. ) De Heem’s still-life components mostly hang in little cubbyholes on either side of the stake. Matisse isn’t copying Gris’ cubism, he’s adding it to his own language.
The other three paintings are of oranges or apples (the specific fruit really does not matter) and were made in 1916. In each painting the fruit is in a bowl. The first of the three paintings, Bowl of Oranges, features the most typical presentation: The bowl is clearly visible, it is sitting on a table, and is anchored by black paint around the base. The oranges are sitting in the bowl with tufts of white paint between them. They aren’t quite hovering a la Cezanne, but they aren’t quite stuck-in-place either. There is a suggestion of receding space — the rim of the bowl looks ‘right’ — but nothing quite adds up. It is a transitional painting.
The other two still-lifes, the AIC’s Apples, from late July-November, 1916 and the Chrysler Museum’s Bowl of Apples on a Table (left), from the same period, are progressions through the idea. In these paintings blacks are as prominent as they would ever be in Matisse still-lifes. Everything is grounded, tacked down. Whereas in Bowl of Oranges bits of white paint provided the illusion of depth, by the Chrysler painting Matisse fills in all the space between the apples with black. A ‘ladder’ on the left-hand side of the canvas seems to remind us that the fruit are stuck in space, whether that’s space we’re looking down on or across at. It’s a painting that both confuses and astonishes. (If it were in a major New York collection instead of in Norfolk, Va., it might be the best-known Matisse still-life in America.)
Matisse would continue his investigation of Gris’s palette and structure for several more years, through MoMA’s Gourds, the Barnes’ Still Life with Plaster Bust, MoMA’s The Moroccans and beyond. The full story of the Gris-Matisse interaction will be told someday, but for now “Radical Invention” is a super introduction.
Related: A Gris-Matisse show/examination has been hiding in plain sight for years.