Concluding MAN’s series of posts on the most under-examined and under-celebrated 20thC painting in an American museum: Henri Matisse’s 1907 Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), which went back on view two weeks ago at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The traditional European nude is an ideal form. From classical sculpture through Titian, Ingres, Manet and so on, the nude represented a high-brow presentation of perfect eroticism.
That changed with Matisse’s Blue Nude, a painting that almost single-handedly introduced the grotesque into the genre. With Matisse’s nude, a centuries-old tradition was re-invigorated — and in a way artists are still mining today.
Yesterday I wrote about how much Matisse loved the Louvre and about how he mined its collections. (While we’re ‘creating’ Matisse shows, a “Matisse & the Louvre” show would be a slobberknocker…) The years leading up to Blue Nude were the years in which Matisse spent the most time in the Louvre. As late as 1904 — and probably later — Matisse was still taking his paints and an easel into the museum to copy paintings there on view. Those visits directly led to his great ‘Tableau’ trilogy. In yesterday’s post I wrote about how I think Matisse used a Chardin to help him find new ways to use color in a painting. Today: a key painting that I think Matisse used to help him introduce the grotesque into the traditional European nude.
I think Matisse was deeply influenced by a Louvre Correggio: Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (c. 1524-27). The Correggio is a classic mannerist nude, strangely foreshortened in a way that pushes the reclining nude forward, toward the picture plane. I suspect Matisse was fascinated by the way Correggio’s Venus seems to be tilted upwards, from feet to head and that Matisse allowed that to inform the most shocking thing about Blue Nude, Matisse’s own pushing of his nude up against the picture plane. (I don’t mean to suggest that this Correggio is the only object that led Matisse (and other artists) toward flatness. Matisse’s interest in African sculpture — later adopted by Picasso — was important too.)
I suspect Matisse kept borrowing from Correggio: The position of the legs seems directly out of the Correggio, as does the position of Blue Nude’s right arm. Less directly, there’s a torsion in Matisse’s nude that is absent from the European nudes that preceded it. Blue Nude seems to be caught in a frozen moment, a moment betwixt twisting and turning. Correggio’s Venus, about to be awakened by a satyr, is painted in a similar moment of transition, between sleep and awakeness, between stasis and movement. (One of the ways Matisse does this has nothing to do with Correggio: Pentimenti. Blue Nude’s dramatic pentimenti both heightens the turning effect and helps Matisse sneer at classical proportion and geometries by demonstrating that a nude’s body parts can go anywhere the artist wants to put them.)
Matisse, an avid student of art history, was also likely interested in Correggio’s early use of The Sleeping Ariadne, a pose painters had been adapting for centuries. Finally, could the dominant color of the Matisse painting be as much a nod to Correggio as to Cezanne?
Aside from Blue Nude itself, I know of no documentary evidence that Matisse was interested in the Correggio. He seems not to have mentioned it to interviewers and he left behind no copies of Venus and Cupid with a Satyr. However, he left behind one other hint he may have been interested Correggio’s Venus: In early 1908, months after finishing Blue Nude, Matisse painted a subject in which he’d previously shown no interest. He titled it Nymph and Satyr.