Continuing MAN’s week-long 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 last week at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Part one is here.
Just weeks after finishing Blue Nude, Henri Matisse debuted it at the 1907 Salon des Independants. He called it Tableau No. III, a soon-discarded title which historian Jack Flam attributes to Matisse considering the painting as the third in a series of “major imaginative works” that included Luxe, calme et volupte (1905) and Le Bonheur de vivre (1906).
The reaction to the painting was intense and hostile: Critic Louis Vauxcelles described Blue Nude as, “A nude woman, ugly, spread out on opaque blue grass under some palm trees.” Art historian Bernard Berenson told Sarah Stein, “If you can ever convince me of any beauty in that toad, I’ll believe in Matisse.” (As Hilary Spurling notes in her biography of the artist, by the end of 1908 Berenson was wholeheartedly endorsing Matisse to the American press.)
However, Matisse’s peers realized that the painting was a thunderbolt. At the time Pablo Picasso was tentatively feeling his way out of his Rose Period and was searching for what next. Blue Nude kicked Picasso forward. At first, he claimed disinterest. “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman,” Picasso told fresh-from-New-York art student Walter Pach about Blue Nude. “If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.”
Picasso, of course, excelled at understanding and then obfuscating the depth of his comprehension. Before Blue Nude, Picasso was aware of Matisse and his work, but he wasn’t driven to respond to it (nor was Matisse paying that much attention to Picasso). Blue Nude changed all that. Blue Nude initiated the century’s most famous artistic rivalry: Picasso retired to his studio, wasn’t seen for weeks, and only emerged when he’d finished a painting of five whores ready for the male gaze, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (1907, left, collection of the Museum of Modern Art.)
(During that post-Blue Nude time in the studio, Picasso also made a black-pencil study for a portrait of a sailor. Perhaps the drawing is an indication that Blue Nude had so jarred Picasso that he re-examined Matisse’s 1906 Young Sailor (II). Picasso biographer John Richardson suggests that Picasso conceived the sailor as the protagonist in Les Demoiselles. That could make him a typically Picassoid swipe at Matisse and his sailor. After all: Avignon is on the Rhone, 80km from the French coast.)
Just as Picasso claimed Blue Nude was a “design,” so too is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Like Matisse’s painting, Les Demoiselles is a synthesis of and a focused progression of the traditional European nude, a painting that aimed to be at least as shocking as Blue Nude. Like Blue Nude, it compresses figures into two-dimensional space. In a surprisingly respectful nod to Matisse’s nude, Picasso painted the curtain design behind three of Picasso’s whores blue, as well as outlines of parts of each of the five nude bodies. Numerous art historians have noted that the middle character in Les Demoiselles seems to be Matisse’s nude rendered vertically and standing instead of horizontally.
Picasso wasn’t done with Blue Nude and the pose of its figure, returning to the Matisse repeatedly throughout 1907 and into 1908. In Dance of the Veils (1907, at top, collection of The State Hermitage Museum) the ‘standing Blue Nude‘ character is made more pronounced, as are the blues surrounding the figure. In Blue Nude, Matisse ‘tacks’ the figure into place with palm trees and flowers, a fixing-in-space that Picasso emphasizes with the drapery (or whatever that is) around his figure. For Nude with Raised Arms (1907), Picasso places the nude’s arms on her head, but seems perplexed by what to do with her legs: It looks like he tries to put both legs in the position of the thrusted-upward left leg in the Matisse painting. The result is an unusual squat, a pose that is both perplexing and fascinating. A year later Picasso was still referring to Blue Nude, including in an unusual gouache of two nudes in a forest. The forest and one-and-a-half of the nudes are blue.
It’s not clear whether Braque engaged with Blue Nude directly or through the filter of Picasso (Richardson suggests the latter, which doesn’t disqualify the former), but he raced to engage Matisse and likely Picasso. As it turned out, Blue Nude was the final straw in Braque’s departure from the fauvist camp to the waiting arms of Picasso. Braque’s Large Nude, apparently started in mid-to-late 1907, synthesized both Blue Nude and either one of or both of Picasso’s paintings, most obviously Dance with the Veils. Braque seems to place his figure lying on a blue sheet of some sort, looking up at the viewer. (An alternate reading is that the figure is standing, but that blue sheet makes me think that the figure is lying down. More on this later this week.) In a nod to Blue Nude, Braque has given his nude outsized legs, thighs and shoulders, as if he was painting an ogress. It seems an odd understanding of Blue Nude: While Matisse’s woman is grotesque by the standards of, say, 19thC French nudes, she’s abundantly curvy and womanly. Braque’s nude is not.
Regardless, with Large Nude Braque announced his departure from Matisse’s circle and his engagement with Picasso. Even Richardson, infamous for his dismissal of all things Matisse, credits Blue Nude for instigating the cubist experiment and for pushing Braque and Picasso toward each other: “In its boldness and primitivism [both of which came from Matisse], the Large Nude constitutes a milestone in Braque’s early development. It is the first move in the game of cooperation and one-upmanship that is the subtext of his and Picasso’s cubism.”
In America, the response to Blue Nude was even more hostile. While Parisian artists were driven to respond pictorially, I don’t think that any American artists directly answered Matisse’s canvas with a painting of their own. The most extreme reaction to Blue Nude came in 1913, when the painting was included in the Chicago presentation of the Armory Show. Students at the Art Institute of Chicago held a mock trial of “Henry Hairmattress” for his sins against art. The students ‘charged’ Matisse with “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general aesthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title.” Then they burned the painting in effigy.
Sources: Matisse on Art (revised edition), edited by Jack Flam; Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse by John O’Brian; Matisse in the Cone Collection by Jack Flam; Matisse Picasso, edited by John Elderfield. A Life of Picasso: Volume II, by John Richardson; The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling; Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, with five authors.