Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Could carp have birthed Matisse’s goldfish?

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As I was walking through the entertaining Carnegie Museum of Art exhibition “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939″ recently, I saw something that made me stop and stare: This vase from about 1905, attributed to Ogasawara Takijiro and exhibited (and sold) at the 1905 World’s Fair in Liege, Belgium. The vase itself is lovely enough, but I was less interested in the vase than I was in who might have seen it: Could this vase, with its space-flattening fish swimming through shimmering water, have guided Henri Matisse toward his famed ‘goldfish paintings’ of 1912-1914?

First I wanted to learn a little bit about the vase and Takijiro. My first stop was the “Inventing the Modern World” exhibition catalogue, which was edited by curators Jason T. Busch and Catherine L. Futter and produced by the Carnegie and the Nelson-Atkins, the co-organizers of the show. Busch and Futter report that Takijiro is a mysterious figure. We know that his work, including this vase, was sold at World’s Fairs by the Ando Company, a marketer of Japanese enamels in Europe and possibly beyond. And as it turns out, that’s just about everything we know about Takijiro and this vase. [Image: Attributed to Ogasawara Takijiro, Vase, c. 1905. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art.]

Naturally there’s substantially more scholarship on Matisse. None of the major sources on Matisse report that he attended the 1905 World’s Fair in Liege, which is about 350km from Paris. Nor is there any documented evidence of this vase having been shown in Paris or purchased by Parisians, though it’s overwhelmingly likely that Parisians were among its many purchasers. (After all, the vase made its way to Utica, New York, where it is now in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art) Still, there is simply no direct documentation of Matisse having seen this vase.

But art history rarely works that directly. It’s not often that  there clear examples of an artist having seen Object X, having painted Canvas Y and then owning up to Object X as the source of Canvas Y. It’s not just that artists often like to obscure their sources, its that when it comes to visual information, artists are sponges. They’re particularly good at synthesizing a broad range of visual information, allowing it to percolate and then to make objects that may be informed by sources they don’t immediately recall. (Let alone make notes about for future scholars to discover.) And in 1911 and 1912, Matisse was in serious visual-sponge mode.

In those years Matisse was in the midst of a particularly intense search for outside, non-European, non-painterly influence. For most of the preceding 15 years Matisse had mined every bit of European-sourced Classicism, Mannerism and French art he could find. He’d made paintings that explicitly engaged peers such as Cezanne, Signac, Bonnard, Braque and Picasso, he’d responded to Bayre’s sculpture, to Correggio’s nudes, and to Chardin’s use of color. Matisse felt like he’d synthesized art history pretty well, that he’d wrung a lot out of it. Ready to move on, now he was looking for something outside the box in which he’d been.

In mid-1911, Matisse painted Interior with Aubergines, a painting that doubled down on decoration as source material. (Matisse had explored this idea somewhat more tentatively the prior year in The Pink Studio and in The Painter’s Family and more boldly in Spanish Still Life, but Interior is a significant escalation.) Then in early 1912, Matisse finished his massive The Conversation, in part, report Jack Flam and Hilary Spurling, by finding source material in a stone stele in the Louvre that showed an Assyrian king and a seated goddess. And when Matisse wasn’t looking through the Louvre for new sources he was collecting them himself: In 1912 he excitedly showed off a Javanese sculpture to visiting journalist Clara T. MacChesney, asking her, “Is not that beautiful?” When she replied that to her it was not because it lacked classical beauty, Matisse explained the need to find and utilize new sources of beauty and inspiration. His search for non-Western sources, many of  which were decorative objects, was well underway. [Image: Matisse, Studio with Goldfish, 1912. Collection of The Barnes Foundation.)

The well-worn story about Matisse’s arrival at his goldfish paintings is that he had a bowl of goldfish in his studio. Sometimes he sketched it, sometimes he painted it. I’m sure he did. But while footnotes are where art historians detail the securely documentable, critics often see objects that might connect to other objects and think about how artists work on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis and wonder… It shouldn’t surprise us if Matisse, eagerly soaking up every decorative object in those years, saw this vase somewhere and followed it toward a new idea.

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  1. Buzz Spector says:

    Thanks for this insightful association, which reminded me of a vulgar French postcard I found in a card shop in California some years ago, the letter Q from a mildly erotic alphabet, drawn as if it were a Rococo swing with a view to the rear of a comely lass looking over her shoulder toward the person holding the card. The Mona Lisa half-smile of this coquette and her alphabetical perch seemed at least half the way to Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. The card had been mailed from Paris, the postage date was 1912.

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  3. Kate Guillen says:

    And now, to add another link to your chain, Baldessari has produced a series of prints based on Matisse’s goldfish…


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