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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Matisse: All Business or All Pleasure?

National Post, 14 August 1999

Book Review
Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse, by John O’Brian
The University of Chicago Press, 284 pages

Ruthless Hedonism : The American Reception of MatisseIf conventional wisdom has appointed Henri Matisse the official artist of hedonism, his current audience seems far more committed to masochism. As Matisse infamously declared in 1908, “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

But you’re better off trading in your silk pyjamas for a full suit of riot gear if you really want to see Matisse’s paintings today. The Art Gallery of Ontario herded 500-600 visitors an hour through its halls when it played host to the much-ballyhooed Barnes Collection in 1994. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged its blockbuster Henri Matisse: A Retrospective two years earlier, the crowds were packed so tightly that the New York Times warned museum-goers to “arrive thoroughly convinced that Matisse is worth suffering for.”

Just what pleasures does Matisse have to offer that might justify such an ordeal? Well, if there’s really no accounting for taste, nobody seems to have told John O’Brian, author of Ruthless Hedonism, and professor of art history at the University of British Columbia. His book is an ambitious attempt to get to the root of Matisse’s allure for Americans, to explain it in terms other than the paintings’ self-evident and intrinsic power to portray and convey sensual pleasure.

If this seems like over-explaining, it’s useful to remember that America remained stubbornly immune to Matisse’s considerable charm during the early part of this century. At Matisse’s inaugural American show in New York City in 1908, viewers and critics responded with horror to the frank sexuality of his nudes. “With three furious scratches,” wrote one dyspeptic critic, Matisse “can give you a female animal in all her shame and horror.” Five years later, students at the Chicago Art Institute burned Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907) in effigy, publicly charging him with such crimes as “artistic murder” and “total degeneracy of color.”

What changed between then and 1930, the year when Matisse symbolically achieved mainstream acceptance by gracing the cover of Time magazine? According to O’Brian, American society did. Its “expanding economy of mass consumption that traded on sensual pleasure and the erotic” made Matisse’s “hedonism” more popularly acceptable.

This might sound like a familiar story. Think: an artist ahead of his time, stubbornly championing a new aesthetic that eventually wins over a skeptical public. Some might argue that this is The Narrative of Great Artists, a tale in which excellence is measured by the ability to anticipate and shape the future rather than dutifully retracing the footsteps of forebears.

O’Brian would put it rather differently: this is “not a history of progress from repression to freedom, or from ignorance to enlightenment.” Matisse’s positive reception in America, represents, rather, the triumph of the “hard sell,” from museum directors who sought to impose their own aesthetic vision on the public, to private collectors who basked in the reflected glory of the artists they supported, to Matisse himself who took a personal hand in “shaping his own image as a modern artist.”

There’s little doubt that Matisse benefited from the unprecedented advertising campaign launched to promote the artist by MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (As O’Brian points out, the campaign continues to this day, its latest incarnation being MoMA’s 1992 Matisse retrospective.)

But how far did Matisse personally participate in this promotion? Did he self-consciously shape his image in order to attain American celebrity? O’Brian certainly suggests as much in this typical slippery passage: “In order to be designated a celebrity, Matisse had to visit the United States, and in 1930, he visited three times.” When Matisse defends himself publicly against widespread and slanderous attacks on his personal character, O’Brian invidiously suggests that Matisse was merely showing a canny business sense: “[B]y presenting his personal life as thoroughly bourgeois he might convince audiences of the seriousness of his endeavors.”

Matisse emerges from these pages as little more than a business executive with a paintbrush, someone who “understood the economic and psychological forces affecting the market’s dynamics,” and who acted to exploit them. O’Brian quotes Paul Rosenberg, one of Matisse’s favoured dealers during the 1930s: “I consider a canvas beautiful when it sells.” But of course this is exactly what a dealer would say—there’s no direct evidence that Matisse believed or expressed anything similar. O’Brian opts for a weaker version of this argument when he states that “Matisse affirmed the domestic pleasures and interior harmonies that his collectors wished to appropriate” by “painting sumptuous still lifes and figures at leisure.”

But O’Brian’s own evidence undermines even this bland accusation. In fact, there is much to suggest that Matisse was an artist supremely confident in his vision, and determined to impose it on collectors who might be ignorant, submissive, or even at times defiantly opposed. Matisse’s most celebrated American collector, Albert C. Barnes, expressed deep public disappointment with the Merion Dance Mural (1932-33), which he commissioned for his Pennsylvania home.

On the other hand, O’Brian is unquestionably correct in his insight that Matisse understood his audience and its expectations. How could he not? It’s impossible to communicate as an artist (or journalist, or scholar) without taking into account the knowledge and assumptions of one’s public. Art, after all, is an encounter—between artist and public.

Writing a book is much the same, and O’Brian acknowledges that he too has an ideal public in mind, “the audience for whom I imagined myself to be writing.” It is probably unfortunate, especially for such an attractive book, that this turned out to be his dissertation advisor. It explains, nevertheless, the predictable academic denunciations of “dualistic poles” and “binary oppositions,” the requisite postmodern insight that no work of art “can exist outside the material and historical structures that enable it to be read.” It might also explain such passages as this: “I want to begin by adumbrating the rhetorics of support and denunciation that centered on variations of the adjective ‘modern.'” At least we should hope it explains this—it would be a shame if O’Brian actually believed this to be effective writing.

Matisse left a rare clue to the genuine appeal of his work in a 1951 interview (published twenty-five years after his death, but not cited by O’Brian). “If people knew,” said the artist, referring to himself in the third person, “what Matisse, the painter of happiness, had gone through, the anguish and tragedy he had to overcome . . . they would also realize that this happiness, this light, this dispassionate wisdom which seems to be mine, are sometimes well-deserved, given the severity of my trials.” Perhaps it is the very fragility of Matisse’s paradise, the desperate hope in a painting like The Joy of Life, that enable us to endure the indignity of endless lines, jostling humanity, and even media hype, if only to catch a fugitive glimpse of that world of joy that Matisse captured.