I’ve never liked the idea of art as a “refuge”, as a “relief” from the stresses of life. I never bought the whole “art still has truth take refuge there” or worse, Nietzche’s “we have art in order that we might not perish from truth.” I’ve spent most of my life in the art business, and it seems to me that the best art is not a refuge, but a path back into life.
I had a student years ago who just couldn’t abide Matisse. He had no patience for a quote like this from Matisse’s Notes to a Painter (1908):
“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity- and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject- matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”
This intelligent young man could not reconcile such an ambition with the catastrophes of the 20th century, some of which Matisse himself witnessed and endured. This seemed to him the aesthetics of pain relief, of escapism, of stress pills. He saw Matisse’s project as a huge cop out, dodging an artist’s responsibilities while so many suffered so much all around him.
I have a lot of sympathy for this young man’s complaint, but in the end, I think it is unjust. The last thing Matisse wanted to do with his art was to make an anodyne soporific. His art, and art in general, are not feel-good drugs. Matisse did indeed want to make a paradise within the 4 framing edges of a canvas. But that paradise was not a vision of escape, but fulfillment:
The symmetry disorders reach
When both are equal each to each.
Yet in intention all are one,
Intending that their wills be done
Within a peace where all desires
Find each in each what each requires.”
(WH Auden, New Year Letter, 1939)
The pleasure in Matisse’s work is not the relief of escapism, but the joy of living, the joy of remaking life in a work of art. Matisse’s work is about fulfillment, the real meaning of luxe, calme, et volupté. We assume the tired business man in the quote from Matisse’s essay would go back to work the next day, not stay in bed staring at a Matisse for the rest of his life. The business man returns to work, refreshed, fortified, and encouraged to do what must be done.
Henri Matisse, Memories of Oceania, 1953
Few works of art from the 20th century are more joyous than the cutouts that Matisse made toward the end of his life. That joy seems so naïve at first glance, but was in fact very hard won. The last years of Matisse’s life were no bed of roses. In 1939, shortly after the start of World War II, his wife Amalie Noellie Parayre divorced him over an affair he had with a young Russian model Lydia Delectorskaya who shot herself in the chest in a suicide attempt. Amazingly, she recovered fully and continued to work for Matisse for the rest of his life. The Germans invaded in 1940. Matisse’s son Pierre, then a gallery owner in Paris, begged his father to flee with him to New York. Matisse made plans to go to Brazil, but changed his mind and decided to remain in Nice where he had lived for many years. He decided to remain in France as a show of patriotic solidarity, but since he was internationally famous, not Jewish, and had no ties to the Resistance, he ran very little risk. In 1941, doctors diagnosed Matisse with duodenal cancer. He barely survived the surgery that removed most of his abdominal muscles. Matisse could no longer stand, and barely sat up. He expected to be a bed-ridden invalid for the remainder of his life. By 1943, the Allies began regular bombing of Nice and much of the south coast of France. The invalided Matisse was evacuated to the town of Vence in the interior. While there, a small congregation of Dominican nuns took care of him and nursed him back to enough health to be able to work again. In the chaos that preceded Liberation in 1944, the Gestapo arrested Matisse’s estranged wife Amalie and their daughter Marguerite for their participation in the Resistance. Amalie typed for the Resistance, and Marguerite fought for them. The Gestapo tortured Marguerite almost to death, and put her on a transport to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She escaped the transport and was rescued by the Resistance. Matisse was beside himself with anxiety for both his wife and daughter. Adding to his grief, his former student Rudolf Levy perished in Auschwitz in 1944.
Matisse in his apartment in the Hotel Regina in Nice making cutouts.
The joy of the cutouts came out of great suffering.
Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953
The critics thought Matisse’s best days were long over, that everything he did after 1918 was a retreat from the bold experimentation of the preceding years beginning in 1905. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, Matisse re-invented his work and laid the groundwork for generations of later painters in the next half of the 20th century with his cut-outs. That lifelong ambition to make art a paradise of fulfillment, to collapse the distinction between form and content comes to fruition in something he began almost by accident. He began making cut outs from hand-dyed paper originally as studies for a series of silk screen prints. The means to an end quickly became an end in itself. Matisse described the act of cutting the paper with scissors as “carving into color.” His desire to reconstitute experience in colors playing off each other used decoratively on a flat surface finds its last and greatest fruition in these final works. What impressed later artists such as Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn about these final works was not how reduced and pure they appear, but how full they are. All that yearning for peace and order so denied Matisse in life poured itself into art transforming the 2-dimensional world of painting into that very paradise of color, form, health, and harmony that eluded him in life.
And now we find ourselves facing a global pandemic that threatens each of us directly and personally. The virus transforms so much of ordinary daily life into an ordeal full of deadly peril. I spend my days at home in New York listening to the sound of ambulance sirens near and far at all hours and reading frightful things daily in my newsfeeds. Mercifully, I have Michael and my cats for company. I still have my job, though I now must teach painting by “distance learning,” a contingency that I accept, but that I hope ends soon. I’ve had days and nights where I lie awake terrified; and undecided which terrifies me more, the prospect of Michael dying or my own death. If art has any consolation, it’s to remind us that life ends, that between birth and death we should take thankfully whatever love, pleasure, and happiness comes our way. Whether our lives are long or short, to be alive remains a blessing even in the midst of hardship. Our mortal lives fill up with sorrow and disappointment eating away our limited time. We make art to enjoy ourselves, to see what we hope for and work toward, to bear witness to what we experience, to exorcise our fears, and to remind ourselves and others of our common humanity.
Henri Matisse, The Siren and the Parakeet, 1952