I open the door to the permanent exhibition “French Art 1900-1930” at Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), which includes art from the Paris scene at the turn of the century. I am here to visit the “Portrait of Madam Matisse (The Green Line)” (Fig.1). A walk throughout the galleries reflects the intense activity seen in the city, when artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Braque experimented with diverse possibilities of expression in painting. According to SMK 2017a, Paris was the home to a stimulating, international environment, composed by different groupings that knew and challenged each other.
From reading Essers (2016:7-18), I know that one of these groups was represented by Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, whom met around 1900. Prior to this, Matisse had been a student at the École des Beaux-Arts as a pupil of the symbolist painter Gustav Moreau, known for his emphasis on personal expression. Matisse abandoned the École in 1898, following a trip to Brittany where he discovers Impressionism and initiates his quest for pure colour. Matisse was familiar with the work of Turner, visiting his paintings in London in 1898, and to the work of Vincent Van Gogh, Rodin, Cezanne and Gaugin, exposed at the avant-garde gallery of Ambroise Vollard in 1899. After a period of struggle, Matisse starts looking for collectors and opportunities to exhibit. In 1903 he participates at a show at Salon d’Automne and holds his first solo exhibition at Vollard’s gallery the year after. In 1904 he also visits Signac in St. Tropez, where he learns more about the use of colour to achieve optical effects. “Places des Lices – Saint Tropez” (Fig.2), available at SMK, is an example from this period.
In 1905 Derain and Matisse travel to Collioure, where they spend the summer making ground-breaking aesthetical discoveries (Benjamin 2005:25). It was a prolific visit: forty aquarelles, hundred drawings and fifteen canvasses were produced (Schwabsky 2005:49). One of these works is part of SMK’s collection: “Landscape near Collioure – Study for The Joy of Life” (Fig.3). Like in many other of the Collioure landscapes, there is no request for producing the even surfaces known from Signac, and heavy brushstrokes fill the canvasses. Colour is certainly the major element. There is no wish to represent visual reality – instead, bright hues are juxtaposed to create strong clashes.
I learn from Schwabsky (2005:49) that when Matisse returns from Collioure, he transfers what he has learnt from painting landscapes to the human figure. The result is “Woman with a Hat” (Fig.4). This artwork, along with many of the Collioure’s paintings, was part of an exhibition at Salon d’Automne in 1905, and was received with critique. The contrast to traditional art was so striking, that critic Louis Vauxcelles called Matisse, Derain and other related artists as “Les Fauves” or “wild beasts” – hence the term “Fauvism” used to describe this art movement (Essers 2016:14). I am sympathetic to this first reaction from the critics. For years I have walked past the portrait of Madam Matisse without comprehending it, and rather shocked by the red/green palette.
So here I am today, equipped with background reading and Mary Acton’s’ “questions to ask in front of a painting” (2009:233), trying to see the painting with new eyes. I start by thinking about my position in relation to the picture and the painting’s size. I am standing in a position I assume was expected by Matisse. He most likely painted the portrait as an item to be exhibited in a hall, and the figure’s eyes look past my left shoulder. This painting had become “larger than life” for me after seeing it everyday for the past months in Acton’s textbook cover – but at 40,5 * 32,5 cm it is actually quite small. I agree with SMK 2017b in that it is the expressiveness of the colours which makes the portrait expand into the room, and acknowledge an emotional response of disconcert, which is uncoupled from the scale of the painting. I proceed to look at how the painting is hung. I learn from SMK 2017c that the very ornamented, gilded frame was carefully restored around 2011 (Fig.5) as it was cracked and some parts had even broken off. I had never thought of the impact of the frame in my aesthetic experience, but it is clearly an important factor.
I continue with composition. I try to abstract from the bright colours by taking a black and white photo. Removing which is really the essence of the work seems counterintuitive, but this technique allows me to see new elements. I see a symmetrical composition – a human face and upper the torso in the foreground and a background separated into three main regions. I follow an imaginary straight line going from the top of the hair bun, down to the line that separates the face in half, all the way to the chin. There are two shoulder lines going upwards, diagonally. If one follows the three lines, one could imagine them intersecting around the mouth, in the shape of an inverted Y.
I then observe the asymmetry existing within the placement of the shoulder lines and the ears. The placement of these on the left is higher than in the right, which helps depict the figure at an angle, with the face turning toward us. There is also asymmetry found in the V-neck, which points sharply towards the lower right corner, enhancing the three-dimensionality of the picture (more on this below). I also observe asymmetry in the shape of the eyebrows, the left one being more arched than the right, and in the shape of the hair, which is more flat in the left than in the right. There are also quite a lot of curves found in the hair, eyebrows, mouth, ears. In conclusion, even if the composition at first sight seems quite symmetrical, I can now see that much has been done to add movement, change and energy to the picture. I also reflect on what makes us unique, human and beautiful is precisely the asymmetry in our body.
I return to the painting on the wall. There is a striking asymmetry in the colours. On the left, warm, On the right, cool. First, the foreground: A twist to the classical way to depict a portrait in half-light, half-shade. The right side of the face and neck, set in a flesh-tone, the left in an unnatural yellowish-green colour. The hair in a blue-violet shade, with hints of red and black. The dress in different tones of red, juxtaposed to the complementary green neckline, which is decorated with red/green spots. Then, the bright green stripe that runs from the forehead, all the way down to the neckline – uniting both sides and marking the division between complementary areas of colour. I move to the the background. The left in pale purple (in different tones) and saturated red-orange. The right in tones of blue green. There is also an asymmetry in the brushstrokes, particularly in the face and the neck. The left side of the is painted more smoothly than the right, which seems at bit blurred. The direction of brushstrokes also pays attention to the form of the figure.
This brings me to the topic of three-dimensionality. It is actually Acton’s (2009:74-76) analysis of how Matisse creates from with colour that inspired this visit in the first place: I am truly invited to feel the form of the head. I see indications of depth all around and the painting looses its “flatness”: The aforementioned asymmetry in the shoulder line produces a shift, which along with the choice of colours gives the effect of the left side pushing towards us while the right recedes. The dull green shadow below the chin and under the eyes, the darker tone of blue-green above the right shoulder, purple outlining the green line. In conclusion, I can see that juxtaposition of colours held together in areas (and not only in each brushstroke as in Signac) is what gives an optical effect of depth.
I proceed to think about the subject. This is a portrait of Madam Matisse, but somehow the picture does not seem to be not “about her”. I agree with Schwabsky (2005) in that Matisse captures her essence: I can clearly recognize her from a picture (Fig.6) and sense her strong personality. However, it seems that the picture is more about Matisse himself. His experience of Madam Matisse, his emotions, his experiments. This wets my interest for further study of Expressionism, which is often displayed at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. I leave the gallery and sit in the museum’s garden to reflect. Reading about the exhibition, Matisse, Fauvism and the painting itself gave me significant tools to better understand the portrait. But it was not until I took ample time to experience the painting “live” and within this magnificent context that an aesthetic experience could truly unfold. I look forward to returning to SMK, with my new way to look at its pictures.
Figure 1: Matisse, H. (1905). Portrait of Madam Matisse (The Green Stripe) [Painting found in Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://collection.smk.dk/#/en/detail/KMSr171
Figure 2: Matisse, H. (1904). Place des Lices – Saint Tropez [Painting found in Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://collection.smk.dk/#/en/detail/KMSr75
Figure 3: Matisse, H. (1905). Landscape near Collioure. Study for “The Joy of Life” [Painting found in Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://collection.smk.dk/#/en/detail/KMSr79
Figure 4: Matisse, H. (1905). Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat) [Painting found in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/91.161
Figure 5: Frame Restoration: Portrait of Madam Matisse (The Green Stripe) [Painting found in Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://www.smk.dk/typo3temp/pics/db1a4e422a.jpg
Figure 6: Photo of Amélie Matisse. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://uploads.neatorama.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/220madamematisse.jpg
Acton, M. (2009). Learning to look at paintings. London New York: Routledge.
Benjamin, R. (2005). Landskab ved Collioure: Studie til Livsglæde. In R. Benjamin and S. Bjerkhof (Eds.) Matisse: Mesterværker på Statens Museum for Kunst (pp.25-45). Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst.
Essers, V. (2016). Henri Matisse, 1869-1954: master of colour (pp.7-18). Basic Art Series 2.0. Köln: Benedikt Taschen.
Schwabsky, B. (2005) “Den Inderste Essens” In R. Benjamin and S. Bjerkhof (Eds.) Matisse: Mesterværker på Statens Museum for Kunst (pp.46-65). Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst.
SMK (2017a). (Producer). SMK Highlights 399 – Introduction: French Art 1900-1930 [Audioguide]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://highlights.smk.dk/399?route=122
SMK (2017b). (Producer). SMK Highlights 404 – Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line [Audioguide]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://highlights.smk.dk/404?route=122
SMK (2017c). Matisse, the Frame in Focus. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://www.smk.dk/en/explore-the-art/visit-the-conservator/stories-from-the-conservators/matisse-the-frame-in-focus/