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What struck me most about this exhibition was the flatness of Henri Matisse’s paintings in the modernist, formalist sense. Many of the works in the show blended the human figure (if there is one, and mostly there was) with furniture, walls, the floor, clothing, rugs, and tapestries. Only a few works offer illusionistic depth: paintings such as Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background (1922) provide only the shallowest of space. Another, Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1909), would have no space at all if not for a skinny triangular shape at the extreme right side that separates the back wall and the table on which the tapestry hangs and rests. The entire series of medium-sized robe paintings compress the compositional elements the most of all works.
Matisse’s use of flattening elements reaches its apex, quite naturally, in his cut outs, which are seen toward the end of the exhibition. Using only line and color, the artist seemed to be making works of art out of what he saw in tapestries, that is, simple patterns that occasionally repeat (but not always). When hung on the wall tapestries are like paintings—useless, decorative objects. But not to belittle Matisse’s accomplishments—his move toward the flatness of the canvas was a necessary, important breakthrough in his time.