08 April, 2011

Have a Dish of Modern Art

Come with me, dear reader, on a walking tour of the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art.  I'll be focused on the older holdings, since those are the artworks that have been subjected to the acid test of time. First, may I present my card?

Don't be fooled.  I will be praising here as much as criticizing, because I am an adherent of Modern Art.  But, it helps to have a healthy handful of skepticism when you are viewing the Moderns.  I don't let their notoriety get in the way of my having a go at the master artists' works.

The Tour.

The SFMOMA introduces their permanent collection exhibition with the Fauvists and Cubists who painted at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.  Matisse's be-hatted wife,  Amélie Parayre, invites you to enter. The layout of the second floor  weaves around different rooms, establishing a timeline of Modern works and telling the story of progressive ideas in art.

The first room gives way to anti-art statements by Marcel Duchamp, and an eddy-out shows off the museums proud holdings by Paul Klee.  I was attracted to the next room from an historical sense, if not as much for the art.  These were the large format Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings. Next are the mid-century rooms, where the larger-than-life heroes are presented, such as Mark Rothko and many, but not by any stretch most, of the Abstract Expressionists.  This was my favorite room, after the early Modernists.  More details on that later.

As you leave the rare air of Abstract Expressionism, and continue to the next rooms, you may become, as I was, lost at the soul-level.  Not for ignorance was I lost.  I am well aware of the movement to supersede painting with objects and experiences.  In these rooms you find the advancement of Pop Art, and the experiences of video and installations.  Thus begins the boredom.  That's me.  I love painting and sculpture, and don't feel the need to replace them in the Post-Modern sense.


Pride of place at the SFMOMA is given to Woman With A Hat, by Henri Matisse.  Even now, one-hundred and six years after completion, this painting appears different from anything else ever painted, except maybe by Matisse, himself.

Because this was my first opportunity to view a painting by Matisse, I spent a lot of time with Woman With A Hat, 1905.  I have been under Matisse's influence fairly heavily for the past year, having read the massive two-volume biography by Hilary Spurling, as well as a couple of lesser volumes on this master.  It is easy to see why HM is noted as an early, major influence on Modern Art.

Matisse is much better than I thought he was from even the glowing books and articles I have read.  This is a good example of how actual real life viewing is superior to the printed page or the CRT.  In those, I have to say I desired something else out of the man.  I wanted flow.  I wanted skill and expression.  

In the three Matisse paintings that the SFMOMA has on view, I found my wishes fulfilled.  Well, maybe more so in two of them, because the one still life looked just plain wrong to me.  It was forced, and especially it suffered from being hung next to a Morandi.  But The Conversation and the Woman With A Hat were outstanding paintings.

Woman With A Hat presents a mix of skilled brushwork, and savage beastly work as well.  Matisse flattens, pops, effuses and describes all at the same time, and he never does it meanly or without intention.  You get the tension between the flattering and the fatuous; the intimacy and the utility; the fine and the fierce.

I began to see a color that I have only been aware of in a minor way before.  It is the canvas color of old egg-white, with blushes of pale yellow and pink in this particular case.  This comes in better focus when we look at Joan Mitchell and some other works later on.

If you look closely at Edgar Degas' work of the same era, you see greens, blues and other wildly non-objective colors on the faces of his women.  But, Matisse is presenting the colorist view here, which is that the colors, along with the forms, are central to the ideas presented.  Not just as colors, or as not-true colors, but in the role of exposing new ways of seeing a painting.  Paintings are flat artifices, revealing other things about our world than rote description.  Their beauty is a transformational value; they are a tool for change and progress.  Amelie is beautiful in ways not under the tyranny of the caliper and the ruler.

Maurice Denis wrote that Woman With A Hat embodies "des noumènes de tableaux," which can be translated as the pure reason of ideas in the picture.  If so, it was a breakthrough of painting from abstract ideas; from instinct. It raised the bar.

I could go on.  I love The Conversation, 1938, Matisse, even more.  It is the greatest representational painting on view in the museum in my estimation, and it hangs in a room with Picasso, Morandi and Braque.  More on that next time.

Woman With A Hat
o/c, 1905
31.75" x 23.5"
Henri Matisse


  1. Woman With A Hat.
  2. "Genuine points of comparison for Woman with a Hat are few." T.J. Clark.  In depth essay on Matisse's painting.


Ruth Armitage said...

So great to visit SFMOMA with you! I love your descriptions of the colorist view, which are spot on. I can agree on the preference of paintings and sculptures over porcelain objets de non-art and video installations, though I have seen a few good ones.

Sharon said...

I have a deep love of Matisse's work. I have been very fortunate to be able to see many, many of his paintings and the "Cut-Outs" pieces. He never fails to astound. You enter his world and find your world changed every time. Calipers and rulers!!! - I can only think of his statement, "Exactitude is not truth." He sought something much deeper, much more intensely personal. And he found it.

I saw an exhibition of his work where one of his immense "Cut-Out" murals stood alone in a massive room. That piece was not "about life" - it was alive.

Casey Klahn said...

That is a good report on his cut out installation, Sharon. Thanks for that.

Ruth, I'm glad you read this - I appreciate it.

Frank Zweegers said...

Beautiful works!

Casey Klahn said...

Thank you for the comment, Frank. I will enjoy looking at your blog, too.

Abstract Expressionism, Art Criticism, Artists, Colorist Art, Drawing, History, Impressionism, Modern Art, Painting, Pastel, Post Impressionism