26 April, 2011

The Conversation, 1938, by Henri Matisse

San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, SFMOMA

...balance, of purity and serenity.” 
Matisse Describing His Art.

It would be too easy to spin tales about conversations, such as the one suggested by Henri Matisse's two women in The Conversation of 1938. Instead of that, let's listen to what Matisse has really said with his Modernist masterpiece.

It is fair of the SFMOMA to use Conversation in the context of a dialog in the exhibit on the second floor, where they have set up a “conversation” between the works of different artists in their permanent collection. Compare Marcel Duchamp to Picasso and Matisse. Does Matisse speak to Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, two rooms away, and if so, what does he say? Consider Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol: how do they interact with the history of Modern art? Then you have the obvious question: what are these artist's saying to the viewer?

The Trajectory of a Masterwork.

Henri Matisse named two paintings The Conversation, but the 1938 piece that I saw three weeks ago in San Francisco is more than just a depiction of parlor conviviality. The Conversation, 1938, is an effortless, masterful work that is a colorist piece and is rooted in the timeless elements of painting. It also unites the qualities of drawing and painting in thoughtful ways that only Matisse could accomplish.

“Matisse was an artist in the medieval sense of the word,” said the French historian Regine Pernoud. By referencing another era, Pernoud suggests the artist's aim was over the horizon, not just his own time.  Art is the root word of both artifice and artillery. Could Henri Matisse (I am borrowing a page from his World War II era) have shot a creative shell across the ages?

My Snapshot of The Conversation, 1938
SFMOMA official image here.

Back To Basics.

By the 1930s, Matisse was leaving behind Odalesques and returning to his bold and active earlier style. The Dance, 1932-3, featured monumental figures whose energy moved outside of the confines of the mural. His illustrations for Ulysses, 1935, were 26 line images that reinvigorated Matisse's sensibilities for the drawn figure. He said, “I do not reason when I draw; I don't know where I'm going.” For Matisse, drawing was an expressionist act, and his paintings were to become infused with this element again.

Although the faces of the two women in The Conversation may have been done with a rigger brush and paint, they give one the impression of transparent paint over pencil lines. To further emphasize this effect, Matisse draws each woman's hair and face together as one area and uses the same flesh color for both elements. Matisse outlines the figures and room elements – a total departure from a painter's desire to lose edges. Instead, Matisse draws in all of the edges; sometimes with negative white lines, and at other times with pencil-thin gray lines.

The Figure, The Color and The Space.

  • The woman on your left recedes in a pure black dress, while her companion springs forward in a violet, yellow and red dress.
  • The room is an effervescent pattern of colors, with compliments of red and green, blue-green with red orange, and the triadic relationships of violet and green and then the yellow and green sofa.  
  • Both women form a triangular mass, the wall is divided vertically and there is a diagonal line created by the sofa's edge, arm and a red triangular shape at the bottom.  There is an X formed in the center of the picture by the edge of the black shirt sleeve and the elbow of the woman on your right, and the arm of the sofa.  
  • Perspective is not achieved with  lines and atmosphere, but by the relationships of colors and masses - Modern Art meets timeless divisions of the picture.
  • There is a heart shape to each face, and a heart shape can also be suggested by both faces together with the bottom being the elbow.
  • There is a a curvilinear pattern of lines and shapes around the interior of the space - they read gracefully.
  • One woman's eyes gaze to the left, and the other to the right, which adds to the expansiveness of the picture.  Dreamy and pleasant, the two are caught in a moment of happiness.

Someone has said that a painting can no more be about color than a party can be about Tupperware. Look again at Matisse and reconsider this. He uses colors as the space, suggesting both a scene and a pattern simultaneously.  The comparisons between the colors become movements, and the use of pure tones, without shading, arouse both excitement and harmony.  The feeling is one of a brightly lit midday, illuminated by the southern sun.

Do you find perfect correspondence between the nature of the drawing and the nature of the painting? In my opinion, they seem totally different from each other, absolutely contradictory. One, the drawing, depends on linear or sculptural plasticity, and the other, the painting, depends on colored plasticity.” Henri Matisse.


Art Is Long.

Physicists think about the properties of time; they wonder if it bends or slows down under special conditions. Can fine art add anything to the conversation about time? When I am standing in front of Matisse's The Conversation, time is folded for me. This artwork may have been painted seventy-three years ago, but I am experiencing it in the here and now. If I understand the artwork, even minimally, then the artist and I are having a conversation of sorts. 

 We feel old, and somehow wizened, when we enjoy a masterwork. Henri Matisse has made what is, for me, the greatest contribution to the gallery space at the SFMOMA with The Conversation. It appears graceful and effortless in comparison to Picasso, Braque and Morandi, whose works hang in the same space. Does Marcel Duchamp, whose urinal is presented in the next room, really diminish art by his funny and outrageous installations?  His "readymade object" seems even more absurd directly after looking at Matisse's superb contribution to the canon of Modern Art. More on Duchamp in a later post.

With energy and singularity, and with clear, bright pictorial statements, Henri Matisse has given us more than words.  He has brought grace to the conversation about the art of the twentieth century.

Henri Matisse

The beautiful photo of the SFMOMA by cbrady2 at Photobucket.


Donna T said...

Fascinating article! Thanks, Casey! It does appear to be an effortless painting but it is so well coordinated. Why do you think he made the women's hair and flesh the same color? Would the women have become too much the focus instead of all the patterns and rhythms going on?

SamArtDog said...

Time out here, Casey. I've been looking forward to this post for so long that I'm going to schedule reading it. Take the phone off the hook, put on some jazz and put up my feet. Oh, boy!

One observation from a quick scroll is how remarkably vibrant this painting is, even if it's just a shapshot. Well done! Thanks for this post in advance.

Sonya Johnson said...

Very interesting and informative post, Casey! I enjoyed your analysis of the painting and how its elements come together to make it work. Even if one doesn't know anything about Matisse the artist, the colors and the faces and body language of the women makes the intent clear. Timeless and universal: qualities of great art.

Re the comparison to the Duchamp urinal...my litmus test is to take the Matisse and the Duchamp and move them from their respective gallery rooms in SFMOMA and into the men's restroom at SFMOMA...well, the Matisse clearly remains a piece of fine art, albeit clearly out of place. The Duchamp piece, OTOH...is back where it belongs ;).

I'm sure some would label me a Philistine for such a comment, but I'm totally okay with that.

Casey Klahn said...

Sonya - that is funny. Put them in the men's room. How about the women's restroom? Then, the one would be totally out of place, and the two women would be just fine.

I like your litmus test very much. I will talk about Duchamp maybe next time. Cheers!

Casey Klahn said...

Sam - your attention to this post makes my day. I wanted to post some jazz, too. Maybe by tomorrow I'll have some 1938 music in the sidebar.

Casey Klahn said...

Donna, that is a good question about the faces and hair. One the one hand, they are a unified shape when the colors are the same, but OTOH, they are conspicuous for being FLESH color.

A good question would be why flesh, instead of green?

Celeste Bergin said...

It is so cool how the painting is entitled The Conversation, but they appear to be looking at us instead of eachother...I guess we are in the conversation.....and look, we are conversing over the conversing. Great post, Casey. So much to think about here. While reading it, for the first time I think I understand the value of the urinal...it definitely serves as a "foil" for the magnificent paintings that thrill us. Matisse's Conversation is exquisite.

Casey Klahn said...

Celeste, you have provided the spoiler for Marcel Duchamp's post. Brownie points for this.

I am glad you have seen The Conversation - and are a participant.

Sonya Johnson said...

Casey, I think you are on to something here!

In the women's restroom, the urinal transforms from a mere bathroom fixture to conversation piece.

Position the Matisse above it, and now you have something approaching installation art, with the snappy title:

......wait for it......

"The Conversation Over a Urinal"

Double entendre fully intended.

I'm good for about one brilliant idea a month, and this was it ;).

Casey Klahn said...

If the ladies only knew about the conversations over the urinal...

It is a mystery to them. I remember a SNL skit from many moons ago about what goes on in the ladies's room.

There, you see? MD has devolved us to bathroom humor. That pesky anti-art guy. If he doesn't watch out, his whole blog post will be written right here in the comment section.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I've read this several times--a great post. I found very little info about this painting on the internet so I have a question. Since I don't see a signature, how do we know Matisee considered it finished? Maybe he was thinking of painting the hair? Was the painting exhibited or was it sold? I'm convinced you'll have the answers.

Casey Klahn said...

Hi, Hallie. Good questions. Donna wondered about the face/hair thing, too. I feel like she nailed it - they create one mass and everything stays simple. Look at the painting - the size of the flesh shaped areas seems right, but hair colors would've been small shapes. That's my opinion, anyway.

It is a similar thing to his visages vides, or blank faces. The focus is elsewhere.

The image from the SFMOMA shows the signature at the upper left, but it is obscured in shadow in my photo. The provenance was Matisse to Mr. James D. Zellerbach, who was a California industrialist, and an ambassador to Italy in the fifties, to the museum. You may have owned a ream of typing paper from Crown Zellerbach at one time.

I also wonder if it was ever exhibited. By the year 1938, M. Matisse had many important patrons in America, including in San Fransisco. I imagine a rich industrialist like Zellerbach would have either met Matisse personally, or he may have arranged for a purchase through Matisse's son's gallery in NYC.

I wonder how many more of his works are in private hands there?

hw (hallie) farber said...

Thanks, Casey. I looked at a lot of his paintings and most had hair--Musique had two women with hair. I guess knowing the provenance helps--I wondered whether Matisse had sold it or it was sold after his death. I always learn from your blog.

Casey Klahn said...

I had a number of images in mind where the women have beautiful hair; some black and some blonde. Once in a while, though, he makes the hair transparent. A good example is a portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, which I think has been shown in Nice.


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