The making of Matisse

An edited/shortened version of this was published in House & Leisure (July 2016)

The relationship between Henri Matisse and the continent of Africa is long and windy. A mesh of the artist’s personal history and his country France’s colonial past, the painter’s connection to the continent is evoked as Matisse comes to Africa, again. This time the artist’s work will be shown in a wide-ranging exhibition for the first time in South Africa. Titled ‘Henri Matisse | Rhythm and Meaning’, it’s hard not to think of the exhibition as the artworks’ return to the land which gave birth to them.

As a sizeable collection of paintings, drawings, collages and prints, which cover dominant themes in the artist’s body of work – from his early Fauvist years, his journeys into Morocco and Algeria, to the paper cut-outs that he produced in the last years of his life – come together, ‘Henri Matisse | Rhythm and Meaning’ recalls the role the continent of Africa played to Europe and some of its artists, like Matisse and his contemporaries.

Matisse, born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in 1869, came of age as Europe’s Scramble for Africa was in full effect. A year after his birth, Europe had already taken control of 10 per cent of the continent and by 1914, 90 per cent of Africa was in European hands. So as his countryman’s “explorers”, missionaries and soldiers took to Africa, they also brought back art, people and the wealth of the land with them. These finds (or steals) made a significant impact on culture in Europe, and influenced the ways in which European artists created works.

“Starting in the 1870s, thousands of African sculptures arrived in Europe in the aftermath of colonial conquest and exploratory expeditions. They were placed on view in museums such as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, and its counterparts in cities including Berlin, Munich, and London. At the time, these objects were treated as artefacts of colonised cultures rather than as artworks, and held so little economic value that they were displayed in pawnshop windows and flea markets,” writes scholar Denise Murrell in essay ‘African Influences in Modern Art’.

During this time, sculptural works or masks from places like Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia were not the only imports on show from the “dark continent”. People from Europe’s colonies were also exhibited in human zoos across France, and other parts of Europe. Both of these representations informed the Westerners’ thinking of Africans as primitive and exotic. African art also presented Matisse and his group of Modernist artists with a source of inspiration to their works, and future movements, such as Fauvism, which Matisse championed with André Derain and later Cubism, led by Pablo Picasso, an artist 11 years Matisse’s junior but regarded as one of the French artist’s greatest rivals.

For ‘Henri Matisse | Rhythm and Meaning’, curators Patrice Deparpe, Director of the Musée Matisse, and Professor Federico Freschi, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, bring together a body of work that arguably shows off Matisse’s appropriation and approbation of African art, a major trend among certain French-based artists at the time.

“His inventive use of form and colour in the early years of the twentieth-century profoundly and irrevocably altered the course of modern art,” says show curator Frescshi about Matisse. “Of particular interest to South African audiences is the inspiration he took from African and other non-Western art forms during the early 1900s while struggling to find a new visual language to express the particular experience of the new, modern age.”

Some works from Matisse’s Fauvist years – a short period between 1904 and 1908 which saw French artists such as Matisse and Albert Marquet redefine Western art practice by subverting traditional form and structure – on display at ‘Henri Matisse | Rhythm and Meaning’ reflect this intrigue in art from Africa. Moreover, in the artist’s canon, works such as ‘The Green Line’ (1905), which features Madame Matisse with a geometrically-shaped, flat-plane face and long nose that resembles African masks such as those by the Dan or even Yoruba people. While ‘Still Life with Negro Statuette’, an oil still life painted the following year shows off an African sculpture of a small seated figure, said to be part of Matisse’s larger collection of African art and one of the objects that influenced his art.

Exactly 10 years ago, ahead of a Johannesburg exhibition ‘Picasso and Africa’, Guardian’s Andrew Meldrum penned an article about how Matisse introduced Spanish-born Picasso to the sculpture at writer Gertrude Stein’s home, where Parisian avant-garde artists and literary figures would rendevous in the early 1900s.

‘Picasso was visiting Gertrude Stein at her Paris apartment in the spring of 1907 when Henri Matisse stopped by with an African sculpture he had just purchased. According to Matisse, the two artists were enthralled by its depiction of a human figure. Soon afterwards, Picasso went to the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology (now the Musée de l’Homme) with another artist friend, André Derain. That visit, Picasso later claimed, was pivotal to his art.’

At the time in 2010, the Standard Bank Gallery – who will be presenting ‘Henri Matisse | Rhythm and Meaning’ – explored Western modernism’s debt to African art with the exhibition ‘Picasso and Africa’, which according to the gallery, engaged directly with the question of the extent of Picasso’s fascination with African art, which became for the artist a seminal reference point in the development of Cubism.

Matisse’s outlook and art practice was widely seen to be affected by his travels to Africa and the art that emanated from various countries across the continent. Beyond Matisse’s engagement with masks and figurines from West and Central Africa, the northern part of the continent also provided a source of visual inspiration for him. As France’s imperialism extended beyond Western and Central Africa to countries in the north, Algeria and Morocco, which was a French protectorate from 1912 – 1956, became locales for French citizens and artists like Delacroix, whose landscapes of Morocco or harems scenes in Algeria greatly affected the likes of Matisse and other modernist painters.

“Before I left for Africa I found it slightly insipid, but as soon as I got back it gave me a furious urge to paint,” Matisse once said about his journey to North Africa. His outlooks on Africa being “insipid” is likely to have come from from colonial settlers, who peddled in Europe imagery and press of a dark and barbaric continent as a way of justifying European imperialism into Africa. Despite his preconceived thoughts of the continent, Matisse on a few occasions travelled to North Africa. In 1906, his trip to Algeria resulted in him acquiring African art (apparently the same art he showed Picasso at Stein’s Paris apartment). Upon returning to France that summer, according to Denise Murrell’s essay, Matisse painted two versions of his famous The Young Sailor painting “in which he replaced the first version’s naturalistically contoured facial features with a more rigidly abstract visage reminiscent of a mask”.

These are only two examples of how his short trips to the continent impacted Matisse’s art practice, and brought about robustly coloured works with brazen swoops made from his paintbrush and that catapulted him to be known as the West’s most revered artists. Between 1912 and 1913 the artist voyaged to Morocco, which resulted in an interesting body of work that was shown in part in 1990 in New York at an exhibition titled “Matisse in New York”.

Tracing Matisse’s hazy-lit Moroccan paintings from his first visit to the country and the brighter tones from his second trip, Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times writes: “Although Matisse spent only a few months in Morocco, his experiences apparently remained vividly with him for the rest of his long life. To see, for example, the paintings he completed in Nice during the 20’s, with their odalisques and their dizzying arrangements of carpets and wallpaper is to see Morocco transplanted to the Riviera. And to see the cutouts of Matisse’s last years, with their brilliant floral concoctions, is to see the spirit of Morocco still alive in the artist’s imagination.”

Beyond his early years and Fauve movement, ‘Henri Matisse | Rhythm and Meaning’ will also pay homage to these various art years of Matisse by exhibiting his cutouts, Moroccan landscapes and odalisque paintings.

The odalisque paintings of “chamber girls” or concubines, are a series of vibrantly coloured works with minimalist lines and boldly textured brushstrokes, which Matisse painted after his travels to Morocco. In these ornate harem scenes, scantily clad women, like in ‘Reclining Odalisque’, pose with plush rugs and gold lamps. While landscapes such as ‘Window at Tangier”, painted in brazen blues and a flat perspective, shows a view of the port city and what looks like a mosque in the distance. For Harvard Politics, Hana Connelly inspects the tropes in paintings from Western modernist masters such as Matisse and writes, “Even when produced with good intentions, art is not always a positive bridge between cultures. Instead, depending on the larger social context in which it is produced, art can serve as a tool for cultural reductionism. In the course of French colonisation of North Africa, Islamic art in particular was viewed through a one-sided colonial lens and reduced to trending fascinations.”

At the core of the Johannesburg exhibition, Deparpe and Freschi will show Mattise’s cut-out, also said to be motivated from his travels to Morocco. The Jazz prints, were prepared from cut-out paper collages that Matisse produced after being diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1941, which left him bedridden. Published in 1947, Jazz represents a turning point in Matisse’s career, as it marks the transition from oil painting to paper cut-out collage that dominated the last years of his life.

With the ‘Henri Matisse | Rhythm and Meaning’ exhibition marketed as a show with an extensive educational programme, aimed at the primary and secondary school learners and the public, besides the writing on the wall it will be interesting to see how much information will be imparted about Matisse’s relationship, and sometimes reliance, on the continent of Africa for his widely celebrated oeuvre.

The exhibition runs from the 13 July to 17 September at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg.

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