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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Henri Matisse. The Red Studio. 1911. Oil on canvas, 71 1/4″ x 7′ 2 1/4″ (181 x 219.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2022 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Yes, I know, you say impatiently. But the painting of "The Red Studio" (1911) by Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954), has been one of the oft-displayed treasures of the Museum of Modern Art since it was acquired in 1949. What's so new about that?  Answer: This compact but far-ranging show united "The Red Studio" itself with almost all the smaller surviving art works that were depicted by the artist within that larger painting.  Those included paintings, sculpture, and a ceramic plate.


 Also included were drawings seemingly related to one big painting that no longer survives: a study of a slender reclining female nude on a pink and light blue field for which the artist's oldest child, Marguerite, posed. In addition, the show included other related artworks – largely but not at all entirely from MoMA's capacious Matisse holdings. What a pleasure it was to contemplate—if you're a Matisse freak, like I am (the show ran only through September 10, alas).


When I visited "Matisse: The Red Studio," in August, I was happy to see that it was being very well attended, and moreover by an attractive, and  largely young-looking crowd. I've heard it said that to older people, everybody younger looks younger than they really are, so perhaps the crowd I was seeing were in their thirties and forties rather than their twenties, but I did observe a number of couples in the crowd – which suggested to me that MoMA, and especially Matisse, are regarded by the younger generation as a date destination. Great idea!


As for me, I especially liked the raffish "Young Sailor II" (1906), with his arms akimbo, which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I also went for the small terra cotta "Upright Nude with Arched Back" (winter 1906-1907), which MoMA seems to have rediscovered, though it already owns a bronze version of the same subject (I preferred the terra cotta version myself).


I was intrigued by "Le Luxe (II)" (1907) and the other loans from Copenhagen's Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), which is co-sponsoring this show and where it will go on view from October 13 to February 26, 2023. I understand that the curators of these two museums teamed up to find the works that are part of this show and that a good deal of detective work was involved. More power to them! 


And of course, one cannot ignore the rich dark Venetian red paint that obscures the line between walls and floor in "The Red Studio" and serves as the background for everything else – paintings, furniture, knick-knacks and so on. I have heard that certain critics view this painting  as a milestone on the transition  from earlier paintings with more illusions of depth and later paintings with increasing "flatness.". However, this is not my take on  the painting. To me all that red simply brings a powerful sense of unity to the picture, bringing together all its disparate parts into a single, harmonious whole.


Particularly of  interest were the drawings of reclining female nudes that might be studies for the large nude on the pink and blue field that seems to have disappeared over the years. I was vividly reminded by these drawings of all those classical and/or Renaissance statues of the sleeping naiad, Ariadne.   Though she is depicted as semi-nude, her draperies always outline her figure clearly.  And as I write this,  I find myself thinking of  one of the secondary critics of the New York Times, Blake Gopnik, who on August 26 felt obliged to re-review this show (even though Roberta Smith, the paper's  senior critic, had published a very favorable and illuminating review on April 29).


Gopnik, however, drew no comparisons between Matisse and classical statuary. Instead, his "interpretation" was apparently intended to give this boring old patriarch Matisse a shot in the butt by relocating him hip-deep in 21st century pop culture. Or at least one aspect of pop culture. 


In case the name "Gopnik" rings a bell with any of my readers, Blake Gopnik is a brother to Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker writer whose article on Clement Greenberg, back in the 20th century, was so crudely offensive that one painter whom I know said it belonged at the supermarket checkout counter.  (Maybe Mrs. Gopnik took her sons with her to the supermarket, then left them to play at the checkout counter while she did her shopping.).


Blake Gopnik's new "interpretation" of this painting is to take the large figure study of Marguerite on the lefthand side of "The Red Studio" and pair it with the empty rattan easy chair on the right-hand side of the canvas. He then argues that this chair is meant to suggest Sergei Shchukin, the Russian collector to whom Matisse hoped to sell "The Red Studio," and whose previous purchases of Matisse paintings had helped to finance the large & handsome new studio that the artist was now depicting (though Matisse by this time had other patrons including women like Gertrude Stein and the Cone sisters from Baltimore.).


To Gopnik, the "new vector" that he was offering readers was that in "reality" the painter was serving his 16-year-old "naked" daughter up to one of his lecherous middle-aged customers in return for the customer's previous largesse—pandering, in fact.

"Today," Gopnik adds piously, "we recoil at the thought of a 41-year-old dad sketching his naked teenager just so a Russian tycoon can then ogle her body, almost like a thank-you gift from artist to patron. But in the utterly sexist, patriarchal world of Europe before World War I, Matisse's sessions  with his daughter don't seem to have raised red flags. He was quite happy to write to his wife about them."


This takes a lovely painting and turns  it into something "dirty."  The act was not universally appreciated.  When Gopnik's article went online at the Times website, the paper allowed readers to comment upon it.  Several were unimpressed.


"Must we add the dose of 21st century morality to a discussion of the painting?" wondered a correspondent named "Ken" from Ohio. "The smokey edges of the commentary. leave hints and traces and suggestions which of course appeal to our hyper-sensitivity about ANYTHING sexual but I daresay obscure rather than illuminate anything finally about this painting."


From San Diego, "Jorge" observed that "the author's comments about patriarchy and sexism really just cover up a puritanism concerning art that is apparently even stronger now,  compared to early 20th century France…"


"I'm happy that this tortured search for meaning by art critics generates interest in art," wrote "Private" (a painter) from California.  "But unless the artist has specifically said this or that was their intended meaning, we should remember these kinds of takes are mostly conjecture straining to fit a narrative…."


As it happens, Matisse did say something about art and armchairs that seems curiously appropriate for this painting – but also differs radically from Brian Gopnik's supermarket checkout take.


"What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of  troubling or depressing subject matter," the artist wrote, in "Notes of a Painter" (1908)…"An art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair, which provides relaxation from physical fatigue."


It's worth remembering that although Matisse is widely beloved today, in his time he was genuinely controversial  -- not for his subject matter, but for his style (including color as well as line – both formal criticisms,  not iconographic ones). 


Nudes in Western European art were far from unknown – had been a staple of painters since the Renaissance  (to say nothing of the renditions of Eve in medieval manuscripts, and sculptures of goddesses in classical times).  But the way that Matisse painted nudes – with their simplified, often angular forms, and apparently crude outlines – seems to have horrified even art teachers and art students, accustomed as they were to the literal, not to say lubricious nudes of William-Adolphe Bouguereau and other Salon academics.


At any rate, when the Armory Show came  to  Chicago in 1913  -- with "The Red Studio" amid its exhibits -- students at the Art Institute of Chicago appear to have been more horrified by Matisse than they were by Duchamp or even Picasso.  So horrified, in fact, that they held a mock trial of "Henry Hairmatress" (Matisse), playing the roles of judges, lawyers, jury and defendant.


Student-made reproductions of three Matisse paintings were shown as evidence and burned after "Hairmatress" was found guilty of "artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general aesthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title."  .Try  and fit "contumacious" into a supermarket tabloid headline.


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