Matisse at Vence: An Epilogue to Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art

By Silver, Kenneth E. | French Politics, Culture and Society, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Matisse at Vence: An Epilogue to Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art


Silver, Kenneth E., French Politics, Culture and Society


Silverman's intent is to emphasize the "critical role of religion in the development of modernism." As an addendum to that pursuit, it should be pointed out that, well into the twentieth century, religion remained crucial to artistic innovation and development (and still is). We now recognize how important apocalyptic imagery was to Wasily Kandinsky's abstraction. In the wake of the Second World War, and French occupation by the Germans, religion made a powerful reappearance in the art of the avant-garde. Henri Matisse's Chapel of the Rosary at Vence is one of the great works of this period; it is worth briefly examining the ways in which Matisse understood the intersection between modern art and his reengagement with Catholicism.

Keywords: Henri Matisse, religion, avant-garde, modernism, Vence

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In her introduction to Van Gogh and Gauguin, Debora Silverman writes: "I want to raise a larger issue for interpreting modernism: we need to reemphasize the critical role of religion in the development of modernism, to bring religion back into the story of artists' mentalities and formations" (13). Religion's role in modern art has been given, at best, summary treatment by art historians; once Gustave Courbet announced that he couldn't paint an angel because he'd never seen one, students of modernism ceased to see angels in art even when they'd been fairly conspicuous. The formative years of Wasily Kandinsky's abstraction are a good case in point. Not until Sixten Ringbom and Rose Carol Washton-Long pointed it out a few decades ago could we recognize the angels flying around in the Russian's apocalyptic canvases of circa 1910-14, based as they are on the Revelation to John. (1) Previous to the late 1960s, Kandinsky's work after 1910 was seen and described as pure abstraction, even though he did not in fact arrive at wholly nonrepresentational art until just before the First World War. Among the most beautiful paintings of his career, these early works are pictures of Last Judgments, biblical floods, New Jerusalems, saints on horseback, and resurrections: not the purely formal, abstract essays in color and form we'd assumed them to be.

Of course, Silverman's goal, so brilliantly realized in Van Gogh and Gauguin, is not to show us the recrudescence of Christian subjects per se in a secular fin-de-siecle, but the ways in which Christian habits of faith and thinking about faith--both Catholic and Protestant--were still formative, and productive, for artists who had seemed to leave their religion behind. This phenomenon, whereby the art of nonbelievers turns out to be fueled by a distant source of faith--by the religion of one's childhood, or one's parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents--is, I think, crucial to Western culture. Out willingness to disavow yet still rely on the theological precepts of our ancestors, to be at a distance from religious mystery yet to embrace mystery itself as a source of creativity (to understand creativity, at least in part, as a retrieval of something lost, in the Proustian sense) is neither only hypocritical or melancholy, although it may be both. It is also one of the foundations of modern, liberal, democratic culture. It is at the opposite extreme of fundamentalism, that direct, unswerving line from texts or pseudotexts, which resists history and change. Out modern, Western form of forgetting, neglecting, and rediscovering--when anything old may look new again, including faith--is a key part of the mechanism by which we have continued to believe in progress and to change out ways, even when we know full well that what makes life worth living never changes all that much.

For critics, then, the inability to see faith or the yearning for faith in modern art is overdetermined. The artists themselves, including van Gogh and Gauguin to some degree, have conspired in this blindness by usually referring to religion obliquely, if at all. Kandinsky, we know, had intentionally "veiled," to use his own suggestive term, his Christian imagery: he believed that the effort to decipher his works was crucial to the pleasure we might take in them and, at least by implication, that mystery was essential to great art.

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