A book like Alastair Wright's Matisse and the Subject of Modernism (Princeton University Press) is enough to rekindle my faith in the future of art history as a discipline. (Here I could also mention two other such rare pearls from 2005: Maria Gough's The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution [University of California Press] and Christina Kiaer's Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism [MIT Press]). The first amazing trait of Wright's book is that it manages to cast entirely new light on Matisse's best-known works of the period from 1905-13, which can seem pretty exhausted territory, Wright's methodological hypothesis is simple enough--that negative critics are often more acute in pinning down the historical and aesthetic significance of an artwork than are the robotic admirers--but it yields startling discoveries that challenge the state of the literature. For example, Wright argues against the current cliche that Matisse participated in the Orientalist tradition of French painting. He demonstrates to the contrary that Matisse's so-called Orientalist, pre-Nice works were so badly received precisely because they did not adhere to the rules of the genre because, that is, they failed to appeal to a formulaic conception of the identity of the Other and thus underlined rather than repressed the crisis of colonialism and its racist underpinnings. This is only one topic (unraveled in two chapters, one on the 1907 Blue Nude--which was subtitled Souvenir de Biskra only in 1931, a fascinating find in itself--and the other on the 1912-13 Moroccan paintings), but every major work, from Luxe, calme, et volupte, 1904-05, and The Joy of Life, 1905-06, to Dance II, 1909-10, and Music, 1910, is similarly recontextualized, restoring to Matisse the edge that recent scholarship had tended to blunt.
Yve-Alain Bois is a contribuing editor of Artforum.
PAMELA M. LEE
Lately I've been thinking about spatial politics in the art of Takashi Murakami--the culture of Superflat and its ideology of depthlessness--and it turns out that the other famous Murakami proves a canny (albeit accidental) interlocutor on the subject. Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore (Knopf) may not rank as my favorite novel by the celebrated literary export (that would be Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), but it dazzles with its distorted spatial imaginings and provides a neat counterpoint to the empire of flatness over which his peer is sovereign. In this bildungsroman about one Kafka Tamura, who seeks to unravel a dark mystery surrounding his origins, the usual Murakami props (cats, clairvoyants, melancholic ruminations on pop music) are out in force. Here, he ups the ante on both creepiness and confusion, giving his occult inclinations free reign and indulging a taste for oedipal drama. Yet Murakami offers no pat answers, nothing resembling narrative closure. It's fitting, then, that some of the most memorable images in Kafka on the Shore are dark, unknowable, and deeply foreboding spaces, whether a forest inhabited by ghostly soldiers or a library haunted by the memories of a long-dead family romance. If the visual artist treats flatness as the spatial trope par excellence of postwar Japan, the writer's scenes, charged with a sense of historical loss, suggest why this may be so: His spaces are voids left in the wake of past trauma, whereas flatness suggests an attempt to level and erase these wounds.
Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.
The first time I saw a Chris Marker film I fell asleep, twice. I woke up an hour into The Last Bolshevik (1993), Marker's video of the life of maverick Russian filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin, which was really a portrait of the dashed dreams of Communist Russia (or was it the other way around? …