Magazine article Artforum International

"Matisse: In Search of True Painting": METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK

Magazine article Artforum International

"Matisse: In Search of True Painting": METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK

Article excerpt

SOMETIME DURING the summer of 1906, in the French border town of Collioure, a teenager named Camille Calmon sat down to model for Henri Matisse. Matisse completed two paintings of Calmon in sailor's clothes. Young Sailor I possesses the brilliant color, vigorous handling, and accentuated facial contours, verging on scarification, of the painter's Fauvist portraits of the previous year; his voluminous green leg and the sweeping crescent line of his arm foretell the grand manner of the famous paintings of bathers and dancers of 1907-1909. Calmon looks to his right. His body is wiry, compact. His knee dangles over the chair's edge clumsily, and his arm presses against the back. His thumb juts into his thigh in a forced pose. A naturalistic depiction, in the end: a local boy earning a day's pay, perhaps. He has a case of spilkes, ants in the pants. How he longs to spring from his seat.

Now consider Young Sailor II. A field of pink surrounds Calmon, pitching his body toward us. His chair obtrudes into the picture plane. His right knee bears down on the canvas's lower edge. His left arm pushes his head forward, like an odalisque, and we are reminded of Matisse's Nice paintings and his Pink Nude, 1935. Like the fabulously supine creatures of these later works, the sitter in Young Sailor II presents himself for our delectation. His right hand is fleshy, sensuous, his shirt an explosion of blue; his thighs and crotch are fields of emerald. His lips are a gash of russet and green. The delight we take in this brilliant arrangement is only enhanced by his arresting stare. His almond eyes are enlarged and outlined. The irises are jade daubs. Where the sitter in Young Sailor I is sullen, unyielding--in a word, trade--this sailor is a courtesan, a tart. The feminine younger brother of the haughty, mannish Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, 1907, he is infinitely more available.

Gender is but one of the differences suggested by Young Sailor I and Young Sailor II, the most decisive early double of the many doubles of Matisse. (Leo Stein, who saw the pair on Matisse's return from Collioure, was startled by the "extreme deformations" in the second picture: the disregard for modeling, the exaggerated features, the reductions of limbs to shapes.) It is the nature of repetition to reveal difference, semiology suggests. To look at two similar depictions or to read two versions of a story causes us to perceive, to fully grasp, their specificity--the fact that they aren't the same. As Levi-Strauss observed, myths often contain pairs--the comparison of which allowed the anthropologist to explore the variations between each paired element and, therefore, how each one means.

There is a history of doubling in modern art; this history includes Matisse. Although few painters or sculptors are consistently "doublers" throughout their careers, Picasso, Man Ray, Rauschenberg, Johns, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Mel Bochner, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and countless others have repeated and inverted at pivotal moments in their careers. By making two of something rather than one, they allow us to see difference--the identity of one thing in relation to another. As "Matisse: In Search of True Painting" curators Rebecca Rabinow, Cecile Debray, and Dorthe Aagesen (of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, respectively) suggest in their remarkable show, doubling was a long-standing tactic for Matisse, explored for almost fifty years (although Matisse rarely exhibited his pairs in his lifetime). Well known to students of Matisse's work, this aspect of his practice has been touched on in previous shows. A rigorous presentation of the artist's doubles (and a few triples and multiples) in sequential order, this exhibition accomplishes something shows rarely do: It asks a viewer to inhabit the artist's mind, to imagine the process of making two or more intimately related works. As our two Young Sailors suggest, this method often yields startlingly unique results. …

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