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Old Master?

Looking Past The Hit Parade and Into The Craft in Artist’s Late Output

OVEREXPOSED: Henri Matisse’s “Icarus” (duh)

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/10/2006

Henri Matisse: Jazz

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through Aug. 27

The black figure is familiar from 20 paces—even encased in a glass box. Set against a vibrant blue rectangle dotted with golden stars, the curvy human shape with the crimson circle of a heart strikes an odd pose—is he dancing in joy? Stretching awake? Is he even a he? Only when you get close enough to read the accompanying placard—or when memory jogs the title from seeing the image thousands of times on posters, postcards, T-shirts, and any other arty trinket—do you recall that, yes, he is a he. Even though his experiments with color and form in “The Blue Nude,” “The Dance,” and “Pink Nude” often put the artist in the same breath as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse’s 1947 cut-paper collage print “Icarus” may be his most instantly recognizable work thanks to souvenir shops. Anybody else absolutely sick and tired of seeing it?

Familiarity breeds contempt, indeed. It also midwifes misunderstanding and false assumptions. The 20 works on paper that comprise Matisse’s 1947 Jazz artist book—completed when the artist was in his 70s, currently on view in its entirety in the Cone Galleries of the Baltimore Museum of Art for the first time in a decade—are largely regarded as the final major development of a capital-A artist, a new technique (called pochoir: see the exhibit notes for details) achieved under great personal duress and during great historical upheaval. Of course, the crenelated ribbon that is art history had perfected printing the legend long before John Ford offered a pop-culture cause to sift myth from meaning. Furthermore, 50-plus years of constant regurgitation reinforce the contention of these pieces’ supposed greatness. This, coupled with the omnipresence of such pieces as “Icarus” or the equally as mass-reproduced “Horse,” nurtures a cynical attitude toward seeing the actual pieces in person.

Visually Jazz has about as much to do with music and musicality as Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” has to do with produce. Riffing is a vibe, an ephemeral spark, and claims that Jazz speaks to or even recalls the blues-based American idiom are misguided at best. It’s an allusion, an appropriation of the most sincere order: Matisse took what he knew and bent it into something new to him.

Subject-wise, Jazz’s imagery comes from memories of past places, predominantly the circus from Matisse’s youth—hence trapeze artists, a ringleader, a sword swallower, a balancing elephant, a clown. Others come from travel remembrances—Haiti’s tranquil bodies of water for the “Lagoon” images. The work itself is achieved in strikingly bold colors, almost cartoonish forms, and riddled with an impish spirit. Writers adore knighting these images with such picturesque descriptions as “childlike” and a “celebration of life,” as if such benign mots are what later-in-life artists aspire to. Imagine trumpeting the latest Philip Roth novel with the same dainty praise.

Such milquetoast affirmation wouldn’t be so contemptible if it didn’t overwhelmingly occlude the context of looking at this work. Try walking through the BMA’s Jazz exhibition without allowing the brain to see a cutout white elephant and not immediately think, cute, or allow the senses to be clouded and read the admittedly arresting “Icarus” as an affirmation of life. Such glove-handed treatment doesn’t do Jazz any favors. Yes, it can persuade that it is another creative outburst of an impossibly fertile man. It can also support the idea that such childlike whimsy was an inward retreat from the outside world.

Come on: Juvenilia in a septuagenarian cuts both ways. And the facts of his life are never far behind the discussion of this work. Matisse had separated from his wife and moved to the south of France in 1940. While there, his wife and daughter, both involved in some capacity with the French Resistance, were arrested. He was recovering from surgery for his lower gastrointestinal ailments—including duodenal cancer—that kept him unable to paint, forcing him to turn to new materials and methods to exercise a restless mind kept awake during nights of postoperative insomnia. And, last but not least, this was Nazi-occupied France. Why wouldn’t a man want to return, at least mentally, to calmer, better times?

The best proof that he didn’t is found in the lesser-known images from this series, which evidence an eye still experimenting with color and form—and abstracting both in drastically bold ways. These aren’t completely new ideas—Matisse himself had started working with cut paper in the 1930s, and the BMA’s exhibition of Jazz installs it alongside works by Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Georges Rouault that exhibit similar geometric and color cartwheels, arguably themselves responses to the oneiric vocabularies of the Surrealists. But they offer a refreshing reminder of just how Matisse further tweaked his already bent sensibility.

Spend some time with the deceptively facile “Monsieur Loyal” (a polygonal white blob smushed into a man’s curio profile) or the blithe “The Codomas” and “The Cowboy.” In the latter two, human forms become zigzagging swooshes of color like diacritical marks from some ancient Slavic language, fiendishly implying the human forms of trapeze artists (codomas) or Wild West action with anarchic economy. Terse black diamonds imply the codomas’ net; different colored vertical rectangle panels suggest the left to right motion of the cowboy’s lasso. These components plant seeds for the gestural ideas in the colorfield abstractions of John Hoyland, or even the structural verticality of Bridget Riley’s op art. Admiring the intellectual vigor in an artist to drastically re-envision the world after already establishing one view of it recalibrates the brain to view Matisse’s familiar pieces with fresh eyes. And while such mental calisthenics might not dull the reiterative damage of seeing “Icarus” cruelly emblazoned across children’s T-shirts, it may be enough to convince you that thinking Jazz is “childlike” will never suffice again.

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