Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams – His Art and His Textiles
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
June 23 – September 25, 2005
The genius of the exhibit “Matisse: His Art and His Textiles,” is that it provides insight into how an artist works — the material and intellectual processes by which art is made. Hilary Spurling, the Matisse biographer, originally suggested the exhibition’s concept to the Royal Academy in London and acted as consultant to the show. Included here are approximately 75 paintings, drawings and prints, exhibited alongside actual textiles, all from Matisse’s own collection. The textiles have never been exhibited before, and were stored by the artist’s relatives until Spurling discovered them in her research. Spurling’s belief is that no one truly recognizes how important textiles were to Matisse’s career. In her catalogue essay, Spurling seeks to prove the impact Matisse’s upbringing in Bohain had on his work. In Bohain, handloom weaving was a prime industry and Matisse’s family had been weaving there for generations. Spurling links the ‘daring’ nature of the textiles created by Bohain weavers to Matisse’s own individuality and iconoclasm. In contrast to Spurling’s rather factual and biographical discussion of the artist’s relationship to textiles, Jack Flam’s catalogue essay provides an aesthetic, pictorial analysis of Matisse’s relationship to decorative materials. Flam demonstrates how Matisse used the decorative “to extend the energy within individual things beyond their physical boundaries and to create, in effect, a kind of metaphysics of decoration.” Unfortunately, the documentation of the textiles in the catalog is not very thorough or well organized.
The exhibition covers almost the entirety of Matisse’s career, but it notably bypasses what has traditionally been considered Matisse’s most important and most revolutionary period: the mid-teens. This alone indicates that the curators are trying to reinterpret Matisse’s career.
Spurling dedicates considerable attention to exploring Matisse’s life during the 1920s, when he made the so-called “Nice period” paintings. This might reflect her desire to reconsider the works that have generally been perceived as both politically problematic (“Orientalist” odalisques), as well as a retreat from the radicalism of the 1910s. The exhibition is dominated by odalisque paintings. In fact, the entire exhibition is harem-like, with dimly lit rooms, arched doorways framing a North African haiti (a pierced and appliquéd hanging), and one very atmospheric group hanging of textiles — ikats, an actual toile de Jouy, batiks, and silk damasks, from Italy, France, the Middle East, India, and Morocco — all flowing down loosely from dowels hung high on the walls.
The first room of the exhibition provides a succinct account of how Matisse developed his individual style between 1890 and 1909. A painting from 1890,Still-life, Books and Candle, contains the image of a textile — a tablecloth beneath objects. Although the tablecloth is beautifully rendered it does not take on deeper meanings. By 1909, however, Matisse’s use of textiles in his paintings becomes more complicated. His Still-life with Blue Tablecloth uses fabric to create a field of energy. Pattern fills the entirety of the painting, and the three still life elements — a copper coffee pot, a compotier of fruit and a green flask — no longer sit atop the table, but appear to float within the textile, completely united with its atmosphere. The textiles become symbolic representations, what Matisse would later term “signs,” and the patterns begin to begin to take on a life of their own. The blue tablecloth in the painting is based on a textile which is also on display — a nineteenth-century French printed cotton and linen fabric Matisse apparently adored and called (incorrectly) his toile de Jouy. The actual fabric consists of a delft blue pattern against a white background, but in the painting, the white is transformed into aqua, enriching the overall harmony. These imaginative transformations of subject matter prove that Matisse was not a realist, but rather an inventor of harmonies that have a tangible yet oblique relationship to reality. Matisse uses the pattern the way he uses color, to extend his representation of the subject, whether it is still life, figure or interior. For example, in The Moorish Screen (1921), the patterned screen enlivens the conversation between the two women. A violin case, off to the side, is a reminder of the musical motif, but Matisse generates the presence of sound by having at least four distinct patterned textiles bump up against one another in this room. In Odalisque with a Screen(1923), a model raises her arms in the same posture as the palm leaves to her right, which are echoed in turn by the palm shaped pattern of the red and white textile in the background. In Seated Odalisque (1926) Matisse rhymes the red diamond pattern with the model’s accentuated orange-red nipples.
In the fourth room of the show paintings from 1926-28 and 1937 face off. A group of five paintings from 1937 all represent women posing in striped robes. Three such Ottoman and Turkish robes are on display, one of which — with purple and white stripes — appears in a few paintings. Again, it is instructive not just to compare the actual robe to the painting, but also to note how Matisse simplifies the patterns to serve his purposes, and uses the continuous lines of the stripes to create a calligraphic flowing line that unites and expresses harmonies and feelings. While he clearly relishes the use of pattern in painting, he never gets lost in the details of the patterns.
This is also clear in Woman with a Veil (1927). The Ottoman red and green robe depicted in the painting is on display beside it. While the actual robe’s patterns are detailed and ornamented with curved lozenge shapes, Matisse simplifies them into a linear diagonal grid. By the time you reach the final rooms of the show, simplification takes on whole new meanings. Kuba cloths are juxtaposed with a rather densely hung wall of paper cut-outs, a chasuble maquette from which Matisse created priests’ garments, and a costume for the ballet Le Chant du rossignol. Here especially, Matisse’s ability to use bold color and geometric and organic forms allusively and evocatively is apparent. While the patterns of the toile de jouy were organic, resemble vegetables and flora and fauna, the patterns on the Kuba cloths are geometric and abstract. Matisse’s last works, the cut-outs, hover somewhere in between the geometric and organic realms. Matisse did not just use textiles to create Oriental fantasies or environments of patterns. Patterns and shapes are used to express what is not easy to express — like the wavy lines of the Roumanian blouse — which express the dream-thoughts of the female figure in The Dream (1940). This exhibition shows us how textiles inspired Matisse to create an alphabet of arabesque forms which he improvised with, like a skilled musician.