On Matisse: Notes from a cataclysmic atmosphere

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If crisis permits, Henri Matisse’s Intérieur, bocal de poissons rouges, 1914, will hang in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Over a century ago, on 24 January 1915, this painting of a goldfish bowl in a darkening studio appeared in New York newspaper The Sun under the title ‘What Is Happening In The World of Art’. The writer, who is not afforded a byline, notes, “Matisse is the greatest name in art to-day. There is no one in France who is talked about with the same earnestness, no one who arouses deep interest but him.” The writer continues: “The detractors say modern art is dead—that the great war has killed modern art . . . No doubt so great a cataclysm will change the atmosphere. It always does.”

I adore this cataclysm, this atmosphere, this century-old certainty: it always does. At distance from the Great War, the writer’s perspective seems parallel to our present moment—of mediated relations, of fear and boredom crackling through screens; but also of writers and artists in this country mostly insulated, or at least distanced, from the tireless work of frontline workers. Mostly, I feel uncertain of art or writing made in this moment of extended crisis. What compels one to trace the contours of such imposed stillness—and what could this gesture imply?

The Centre Pompidou inscribes meaning to Matisse’s goldfish through the lens of vocation: “Through the theme of the studio, Matisse interrogates the painter’s role in the world, particularly put into question by the outbreak of war.” Perhaps. Two goldfish swimming in a glass on a table, in front of a window. If not quite an interrogation of the artist’s role, the painting seems at least a mood, or a note, from a cataclysmic atmosphere.

Henri Matisse, Interior, goldfish bowl (Intérieur, bocal de poissons rouges), 1914 oil on canvas, 147 x 97 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne, bequest of Baroness Eva Gourgaud, 1965 AM 4311 P. © Succession H Matisse/Copyright Agency 2021. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI / Philippe Migeat / Dist RMN-GP.

 

In his 1909 Notes d’un Peintre, Matisse admits a desire that I find shamefully familiar: an unbending desire to create art “devoid” of “depressing subject matter”. He dreams of art that might be “something like a good armchair, which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Is there an ethics to art that is just light, line, and colour; objects shifted until they click into place? Art that is a sofa next to a window, looking out onto the Seine. We only ever bring ourselves to a painting, and, in Matisse’s soft blues and careful lines, I find rest. In this Intérieur I am not drawn to the outside—though it is beautiful, the pink of the building, the careful windows—I am caught by the shadows in the room.

In the viscous months of lockdown, scenes of still life begin to appear around me—light striking fruit on the table, the banal drama of a crumpled bag, or long shadows of cut flowers, stretching across the afternoon. It is impossible not to track the light as it moves through the apartment. In the morning, pink light will stream in from the window above the stairs; just before evening, shards of golden light will slice through the living room, glancing the corner where I now work. Sometimes I’ll move the objects on our dining table to suit the light—a bowl of lemons from a friend’s laden tree; a camellia stolen on a walk; a glass of water melting a single block of ice.

Henri Matisse in his studio cutting coloured gouaches, Nice, 1953. Bibliothèque Kandinsky, MNAM-CCI, Centre Pompidou, Hélène Adant Collection.

 

Life, contained, still moves, but time has taken on a different texture. I have never sat in a single room for so long, and the depth of familiarity sometimes removes me from time. For this is partly the work of still life, too; though still, there is almost always a low hum to Matisse. In this, we are told that the stillness is a temporary mode, a flicker. Two goldfish turn in a glass, as Matisse’s moment expands across a century. So, what is happening in the world of art? For a moment, Matisse is on the walls in the gallery.

Sitting in my rented apartment for months unending, life is marked by small moments of still life: objects, moved around, until the light hits. It is all the same, really, but in different arrangements, and in these different arrangements there is an oddly satisfying newness—of shapes moved and lines met—which feels silly to admit. This artifice allows me to mistake this life as only mine to move around, until, inevitably, we have to use the lemon or the bowl, and the small scene is dismantled.

Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris
Art Gallery of New South Wales
20 November—13 March 2022

This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Leah Jing McIntosh