Posted by: Alli C. | December 12, 2014

Henri Matisse and the Portrait

The exhibit at the MHC Art Museum, Matisse Drawings, Curated by Ellsworth Kelly from The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, is a striking display of seeming simplicity. Forty-five sparse pencil, ink, and charcoal drawings set in white mats and blond frames don’t stand out from a white wall when you first walk in, but as you move past them the striking movement contained in them becomes apparent. You expect women formed from a few bold lines to flutter the suggestion of their eyelashes; acrobats caught mid-movement appear poised to lift off again at any moment, while you struggle to assign order – leg, arm, head, breast – to their half-realized forms; a boat – a rectangle with a few lines of ‘oars’ – paddles off to sea as you question your view of it (Through a window? Oh yes, and that’s a palm tree). The sheer simplicity of Matisse’s lines allows for a huge range of potential motion purely because the line-work is so sparse. It is difficult to perceive restriction of movement in an arm formed from the same line as the torso and neck it flows from.

There were two elements of Matisse’s work I thought were particularly interesting given the topics we’ve covered in class. First was the gaze of his portraits. Take for example his femme en fauteuil:


She’s undeniably looking directly at the viewer (in contrast to our noticeable trend of ‘women looking sideways’), drawing you to engage first and foremost with her eyes before moving down to the casual slant of her shoulders, the curve of her back, the pattern on her clothing. And yet, when you do look in her eyes, you find yourself thwarted; where typically there would be a concrete meeting point for the gaze, la femme has only a few spiraling squiggles. Are they eyelashes? Pupils? If they are pupils, where exactly does one look to interact with the subject? In the world of portraiture, the aim of the artist – and the expectation of the viewer – is that the portrait is, in a way, a person in and of itself; a capture of the ‘person-ness’ of the sitter and something that can be interacted with and understood. Matisse’s femme – and indeed, many of his other portraits – do not allow this. They are clearly interacting with the viewer, and yet the viewer can’t interact back; the cycle of looking and being looked upon that is so common in portraits is being unconventionally broken, leaving the viewer the bereft party.

The second element of Matisse’s work I wanted to comment on were his drawings of dancers and acrobats. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any of the pieces in the exhibit online, but here’s a similar piece entitled Grand Acrobate:


Several of his dance studies focused on a specific dancer – Christiane. It made me wonder – if the subject is identified in the name of the piece, rather than simply being a dance study, what does that do to the piece? Is it still simply a study, or is it now a portrait? Is it neither? Could it be both? After looking at his dance studies, studies of acrobats, and even several studies of couples, I think perhaps it is a portrait, but not of any specific person. Maybe it’s now a portrait of dance, of acrobatics, of a couple. If a portrait of a person is supposed to convey a sense of the subjects ‘personhood’, then isn’t a drawing which conveys a sense of the movement and feel of acrobatics a portrait of acrobatics? And similarly with dance, or romantic entanglement? We’ve focused so much this semester on portraits of people and what they can convey and it was striking to be examining something labeled as a study and think, ‘but couldn’t that be a portrait?’

The exhibit of Matisse’s work is certainly an arresting one, and one I enjoyed. It’s power comes not only from the depth of feeling and movement that arises from such initially simple pieces, but also for the way those pieces interact with you as a viewer and challenge the traditions of art which we’ve been studying.

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