When one is reviewing a historical show like ‘Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning’, up at Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery until 17 September, there’s always a double layer of enquiry. The first is the trickier of the two: one has to do what every half-decent reviewer should do and evaluate the work. This is difficult because, inevitably, the kinds of artists that come up for this sort of high-budget exposure are the canonised, the pillars of Western art history (a decade ago, the same institution held the important ‘Picasso and Africa’). Taking on the likes of Henri Matisse, armed only with my laptop and a shifting set of unreliable opinions seems like an unfair fight; a rumble in the digital jungle, if you will, where Matisse is Ali, and I’m, well, me.
The second layer is possibly easier: one has to evaluate the curation of the show, to decide whether things are in the right places, and even, to a degree, whether the right things are there at all.
Matisse is often mentioned as one of three hugely significant artists of the last century. Along with rival Pablo Picasso (Gertrude Stein, the Parisian impresario and host to gladiatorial Saturday night soirees to which both artists were invited, once said of them that they were ‘friends but enemies’) and contemporary Marcel Duchamp, his name is usually spoken breathlessly, a bobbing marker of quality in a sea of 20th Century names and styles. I must admit to being skeptical about this. As apostate as it seems, Matisse always seemed to me a distinct second-fiddle to Picasso, his forays into abstraction too tentative to earn him the Big Kudos, and his subject matter, oddly for someone who lived through the WWII Occupation of France and whose daughter Marguerite, a member of the Resistance, was tortured nearly to death by the occupying Nazis, a little too bourgeois and decorative. Matisse, it seems, clung doggedly to the very French ‘joie de vivre’ of La Belle Époch which had its zenith in Impressionism, but which German Expressionism and Picasso’s radical Cubism had already begun to dismantle with vigour. Against the backdrop of these, not to mention Duchamp, Matisse always seems a bit staid.
His statement, ‘I want people who are tired, worried, frazzled, to experience calm in front of my work’ is thus precisely the sort of indictment for which my contemporary hawk-eyes are looking. And while I know that it’s dangerous to apply contemporary morality to work made 50, 60 and even 100 years ago, I’m interested in what Matisse means to us, to this context, now.
That Matisse set himself the goal of using form to create harmony in his work seems to be a criterion that the curators, Patrice Deparpe and Federico Freschi, seem use as a guiding one: the wall text frequently makes reference to Matisse’s formal achievements, his line work, the rhythm and harmonies of his style. He certainly succeeded on these terms, creating some of the most visually arresting works of the twentieth century. By the time he reached his cut-outs in the late 1940s, made during what he termed his ‘second life’ while recuperating from surgery, he had hit on a level of flatness of the sort that Paul Gauguin had only hinted at in the patterned clothing of Polynesian women. It certainly is possible to see the influence of Matisse on Alex Katz, on the hard edges of Pop Art and even on the fragmentation and design of Op. ‘Rhythm and Meaning’ foregrounds this aspect of the grand Fauve’s work: the showing of a full set of plates from his 1947 book Jazz is a coup for our country, starved as we are for solid and complete showings of bodies of work by 20th Century masters.
And yet, I can’t help myself. I remain unconvinced by Matisse.
But hang on, my inner voice whines: why pick on Matisse? What about any number of titans from the last century? It’s arguable that even Picasso slipped into a similar routine as Matisse in the latter part of his career; that, as Simon Schama says of the great Catalan innovator, his twilight years were spent as ‘the Cote d’Azur Communist, knocking off hack-work for the party of peace and goodwill,’ churning out retreads of his greatest hits. But at least Picasso had made Guernica. The great tour de force of political art, it became part of the century’s visual vernacular in a way that sealed Picasso’s position in the pantheon. And it had staying power: it inspired respectful imitations by the likes of our own Dumile Feni in the 1960s; it moved the wild and woolly New York artist and later gallerist Tony Shafrazi to jujitsu its political power when he defaced the work in protest against the impunity enjoyed by US military personnel in the wake of Vietnam war atrocities’ and in contemporary time (in 2002), it spurred US artist Michael Stevenson (not the local gallerist) to make a compelling graphite drawing of a press photo of the MoMA conservators removing Shafrazi’s defacement. In a real sense, Picasso’s most political work entered the discourse of 20th Century visual politics, and became a touchstone (a literal one for Shafrazi) for the crucial role which socially conscious art had to play in humankind’s most tumultuous century. Matisse, by contrast, politely continued making more boudoir drawings, albeit very beautiful ones, along with essentialising paintings of people dancing and playing flutes.
Even Matisse’s Jazz images, ten years after Guernica, seem like a missed opportunity. As a musical form, in the 1940s jazz was beginning to emerge from the shadow of ragtime to become an art in its own right. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were pioneering bebop, a fast-paced mode that allowed performers greater freedom to plays solos, to improvise and to explore. The philosophical implications were clear: human expression, given some parameters of cooperation, is an endlessly productive endeavour; the performers were often as surprised by their works as the audiences. Some of Matisse’s works in this series, to his credit, do hint at a visual equivalent of this trope of improvisation.
But jazz was also a political art form, one which emerged directly from Blues and Spirituals, and which established Black players as the avant-garde. Black intellectuals like Gillespie and ‘Bird’ (Gillespie’s pet-name for Parker) were at the forefront of thinking-by-doing, of a kind of performative philosophical enquiry which the largely White establishment took at least another two decades to embrace. But instead of this fraught history, with its beginnings in slavery, Matisse chose to see a very soft-focus version, ‘rhythm and meaning’. He stopped short of adequately fleshing out what that meaning was. In the prints from this series, his figures dance and gyrate, but they occupy an apolitical space, one tantalizingly yet misleadingly outside of time and conflict.
Curatorially, Deparpe and Freschi have done a lot with a little; the reality of putting together a show on Matisse is that the great works, the truly pioneering formal statements like The Green Stripe (Portrait of Madame Matisse) from 1905, The Open Window from the same year, or The Red Studio from 1911, are simply never going to travel to South Africa: the risks are too great, the costs too prohibitive, and presumably, the institutions which house them too jealous of their treasures. Instead, curators putting together local shows on international artists often have to make do with drawings, prints and multiples, artefacts and lesser paintings (the exhibition of work by Marlene Dumas, in the same space a few years ago is an obvious exception: the contemporary portraitist was represented by key, powerful works from her oeuvre).
The central volume of the Standard Bank Gallery inadvertently tells this story all too clearly; it shows five paintings which even the most ardent fan would be hard-pressed to call ‘important’. Three of these, Poppies and Irises I and II, and Still-life with African Figure (all from 1912) are fairly clearly unfinished, oil sketches more than resolved works, even by Matisse’s standards. And the Portrait of Madame Matisse that is here is undoubtedly a study for what became one of the most famous of modern portraits. In some ways, it may have been better to place the portfolio of prints from the Jazz in the central space, as they form a more coherent statement of the exhibition’s intentions. But this is a meagre criticism, and possibly unfair, given the unseen miracles which the curators and the institution must have performed to even get this show up, against a backdrop of a wildly fluctuating local currency and perceived national instability. On the flipside, the curators have quite progressively dipped into the Gallery’s famed collection of African works, showing a Fang spirit mask amongst others, to contextualize Matisse’s simplification of the human face. Maybe another opportunity for a greater elucidation of the intertwined histories of slavery and jazz lay here? Hindsight is always 20/20, while curating a show (at which I, personally, have recently spectacularly failed) is, by contrast, a fog of demands, compromises and insane pressures.
I left the show somewhat saddened, that the hype somehow didn’t match the experience. For months now, Matisse has been all over my Facebook feed, my email inbox, and even around the city on outdoor advertising. And unlike the cadre of armchair socialists that sees any pairing of art with the language of commerce as the cynical creep of a neoliberalized culture, I rather enjoy art being represented in the media. At least it’s holding its own against Spree adverts and Forex trading pop-ups, and I trust the consuming eye’s level of discernment enough not to see it as a flattening of art into a mere ‘product experience’. The audience I saw at the gallery, from an amorphous throng of high school kids through to tertiary art students and groups of older people, were deeply engaged in the work, listening attentively to a lunchtime walkabout presentation. I just felt, for a depressing moment, that the show wasn’t delivering enough of the best of Matisse, that it couldn’t, and that we’re destined to never see the true glory of Modernist work on this continent, despite Africa’s crucial role in forging its language.