Despite Mentor Matisse, Weber Lost Early Magic

Toward the end of Hilary Spurling’s The Unknown Matisse (Knopf), the recently published first volume of what promises to be a definitive biography of Henri Matisse, there are a few passages that give us a glimpse of the American painter Max Weber, whose work is currently the subject of an interesting exhibition, Max Weber Discoveries , at the Forum Gallery. Ms. Spurling doesn’t have a lot to say about Weber, but it is enough to place him in the avant-garde milieu he frequented in Paris when a number of the works in the current show at the Forum were created.

In the fall of 1907, Matisse was persuaded by Sarah Stein, the sister-in-law of Gertrude and Leo Stein, and a few other foreigners-mostly Germans and Americans-to conduct a small weekly class for aspiring painters. Weber, who was then in his mid-20’s, was a very active member of that group. As he later said of this experience: “We felt that a rising master was coming to bring us light and lead us out of the chaos towards the right path.”

If this sounds a shade messianic to us, well, the leaders of the Paris avant-garde in this halcyon period were regarded by their acolytes as the prophets of a new age-and the younger generation was quite right to do so. Yet the atmosphere in which Matisse and his acolytes were briefly joined in a common purpose was more gemütlich than pious. It included musical evenings, for example, in which Matisse performed with his students. “Max Weber sang Handel arias and Schubert songs to the accompaniment of Mlle. de Ward, who was a fine pianist,” writes Ms. Spurling. “Matisse himself performed in his new studio on a tiny mechanical organ, using music rolls which needed ‘strong lungs and strenuous pedalling with the feet.'” On one occasion, Matisse played the whole of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on this exhausting instrument, nearly collapsing in the process.

Almost as important for this small band of students as Matisse himself was Matisse’s reverence for Cézanne, whose death in 1906 was promptly followed by a memorial exhibition of 56 of his paintings in the Salon d’Automne of 1907. Matisse actually owned a Cézanne himself, one of the many versions of the Three Bathers , and on the occasions when he invited members of the class into his studio to study the painting, “His silence before it was more evocative and eloquent than words,” Weber recalled. “A spirit of elation and awe pervaded the studio at such times.”

I mention all this in connection with the current Forum exhibition because all of the early paintings and drawings in the show belong to the period in which this young American painter was working under the magic spell of his first encounters with the art of Matisse and Cézanne. One of the first paintings we see in this exhibition is a small still life called Bowl of Fruit (1907), which is itself a masterly homage to the Cézannean esthetic. In the next room, there is a powerful drawing that scarcely needs the title that has been attached to it- Seated Nude (Matisse Class) (1908)-to remind us of the circumstances or the spirit in which it was created. And so it is with certain other early works in the show: another wonderful still life painting called The Green Bottle (1907), which is a virtual dialogue between Matisse and Cézanne, and the drawing of Two Figures Embracing (1909), which was surely inspired by Matisse’s well-known sculpture of 1907 called Two Women , yet also suggests a close acquaintance with the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi.

A little later, of course, Matisse’s influence on Weber’s painting was somewhat abated in favor of Picasso’s analytical Cubism. (Weber’s best-known painting in this vein, the Chinese Restaurant of 1915, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum, is not included in the Forum exhibition.) Weber had a friendship of sorts with Picasso, but he was never as close to Picasso as he was to Matisse. It wasn’t, after all, the proto-Cubist element in Cézanne that appealed to Weber’s sensibility but the more Expressionist vein, and that, as it was developed in Matisse’s Fauvism, was the basis of some of Weber’s finest early pictures.

When he returned to New York in 1909-four years before the legendary Armory Show, which introduced the New York art world to the modernist movement-Weber was rightly regarded as a significant figure. Cézanne was still a mystery, and Matisse scarcely a rumor. It was only at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery that modernism was beginning to be celebrated; and for a time Weber became an admired figure in the 291 circle. Weber organized the first exhibition here of paintings by Henri Rousseau, with whom he had also struck up a friendship in Paris. He produced some audacious abstract sculpture. He even published some of his own Cubist poetry. There was every reason to believe that he would go on to become one of the towering talents of the modernist movement in America.

In my judgment, however, Weber proved instead to be one of the great disappointments in 20th-century American art. He was never again able to recapture the spirit that had taken possession of him in the company of Matisse. The three female nudes in the painting called Tranquility (1928), in the current show, look like unintended parodies of Cézanne, and some of his later figure paintings-not included in this show-are even worse. There are some remarkable moments when his talent seemed to take fire again-in the pastel Flower Piece (circa 1922), for example, which seems to have been inspired by Odilon Redon, and in the haunting, almost ghostlike figure in another, later pastel called Wonderment (circa 1952). But for the most part, the painting became coarser, the subject matter somewhat kitschier, the inspiration more erratic. From the 1920’s onward, the magic was gone.

Still, it is important to be reminded of what the young Max Weber achieved when the spirit was upon him, and that is the reason why Max Weber Discoveries is an exhibition very much worth seeing. It remains on view at the Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through Feb. 20.