Owing to a temporary absence from New York, I was late in getting to see the Académie Matisse exhibition that David Cohen has organized at the New York Studio School in Greenwich Village, so I must report straightaway that this delightful and highly instructive show is scheduled to close on Nov. 17. For anyone with an interest in the art of Henri Matisse-which at this point in time must include everyone with an interest in the art of painting-this is an exhibition not to be missed, for it does more to clarify the Matissean aesthetic and its influence on modern painting than many of the stout volumes of history and criticism that have been devoted to the master’s oeuvre .
Be warned, however, that except for three marvelous drawings by Matisse himself, this is not a show devoted to the master’s own work. It is sometimes forgotten that, at the height of his notoriety as the leader of the Fauvist movement, Matisse was prevailed upon to establish an art school. It lasted for only three years (1908-11), yet during its brief existence the Académie Matisse, as it was called, became one of the principal crossroads of modern painting for a number of gifted European and American artists. It is the paintings and drawings of these artists-none of them French, by the way-that have now been brought together in the exhibition called Académie Matisse: Henri Matisse and Nordic & American Pupils.
Only the Americans-Max Weber, Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur B. Carles,
Alfred Maurer and Morgan Russell-and the sole English painter, Matthew Smith, are likely to be familiar to most museumgoers. Connoisseurs of modern German painting may be familiar with the work of Hans Purrmann, but most of the Europeans who studied with Matisse were Scandinavians whose work has rarely, if ever, been seen in New York.
It has to be understood that in the first decade of his notoriety as the leader of the Fauves (or “Wild Beasts,” as Matisse and his circle had been dubbed), he was more admired by foreigners than by the French. It was, after all, the Russians and the Americans who acquired significant collections of his early work almost as quickly as it was created. (The great Matisses we see in the Paris museums today were mostly acquired after the artist’s death in lieu of death duties.) It took the French a good deal longer to understand Matisse’s greatness-longer, certainly, than the international cadre of aspiring talents that flocked to his classes when he was still one of the most controversial figures in the Paris avant-garde.
Given the reputation Matisse had acquired as the wild man of modernist color, it must have come as a shock to some of his early students that the program of instruction he offered was remarkably conservative. As Jean Heiberg, the first Norwegian to enroll in the Académie, later wrote in a memoir: “The school had, at Matisse’s suggestion, acquired a copy of two antique sculptures from the Louvre, Mars and an archaic sculpture, which he often used to demonstrate. Every now and then he got completely rid of the life model and we
only drew from plaster casts …. He opened our eyes to architectural composition (construction), to mechanism, function and movement. Overall one can say that the basis of his teaching was classical.”
About the use of color, too, he was similarly conservative in his guidance. As the Swedish painter Henrik Sorensen recalled: “He was ruthless with anyone whose pictures were ‘Matisse-ized.’” And further: “He gave us the sense of color as a means of creating depth, distance and motion in the picture. With patient exactitude he explained to us, over and again, the principles of the Ancients regarding convexity in form, how the human body has set points, how the joints have meaning, how there are patterns of movement in a figure. And in the final analysis, there are the model’s individual characteristics. These rules, he stressed, were passed down from his own great teachers, through Gustave Moreau, and back to Raphael, Leonardo and the Greeks.” On Sundays, he sent his students to the Louvre to study the Old Masters.
All of this, by the way, is very similar to the program of instruction offered by the New York Studio School today.
In the exhibition itself, it is the drawings by Heiberg and Sorensen that most resemble Matisse’s, and some-to an inexpert eye-might easily be mistaken for him. In many of the paintings, however, the presiding practice is largely Cézannean-another reminder, perhaps, that, as Jean Heiberg said, “the basis of [Matisse's] teaching was classical.” Heiberg and Sorenson were clearly the most gifted of these painters among the Europeans, and it would certainly be interesting to see more of their work.
Yet to my eye, the strongest paintings in the Académie Matisse show are to be found in the American contribution. I know this opens me to the charge of cultural chauvinism, but I’m prepared to live with that, given pictures the quality of the American pictures in this exhibition. Max Weber’s The Apollo in Matisse’s Studio (1908) is not only a first-rate picture; it may be one of the best that Weber ever created. Patrick Henry Bruce’s Still Life (circa 1919), and the two Fauve Landscapes by Alfred Maurer-one circa 1907, the other 1910-12-are also splendid pictures. Morgan Russell’s post-Synchromist Reclining Woman (circa 1920) may be somewhat overripe in its bravura, but it too is a powerful picture. The Scandinavians, at least in this period of their development, remained closer to Cézannean orthodoxy and show fewer signs of expressive independence.
Yet the final impression one takes away from the Académie Matisse show is, inevitably, an impression of Matisse’s own luminous intelligence and his ability to impart its spirit to such a broad range of foreign talents. The show also makes one shudder all over again at the way Matisse was so badly misunderstood at one of the creative peaks of his career. That’s an old story, of course, but this lovely exhibition is a vivid reminder of the contradictions that often separate public perception from the reality of artistic accomplishment.
Académie Matisse: Henri Matisse and His Nordic & American Pupils can be seen at the New York Studio School, 8 West Eighth Street. The hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., admission is free, and I repeat that it closes on Saturday, Nov. 17.
Follow Hilton Kramer via RSS.