It’s odd now to recall a time when the word “decorative,” as applied to the paintings of Matisse, was a term of critical reproach. “Decorative” was then taken to signify something shallow or superficial; it also suggested the pleasures of a self-indulgent hedonism—the opposite of everything deep and profound in art. The association with pleasure, moreover, was reinforced by Matisse’s principal subject matter, which at the time amounted to a virtual harem of odalisques.
That the decorative element in painting and its attendant pleasures might be aesthetically profound was simply not understood by either the critics or the public, and without that understanding, nothing about Matisse’s radical achievement made any sense. He was denounced as a madman or something worse, especially in his native France, where received opinion often treated him as a public embarrassment. It was left to foreigners—mainly Russians and Americans—to rescue this great artist from his philistine adversaries.
This is not to say, however, that even the Matisse admirers among us ever fully understood the sources of his special genius or the ordeals he endured in the course of his career. For a comprehensive account of both the life and the work, we’ve had to wait for the two-volume biography of Matisse that has now been completed by the British writer Hilary Spurling and the exhibition called Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams—His Art and His Textiles, which has now come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is the first exhibition of Matisse’s work that concentrates on the inspiration and invention that the artist derived from his obsession with the aesthetics of textile design. It thus confronts the “decorative” issue in Matisse’s oeuvre with an unparalleled boldness of spirit and a vast repository of information. It turns out that the Matisse family had for generations been involved with the textile industry in northern France and that Matisse himself had been a collector of fabrics since his student days in Paris. In other words, textiles have all along been the key to a full understanding of Matisse’s art, but it wasn’t until Ms. Spurling produced her marvelous biography that we could fully appreciate their huge contribution to the artist’s pictorial imagination.
About the role of the “decorative” in Matisse’s paintings, Ms. Spurling is also a shrewd critic. In her essay for the exhibition catalog, she writes:
“Critics routinely dismissed the work of [his] Nice period at the time and afterwards as decorative, shallow and self-indulgent. Matisse was stigmatized, especially in comparison with Picasso, as a worldly and essentially frivolous lightweight, an image that still lingers in the popular imagination half a century after his death. He was used to coming off badly in the perennial hostilities that had dogged him all his life between the noble art of painting and the humble, despised decorative arts of his native region. ‘It’s a bad mistake to give a pejorative sense to the word “decorative,”’ he replied. ‘A work of art should be decorative above all.’ He saw the paintings of this period as a series of encounters in which he tested color to the limit, constantly shifting the borders of perception in a process that culminates in the astonishing Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground (1926), where the seated nude seems not so much human as totemic, hard and unyielding as if carved out of wood or stone. It is the textile that appears to surge and swell from the white wrap billowing between her thighs to the patterned rug and wallpaper tipsily surrounding her with their blowsy curves and floppy, red, almost hallucinogenic flower blobs. Nothing stimulated more vigorously the intuitive organic growth at the core of Matisse’s work.”
Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams—His Art and His Textiles remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, through Sept. 25, and is accompanied by a well-illustrated catalog.