Archive for Matisse’s back sculptures

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part III)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

matisse-back-ivHenri Matisse, The Back (III), spring-summer 1916,
Bronze, 6′ 2 1/2″ x 44″ x 6.”
(Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2009 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Like Aguado’s photograph and Friedrich’s Wanderer in a Sea of Fog, the human backside was a prop through which Henri Matisse explored what interested him most, the essential character of things beneath their superficial and fleeting exteriors. Deconstruction and simplification of form were to be Matisse’s great helpmates in this search for essential character, particularly during the years between 1913-1917, a period of great artistic experimentation.

The Back III belongs to a series of bronze bas reliefs that the artist made roughly between 1909 and 1930. Although not conceived by Matisse as a series, the artist returned to this subject repeatedly with a continuity of purpose. Moreover, the panels share artistic DNA, for the artist created each new Back from a plaster cast of the previous relief and altered it through the application of clay.

The earliest panel is lost, but, as a group, the remaining bas reliefsThe Back I, 1908-09; The Back II, 1913; The Back III, 1916; The Back IV, c. 1931— superbly demonstrate the artist’s quest to for the essence of human-ness. The choice of pose in the Back series had its genesis predominantly in Cézanne’s painting, Three Bathers ca. 1880, which Matisse went into massive debt to own, but the artist also professed to have been influenced by Gauguin’s Tahitian Women painting.

With each subsequent state in the Back series Matisse created a bolder reduction of that back form into essential shapes, until he arrived (albeit much later in his career) at the radical and monolithic simplicity of Back IV.  By choosing the back  for this sculptural exploration, Matisse forced himself to search for the essence of female form beyond the most obvious differentiators.

With Back III Matisse reached a certain milestone in his quest for the essential identity of human form. He has reduced the figure to just a long tail of hair connected to the vertical spine, the tell-tale curve of the hip, and an arm gesture that speaks to particularly human ability to rotate the arms.

Interestingly, while human-ness is still very much in evidence in Back III, the human presence has receded. The superficial explanations, such as choice of materials metal—its coldness alienates us—and scale—despite the figure’s life-sized dimensions, Matisse has rendered her to feel more massive than we (we see her as the monument of all women)—apply equally, I think, to earlier versions. And yet they retain elements of the human presence.

I can’t help thinking that this absence is really due to the loss of individuality. In other words, has reducing the human form to its visual essence—by its definition the unvarying or universal “truth”—necessarily eliminated the variation and thus the individual identity inherent in the human form? In the artistic rendering of humans, is it possible to capture both individual and collective identity?

Matisse—Madame Matisse rouge

Henri Matisse, Mme. Matisse (madras rouge), 1907, oil on canvas, 39 1/8 x 31 3/4 ” (courtesy Barnes Foundation)

The process of simplification in Matisse’s work was influenced to some extent by Cubism, but also by the artist’s growing interest in sub-Saharan carvings. He once observed of reductive nature of African art: “they were conceived from the point of view of sculptural language. . . made in terms of their material according to invented planes and proportions.” Due to their essential “planes and proportions,” the aesthetic of these ethnographic items were embraced whole-heartedly by the artist in both his paintings and sculptures.

During the period from 1913-1917 in particular, Matisse made great strides pushing his naturalistic style toward abstraction of form. (He never leapt into pure abstraction, as his images were still derived from external realities.) This exploration was not limited to his sculptural works, as these paintings demonstrate.

matisse-portrait-of-sarah-stein-1916

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Sarah Stein, 1916, oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 22 1/4″ (SF MOMA)

By 1916, the Matissean decorative exuberance had begun to creep back into his work. Matisse did not abandon abstraction altogether, but it took him until the 1940s and the experimentation with cut-out form to return full-force to this inquiry.

Hidden Identity—Parts I, II, IV

Wider Connections

Matisse’s drawings for the Back Series—I, II

Matisse’s cutouts

Antiques & the Arts: Cézanne’s influence on Modern Art


Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part II)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1818,
Oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm
(Courtesy Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

The figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape does not greet us or proudly point the way to the majestic landscape behind him.  Nor is he the variety of puny figure found in some landscapes, who are present mostly to demonstrate the monumental scale of the natural world. The “wanderer” deliberately turns his backside to us, assuming the stance of contemplation. His specific identity is not important.  He’s largely there as a symbolic reminder that this untamed landscape is the vehicle by which we humans experience heightened emotion.

The French sculptor David d’Angers reputedly observed of Friedrich: “Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape.” Thus he perfectly summed up the Romantic’s notion of the natural world. Working at the height of German Romanticism, Friedrich’s paintings referenced nature, not only as the antithesis to human civilization, but as the conduit to experience our deeper selves.

Partially as a reaction to the growing industrialization in Europe, the Romantic movement wound itself around the idea that strong emotion—including shock, horror, fear, awe—and sensitivity was a necessary and desired part of the aesthetic experience. The Romantics believed in the transformative power of the untrammeled landscape. The solitude of remote locales became the optimal environment in which to experience the true physical and spiritual isolation, necessary in itself to emotional depth and a deep understanding of the self. At the time, a mountain pinnacle such as the one depicted in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog would have been ideal, for it was as far away from human civilization as any European could reasonably get.

While not concerned the figure’s identity, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog nonetheless delves into the notion of identity, at least in the way the Romantics might have pondered it. The figure is not a random person plucked from obscurity;  it happens to be Friedrich himself. The painter himself stands on the rocky outcropping lost, we presume by the stance, in melancholic thought induced by the wild and shrouded landscape.  He is emblematic of the journey toward self-discovery, which is, after all, is at the root of identity.

Wider Connections

Isaiah Berlin—The Roots of Romanticism
Romanticism & the visual arts (a short primer)
Caspar David Friedrich—other landscapes
ColourLovers—Color and the Romantic painters
Goethe’s  Faust

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