The eternal feminine
Draws us on.
-- Goethe, Faust, Part Two, 1832
O Hebe, goddess of eternal youth…
The most beautiful of the goddesses.
-- Ovid, Metamorphoses
-- Pindar, Nemean Odes
Nowadays…youth itself is a priesthood…at least according to the young.
-- Charles Baudelaire, “Squibs, Intimate Journals,” ca. 1857
Man and woman…are the two halves of one thought…male and female are perpetually passing into one another.
-- Margaret Fuller, Women in the Nineteenth Century, 1845, vi, 103
What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure. It is through this that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have toward life.
-- Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908
When I take a new model, it is from the unself-conscious attitudes she takes when she rests that I intuit the pose that will best suit her, and then I become the slave of that pose….It is perhaps sublimated voluptuousness, something that may not yet be perceptible to everyone.
-- Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter on His Drawing,” 1939
By DONALD KUSPIT, November 2022
“Matisse in the 1930s,” is a grand, comprehensive survey of virtually all the works—paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, book illustrations--that Matisse (1869-1954) made in the last years of his life. Installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it acknowledges the importance of Philadelphia in Matisse’s development. “By 1930,” the Museum tells us, Matisse “found himself in a deep creative slump.” But in that year the Barnes Foundation, then in a suburb of Philadelphia, came to his rescue: commissioned to decorate its main gallery, Matisse produced The Dance, 1930-1933, a monumental mural of female nudes, a theme that harks back to the two versions of The Dance, 1909 and 1910. The theme—naked females, their arms linked as they danced in seemingly delirious, frenzied motion, clearly obsessed Matisse, as Still Life with Dance, 1909 and Les Capucines (Nasturtiums with The Dance II), 1910-1912 make clear.
In 1930 Matisse was 61, in the seventh--penultimate—stage of life, when as the psychoanalyst Erik Ericson writes, the conflict to be mastered is between generativity and stagnation. Clearly Matisse’s “slump” is the stagnation of depression, bringing with it a sense of meaninglessness, informed by a feeling of déjà vu: perhaps the meaninglessness of art, for he had produced innumerable works of art, perhaps wondering why he should make another one—he was after all a famous artist, an avant-garde innovator, the leading Fauvist; and even the meaninglessness of life, for Matisse was literally very sick, almost unto death, his body devastated by cancer, and debilitated by old age. But Matisse continued to find life in the young female nude—eternally young in his art, the eternal feminine that Goethe says draws us on, and symbolizes hope when life seems futile, eternal youth when one knows time is rotting one’s body: Matisse’s art is about the eternal return of the eternally young female in denial of death. Matisse’s eternally young female nude—a female with an eternally young body, a body that never grows old, never will die, because it is the perfect body of a goddess—is implicitly Hebe, the mythical “flower of youth,” the Greek goddess of youth, eternal youth, with the power to restore youth to mortals, to make them as immortal as she is. Marrying her, as Hercules did, Matisse became as strong as Hercules, and as immortal as her. She is Goethe’s eternal feminine in artistic action, for creating art is an attempt to immortalize the mortal. One wonders if Matisse knew Cézanne’s The Eternal Feminine, 1877. One can imagine him as the painter pictured in the work, busily painting the eternally young body of the enthroned goddess, rendering homage to it by unconsciously identifying it—a wish fulfillment indeed.
Her body compulsively repeated in work after work, absorbed in every detail of its appearance and every nuance of its expression, projecting himself into it so that it became a representation of his anima, the feminine part of a man’s psyche, Matisse became creatively alive and young in spirit despite himself—despite his decrepit body, his suffering almost unto death. Driven with life-saving desire for her—“one must always search for the desire of the line,” he said—the line of her body, which he traced and touched in drawing after drawing, Matisse in effect made love to her, caressed her until he completely possessed her artistically and imaginatively. His desire for her—the desire in his line, which seems to exist for its own aesthetic sake, seems to be an autonomous aesthetic phenomenon, which seems to have an abstract immediacy apart from its descriptive, indeed, defining function—is not as sublimated as he thought it was. The old Matisse may have been a lecherous voyeur like the elders who spied on the body of the naked Susanna, but if so all his lechery was in his line. Certainly Matisse’s nude models are not as uncomfortable with the elderly Matisse as Susanna was with the old men who spied on her as she bathed nakedly.
One has “to create or nurture things that will outlast oneself,” Ericson writes—create things such as works of art that will be young forever, hold the interest of later generations, and thus outlast the artist, confirming that he is a great master, one of the immortal artists Baudelaire celebrated in a poem. Considering Matisse’s lifelong and life-giving fascination with the nude female, eternally young and perhaps above all healthy, one can understand why he never depicted sickness let alone death—or old age--in any painting except for La Malade, 1899, The Sickness or The Invalid, a painting of a faceless sick woman in bed. As the perplexed art historian John Jacobus wrote, “The subject of this picture is unique in Matisse’s oeuvre, and while he makes nothing of the potential sorrow or pathos of the theme, it is perplexing, given his celebration of life in all its healthy phases later on.”(1)
Erikson argued that meaningful generativity—convincing creativity—is impossible without an important social relationship—a relationship with a so-called significant other: clearly, in Matisse’s case, his young—eternally young--model, an alluring Venus and lissome Hebe in one narcissistically self-absorbed mythicized female, as the fact that all of Matisse’s dancers look alike, redundantly mirror each other, like the ancient graces. Matisse’s dancers may be manically Dionysian compared to the serenely Apollonian graces, but they also unite to form a magic circle or sacred space—a generative womb, as it were, in which works of art can be born, hopefully not stillborn—none of Matisse’s lively nudes are. But they die—come to a peculiar dead-end--in Matisse’s last Blue Nudes, the series of color lithographs he made from cut-outs in 1952, when he was completely incapacitated—he was immobilized in a wheelchair--after surgery for stomach cancer. He continued to use a scissor to draw these nudes, with obsessive devotion and cunning creativity, until his death in 1954, two years later. Composed of flat pieces of paper, perhaps in oblique acknowledgement of the planar flatness of Cubism, and with that of his friend and competitor Picasso, they are a sum of fragments that form a distorted, unwittingly surreal figure, altogether at odds with the more whole and wholesome female nudes pictured in his drawings. It may be absurd to say so, but he has taken the female body apart, recombining the parts to suggest its puzzling absurdity, and with that a certain disappointment with it, and perhaps with himself, considering his incapacitation. He has put the pieces of the female body together to form a discordant whole, suggesting the puzzle or so-called mystery of woman. But he also seems to be having the second childhood that old age has been said to be, for he is playing with paper dolls, rather than caressing the body of a living model with his line.
In “The Philosophy of Toys,” 1853 Baudelaire muses on the “extraordinary gaiety” of toys, finding “the whole of life” in them, but there is nothing gay or alive about Matisse’s toys, the Blue Nude cutouts. Their bodies are oddly grotesque constructions, a sum of fragments absurdly in conflict with each other—a body distorted by death throes is ruthlessly dramatized. Cut into pieces and falling apart, however nominally together, the nudes are irreversibly disintegrating. Matisse projects his suffering--fear of death--into them; their painfully cut bodies are implicitly his painfully cut body. Operating on them with his scissors, he represents—symbolically re-enacts--the surgical operation that saved his life. He cuts into their bodies as his body was cut into. He leaves their parts on the operating table, displayed for all to see, fearlessly accepting death. The cutouts are not exactly toys one wants to play with: they are grotesquely ugly, unlike his many beautiful drawings. Matisse acted out his defensive aggression, leaving his eroticism by the wayside: the scissor is after all a cold-blooded aggressive instrument compared to the hotblooded paintbrush of his Fauvist works and the seductive line of his intimate drawings. The cutouts lack their subtle, suave beauty. The “cut” to the quick Blue Nudes lack the joie de vivre of Matisse’s earlier nudes, with their full, intact, whole, desirable bodies. Indeed, the late Blue Nudes are hateful rather than lovable. Matisse’s cutouts—oddly tragic piecemeal constructions--of Blue Nudes, peculiarly pain-ridden and tormented, are in effect the sick dregs of his healthy whole nudes. Is he killing the anima in his psyche to die like a man? The blue nudes are broken toys, puppets in some Grand Guignol show, seemingly an artistic heaven, for their blue is the color of heaven, but their bodies are hellishly anxious.
The Sorrows of the King, 1952 conveys Matisse’s acknowledgement and acceptance of death. The king is Matisse, reduced to a pitch-black blob, a lump of dead matter, marked with six five-petaled yellow flowers, probably emblematic of Hebe, the “flower of youth,” holding a yellow guitar, a symbol of Orpheus’s lyre, a symbol of art, with pure white hands, playing it among falling yellow leaves. An anonymous youthful green figure on the ground, a sort of child of nature (nature boy?), reaches out to catch them, as the hands of the guitar player—Matisse, the maker of visual music, in which form and matter seamlessly fuse, and as such is the highest art, as the aesthetician Walter Pater famously argued --also seem to do. Is the guitar an allusion to Picasso’s guitar, perhaps suggesting that Matisse thought he could play it as well, even better, than Picasso, his friendly competitor? Yellow is the color of the sun, nature is green with life—like the head tacked on the black king--black is the color of death. Noteworthily, there is no nude young female in the picture. Matisse’s creativity no longer seems to need her for inspiration. Or is the anonymous form on the right her ghost?
The twisted, distorted, oddly grotesque Blue Nudes, 1952-1954 echo, however distantly, Matisse’s somewhat more muscular, sexual, provocative, and painterly Blue Nude, 1907. More significantly, they have an uncanny affinity with the elongated, distorted mannerist female figures Francesco Primaticcio made at Fontainebleau, masterpieces of French art which Matisse surely knew. The late Blue Nudes—Matisse’s final homage to the nude—are similarly elongated, however more fragmented and distorted—surreally absurd—their bodies. I am suggesting that Matisse’s Blue Nude cutouts are implicitly mannerist, and with that surrealistic, mannerism being surrealistic in spirit and style, as its de-idealizing distortions of the human body and dream-like pictures suggest. Art historians have convincingly argued that Mannerism was the beginning of Surrealism, which has become a staple of modern art. I am suggesting that in need of new inspiration and freshness, a new way of being modern, up-to-date—for his realism seemed stale, tired, and shopworn, behind the times--Matisse turned to then trendy surrealism for inspiration: his distorted Blue Nude figures—surreal abstractions--are nightmarish, bad dreams straight out of his unconscious. He was too emotionally troubled to continue to make lovely and lovable nudes, to consciously invest himself in their beauty: life—his body—had become ugly, and with that despairing. The Blue Nude cutouts radiate despair—they may be as blue as the sky but they have the “blues.” They are troubled and troubling figures, collapsing in psychotic despair. They suggest that Matisse’s spirit has become as broken as his body, falling apart yet continuing to live: the cutting edge Blue Nudes are manically alive.
But they are not all despair and suffering, pain and pathos: Matisse’s Blue Nudes are not just damaged paper dolls, emotionally twisted and disturbed, but form a kind of arabesque, as Matisse acknowledged. An ornamental design of intertwined flowing lines, forming a kind of Gordian knot, the arabesque indicates the influence of Arabic or Moorish decoration on Matisse’s art. Its exoticism is unmistakable, signified by the clothing and veils of some of his models, noteworthily The Persian Woman, 1929 and the Three Sisters, 1916-1917 in the central panel of that triptych. They are not the Mediterranean Venus In A Shell !, 1930 and Venus In A Shell II, 1932, but they are, in their own cultures, Venuses, if somewhat more modest that the stately Mediterranean Venus, proud of her naked body.
A woman always motivates Matisse to make art, inspires his creativity, and two women motivated him—inspired and helped him--to make his last works, indeed to survive despite his near death experience with cancer. One was Lydia Nikolaevna Délectorskya, a model who posed for Matisse and worked for him from 1932 until his death in 1954. Matisse “renewed himself as a painter with Pink Nude, for which Lydia modeled over a period of six months in 1935.” Lydia found temporary work with Matisse as a studio assistant, and then as a domestic helper for his wife Amélie, who was an invalid. Lydia eventually became Matisse’s studio manager and principle model. She was 25, Matisse was 65 when they met; she became his muse, another young woman who could breathe life into his art, inspire him. It has been said that “she had amazing capacities.” She and Matisse had a close working relationship and eventually, it seems, a sexual relationship, leading his wife of 41 years to leave, despite Matisse asking her to stay and dismissing Lydia. She attempted suicide by shooting herself in the chest, remarkably surviving with no serious after-effects. She “returned to Matisse and worked with him for the rest of his life, running his household, paying the bills, typing his correspondence, keeping meticulous records,, assisting in the studio, and conducting his business affairs.” And undoubtedly inspiring him. He could not function—survive and work--without her help, support, and love. The day before he died in his sickbed on November 3, 1954, Matisse made a last drawing of Lydia with a ballpoint pen, in effect confessing his dependence and love for her. He needed her life-giving, inspiring presence to the bitter end.
In 1941 Matisse nearly died from duodenal cancer. The surgery was successful, but “resulted in serious complications from which he nearly died,” leaving him “bedridden for three months.” That same year Monique Bourgeois, a nursing student, responded to Matisse’s advertisement for a “young and pretty night nurse.” Their relationship was strictly Platonic; Bourgeois was an angel of mercy not a passionate lover. In 1944 Bourgeois left Matisse to enter a convent, becoming a Dominican nun with the name Sister Jacques-Marie, in 1946. It was she who was responsible for “the creation of what Matisse considered his greatest life achievement: the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.” Matisse called Sister Jacques-Marie “the true initiator of the chapel.” She posed for Matisse, although she thought she was ugly—her parents told her she was—but Matisse apparently admired powerful as well as sexy women. He was drawn to “her statuesque quality and the nascent power in her,” a power that Lydia Delektorskaya also had. Bourgeois appears in Monique in Gray Robe, The Idol, Green Dress and Oranges, and Tabac Royal. Delektorskaya said it was “Monique, more than any other model, who renewed Matisse’s determination to push forward once again as a painter into unknown territory.” Matisse said the Chapel of the Rosary was their “shared project.” In fact “Sister Jacques-Marie built a plywood model, one-tenth the size, following Matisse’s instructions, and he used it to design all the elements of the building.” When she told Matisse “that she believed he was inspired by God, he replied ‘Yes, but that god is me.’” But it is clear that from the beginning of his career, when he was sick young man in bed recovering from an appendicitis operation, uncertain about what to do with his life, and his mother gave him painting materials to distract him from his painful body, Matisse needed the attention, support, love, Platonic or carnal, of a woman, to become a god, or at least to satisfy his narcissistic delusion of artistic grandeur. WM
(1) John Jacobus, Henri Matisse (New York: Abrams, 1972), 92
All quotations about Lydia Delektorskaya and Monique Bourgeois/Sister Jacques-Marie are from Wikipedia.
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author