Criticism, Confusion, and Lies

La Femme au chapeau (segment), Henri Matisse

I open with a point of view.

For those who take an interest in modern art, it is likely at some point they will come across a well known photograph depicting the Paris apartment of Gertrude and Leo Stein in which can be seen, along with other famous artworks, including Picasso’s eccentric portrait of Gertrude, La Femme au chapeau, by Henri Matisse, now a cynosure among the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The siblings had a tendency to disagree, and the purchase of this painting, their first Matisse, is a case in point. First revealed to the public two years earlier at the infamous Salon D’Automne of 1905, Leo Stein was initially swayed by the critical opprobrium, later describing the painting to a friend as ‘the nastiest smear of paint’. His sister, however, eventually persuaded him to buy it. The sitter for the painting is Matisse’s wife, Amélie Parayre, who was thirty-three at the time and the mother of Matisse’s two children. Madame Matisse, a milliner by trade, is widely assumed to be wearing one of her baroque creations, a repository of ostrich feathers, bows, flowers, lace, possibly even a stuffed bird. It was no doubt an extraordinary creation but sadly this is not possible to tell as Matisse’s technique, or deliberate lack of one, reduces the variegated complexities of the titular hat to undifferentiated multi-coloured mulch. The rest of the painting is equally obfuscated. La Femme au chapeau is, in effect, a dog’s dinner of creative risks and discoveries all of which the artist completely fails to resolve. Matisse would repeat this delinquency against his wife in another celebrated painting, Madame Matisse, which the Steins also owned and labelled, The Green Line; and combined there is no worse representation of an artist’s wife in the history of art with the possible exception of Bonnard, whose serial misdeeds spanned decades.

In his 1967 essay Complaints of an Art Critic, ‘A position, a point of view’, wrote the art critic Clement Greenberg, ‘depends on definable and exhibitable qualitative criteria and the entire experience of art shows that there are none. Art can get away with anything because there is nothing to tell us what it cannot get away with – and there is nothing to tell us what it cannot get away with because art has, and does, get away with anything.’

Unswayed, and by way of experiment, I enter ‘Matisse is crap’ into Google. 

The first contributor to this scatological contention is the Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon who despised the French artist for his ‘squalid little forms’ and considered his line ‘sickly’. I then follow a thread in response to a recent exhibition of Matisse’s collages in the UK, gleaning comments such as, ‘a load of tosh’ and ‘utterly insignificant’. Linking deeper, Matisse himself is quoted as proposing that a full appreciation of his late work would only come with the passing of time, at which point I was rudely distracted by blogger Max Schindler’s bitter appraisal of why Picasso, rather than Matisse, was crap; describing the Spaniard’s famous painting Guernica as a ‘sprawling cat’s cradle’, having the ‘flair of an eight-year-old scrawling a dirty picture on a classroom chalkboard.’

Max received fifty-eight responses for his diatribe, the first, gently encouraging him to edify himself, causing a Max advocate calling himself Tommy Slapnicker, to pronounce that ‘art should be beautiful in and of itself’. Having once said that, ‘You don’t make art out of good intentions’, a contribution by the French novelist Gustave Flaubert might, at this point, have shed some light on the finer ethical details, but instead someone with the moniker Critics Suck expounds, with somewhat less ironic precision than the author of Madame Bovary, a theory that art, ‘doesn’t have to mean anything, look like anything, or do anything’. Max, then, surprisingly addresses his online-interlocutor as Picasso himself, exclaiming, ‘you pushed the wrong boundaries’; followed by the peculiar pet reprove, ‘bad Picasso, you ought to be ashamed of yourself ‘. The thread eventually loses its way in a barrage of virulent intemperance, Tommy Slapnicker exhorting, ‘Picasso blows goats’ and Conspiracy Carrot coming to the Spaniard’s defence with a colourful and imaginative retort, ‘Dude I hope you get strangled by a huge aids infested cock, (sic) you are simply retarded’.

According to Clement Greenberg, one of the key issues when assessing any art form is in recognising and correcting what he deems a confusion of the arts’; a theory which first appears in his essay Towards a Newer Laocoon. In this essay, written twenty-seven years earlier in 1940, Greenberg traces this aesthetic muddle to a point when painting (and sculpture) had reached such a degree of proficiency as to make each prone to copy the effects not just of the other but more importantly of literature, by which he means narrative, resulting in a gradual corruption of the visual arts and by extension visual art education, and from which certain radical artists in the nineteenth century, by then operating outside of the art academies, would, in Greenberg’s version of events, ‘inexorably’ extricate themselves. This process of correction is described by Greenberg as one of ‘self-definition’, by which he means a self-critical awareness of the essential characteristics of any given art form. To understand this, you must first believe, as Greenberg did, that painting is a singularly visual art form that naturally orientates itself toward static forms on a flat, two-dimensional surface confined within the limits of a frame; something which, according to his purist methodology, has to therefore be truthfully emphasised. Literature, on the other hand, through the arrangement of words on a page, lends itself more toward an imaginary and shifting description of the real world, which in Greenberg’s mind, a visual artist cannot appropriately emulate as this lies outside of his or her creative range, or what he terms ‘area of competence’. In recognising this fact, a modern artist circumvents principles that seek to negate this self-defining truth, for example, the academic requirement to use linear perspective to create an illusion of depth in which to convincingly stage a narrative; and, proceeding from a position of complete freedom of expression, is able to explore the myriad possibilities of a medium hitherto denied by an adherence to spurious rules. Interestingly, Greenberg appears to make no allowance for the fact that traditional academic teaching provided modern artists (Cézanne being a notable exception) with a formal understanding of their craft, which, once learnt, they were able to then modify and subvert. Moreover, far from purposefully distancing themselves from traditional art practices, many of the most courageous French artists of the nineteenth century continued to seek official recognition, highlighting, in fact, a complex and symbiotic relationship between old and new, traditional and modern, that would eventually lead to assimilation and acceptance.

The Edwardian art critic Clive Bell, whose earlier theory of modern art bares some similarities to Greenberg’s own, uses the term ‘significant form’as opposed to ‘descriptive form, to describe the pleasing duality that inevitably results from this process of ‘self-definition’; one in which the medium (paint) becomes obviously part of the final image or, more importantly, evidently applied to the flat surface of the support, which it now shares and competes for with the image, as opposed to being laid down in meticulously disguised layers, as taught by the art academies. In Bell’s experience, the effect is one that stimulates what he calls ‘aesthetic emotions as opposed to ‘descriptive emotions; for Greenberg, it is a case of honestly accentuating the process of painting and, in doing so, the ineluctable characteristics of the medium itself.

The issue, however, was not just the ‘aesthetic emotions’ stirred by the unabashed use of colour and the expressive handling of paint in the work of Matisse and his follower  – Camille Mauclair went so far as to revive Ruskin’s famous rebuff to Whistler, accusing the artists of throwing a pot of paint into the public’s face –  but the absence of what critics such as Louis Vauxcelles referred to as ‘form’, by which was implied established principles of drawing and composition. That said, Vauxcelles, writing in the journal Gil Blas, would admit that Matisse ‘is one of the most richly endowed of today’s painters’, while at the same time inadvertently coining what would eventually become a derogatory moniker: what Vauxcelles was supposed to have said was something along the lines of, ‘Donatello chez les fauves’, in reference to a traditional figurative sculpture by the popular doll maker and sculptor Albert Marque, which oddly shared the same gallery as Matisse and his fellow Fauves.

There was also a much deeper issue at stake. Historically, colour was associated with the senses and as a result, contrary to academic notions of refinement and intellect. In fact, it had been a point of contention for French critics going back to the Romantic painter Delacroix, over half a century earlier. ‘The artist’, Delacroix once said, ‘should never hesitate to exceed the norm.’ and he was true to his word. Combining the writhing compositions of Rubens with a sweet tooth for Venetian palettes, he substituted the smooth brushstrokes and carefully delineated forms demanded by academic regulations with staccato, gestural equivalents, counterpoised with plush complementary colour contrasts.

By the 1880s, Delacroix’s legacy could be seen stretching from the Ile De France to the Cote D’Azur in a diverse society of like-minded mavericks who, in illustrating aspects of contemporary life by painting out of doors, were compelled to confront myriad contradictions between artifice and reality; and who by making a virtue of these differences, would change the method Delacroix had started to undermine even further. Most were credulous epigones, their heads filled with notions of celestial fidelity and pseudo-scientific prittle-prattle, their concerns with the optical effects of natural light, in some instances combined with a glib appreciation of the starkly modulated and delineated shapes of Japanese wood block prints, eventually descending into mannerism and cliché. Others, like the feckless Pierre Bonnard, would employ colour like a bad cook employs salt; too much and always too late.

Independent of this water-shed, the landscape itself was taking on a new cultural character: widespread urbanization, coupled with a diaspora on Biblical proportions of the rural population to cities like Paris, had seen the traditional landscape transformed into a playground for the middle classes, as well as a romantic idyll promoted in guides, that was now easily accessible by a growing rail network. It was also a bourgeois commodity, whether it be the pecuniary returns from hiring out pleasure boats at Bougival or Argenteuil or the price of purchasing an ostensibly sketched tableau of the same spot by Renoir or Monet to hang above the Louis Seize. Renoir’s La Yole, for example, from the collection of the National Gallery in London, painted in 1879/80, depicts a snapshot of two female pleasure seekers enjoying a day on the Seine, along whose western course near to Paris, picnicking, swimming, rowing, sailing and café society, had, by this time, become popular weekend activities. These resorts catered for what has been called the petite bourgeoisie or nouvelles couches sociale; a new sub-class formed from the burgeoning sector of clerical and mercantile jobs created by the expansion of Paris during the Second Empire. Baudelaire decried this trend as ‘a foolish cult of nature’, while its supporters, like the Maxime Du Camp, saw in its ‘vague and consoling pantheism’ a positive reflection of the social and political sea change brought about by the political upheavals of a hundred years earlier.

There was, therefore, nothing new or particularly controversial about colour (versus form) in 1905 and one wonders if art history has exaggerated the fuss. In fact, the zenith had already been reached twenty years earlier in the work of two artists, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, to such an extent that a perturbed Cézanne would censor both, decrying their ‘flat’ pictures; even going so far as to say that, ‘Gauguin was not a painter, he only made Chinese paintings.’ Fauvism, as it eventually became known, is, therefore, revivalism not revolution and like most revivals it now looks meretricious, no more so than in the landscape paintings Matisse and Derain made at Collioure in the South of France in the summer of 1905, a number of which would be exhibited alongside La Femme au chapeau at the 1905 Salon D’Automne. So much rubbish has in fact been written about Fauvism as to obscure the fact that its true legacy in ‘rehabilitating colour’, as Matisse referred to it, was to eventually arm every amateur painter from Warsaw to Walberswick with the notion that in employing a few colour theory mannerisms, one could dispense with well-established principles of design, including the ability to draw. Moreover, the Fauvist re-emphasis on the unfettered expression of colour now appears not only grossly overstated but completely redundant, especially when it was later applied to the French northern landscape: it was one thing to paint sultry Collioure in this manner but Chatou, or, in Derain’s case, London? Furthermore, given Van Gogh’s apotheosis, the result of a large retrospective at the Salon D’Independants in 1904, it is small wonder why no critic then or since has sought to make a direct invidious comparison between the works of the Fauves and their considerably more talented antecedents. Only Derain holds his own in 1905, having the sense to employ a semblance of drawn structure in his brightly tessellated canvases.

Another qualitative comparison that appears to have been largely overlooked is that which opposes Matisse and his followers with their direct German counterparts at the time, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel, whose approach to colour was also influenced by Van Gogh and Gauguin. You could in fact argue that they are more deserving of the appellation Fauve, for their works are both powerful and haunting, not least because their chromatic mobocracy is tethered to appropriately impassioned subjects, notably sex and the city street. Baudelaire declared that black was the colour of revolution, but this was certainly not the case in ante-bellum Dresden, where Heckel, Kirchner and their group, Die Brücke, expressed existential torment with prismatic intensity; their high-mannered equation of bohemian emancipation with ideas of noble savagery, unashamedly played out as two-dimensional theatrical showpieces, like Poussin on acid.

Returning to the subjects of the earlier online thread, Greenberg notes a decline in Picasso’s art after 1930, whereas Matisse remains ‘the greatest living painter’; ‘the brush wielder and paint manipulator par excellence, the quiet, deliberate, self-assured master who can no more help painting than breathing’; although in the same review of 1949, he was clearly unimpressed by Matisse’s now famous cut out collages, describing them as depending too much of sheer colour and having ‘an elemental and static simplicity of design that makes them pieces of decoration rather than paintings’, which, I guess, is a more intelligent way of saying ‘utter tosh’.

Picasso was, in fact, introduced to Matisse by Getrude Stein and the two conducted a polite rivalry for the remainder of the lives, but it was his relationship with George Braque, a synergetic and at times mysterious partnership, that fascinates. The Lennon and McCartney of modern art, their individual art works are, at times, difficult to differentiate. Fitting then that Braque would famously compare himself and Picasso to mountaineers roped together, an umbilical attachment that would last until 1914, when Picasso escorted his climbing partner onto a train bound for the Western Front, never, as Picasso would later say, to be found again. 

Up until 1907, Braque had been a card-carrying Fauvist, but then came a major exhibition of Cézanne’s paintings at that year’s Salon D’Automne that was to change the direction of his work. In the same year, the gazette Mercure de France published Cézanne’s letters to Emile Bernard, in one of which, dated April 15th 1904, he famously encourages his friend to ‘treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective so that each side of an object or plane is directed toward a central point’.

Around this time he also met Picasso, seeing for the first time his monumental painting Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, which is often cited as being the first Cubist painting and for some, the birth of modern art. Les Demoiselles D’Avignon is certainly bolder than anything Picasso had done up to that point, employing a shallow, jagged space in which he appears to cleave the female figures from an indeterminate mass like a deranged sculptor, before cladding their heads in a variety of Hallowe’en disguises cheaply gleaned from ethnographical sources, but at its core, it still resonates with the personal misery of his earlier work, the moral sentiment now expunged by nihilism and guilt. It was also motivated by a desire for recognition which, despite doubts about its quality, including the artist’s own, it duly was. According to the art dealer Kahnweiler, Braque was so discombobulated by the painting’s ferocity he compared the experience to drinking petrol.

Somewhere in the white light, white heat of that year the two artists united in their appreciation of the Cézanne, beginning a process of complementary creative endeavour that would eventually to lead to a new form of pictorial representation. That this discovery etymologically evolved from the depiction of the French countryside should be no surprise for since its adoption eighty years earlier as a subject in and of itself, landscape painting offered the easiest means by which artists could circumnavigate the rules that so strictly governed a less mutable subject such as the human figure.

Anyone who has ever seen a painting by Paul Cézanne should, if they haven’t already done so, make their way to Provence, just as Braque did in 1908, for it is only there that Cézanne’s paintings make complete sense. The light is so bright, the differentiated surfaces so clearly defined that it is impossible not to understand what he was trying to do. Moreover, the observer gains some sense of his awe and humility when confronted with what Cezanne himself refers to in the same letter of April 15th 1904 as, ‘the spectacle the Pater Omnipotens aeterna Deus spread out before our eyes’. In fact, the clarity of forms so overwhelmed him that he tries to paint it all; not through any known organisational principle with the clear aim of rendering an illusion of space, but by an accumulation of equally important and equally tangible graphic approximations of what he thought he saw in front of him. These perceptual gestures are built one upon the other, seemingly from top to bottom, and in doing so expose the surface of the canvas support in a way that had not been seen, at least not in the west, since the adoption of one point perspective in the 15th Century.

Whether or not Cézanne, particularly in his landscapes, was attempting to represent multiple angles is debatable. Certainly, in his still life paintings he attempts to collate different viewpoints simultaneously, not always successfully either: in most cases, they simply appear to be poorly observed. The ancient hill towns and hamlets of Provence, however, are a different matter. Formed additively over hundreds of years, the buildings, which are often peculiarly oblong, also employ a variety of oblique angles corresponding with laws of organic urban accretion. Viewed as a whole from a distance, they make up a pyramidal stack of opposing geometric facets which, seen in the cut-glass lucidity of Provençal light, are in a constant state of perspectival negation; nothing therefore to do with Cézanne making a virtue of subtle ocular shifts of positioning, he was, in fact, painting what he could see. He also knew that the credence of narrative and mimetic signs associated with historical landscape painting would ensure that his aims to reconcile an empirical interpretation of nature with a spurious Franco-Italian tradition and vice versa could never be fully realized, bemoaning the fact until his dying day.

At L’Estaque in 1908, Braque abandons any notion of reconciliation, dispensing first with the subtle modulations of tone and Impressionist colour which enrich the surfaces of Cezanne’s views, making his subject not nature per se: rocks, viaduct, houses, pines, but degraded forms reduced to unalloyed geometric shapes crudely rendered in earth tones and stacked like boxes. The resulting paintings, rejected by the Salon D’Automne that year, were later exhibited in Kahnweiler’s gallery in the rue Vignon. ‘Bizarres cubiques’, Louis Vauxcelles derisively called them and in a word, this new art form had an appellation: Cubism.

The pioneering journey that began at l’Estaque in 1908, would eventually result in some of the most perverse images ever made in the name of art, not least of which are the corrupted portraits that most now associate with Cubism and which Picasso would eventually turn into a sort of brand ident, eventually adopting a compromised and decorative form of Cubism in a vain attempt to paint more like Matisse or ‘French’, as Greenberg calls it.

Picasso neatly summed up the stylistic differences between the two artists when he said, ‘I’ve mastered drawing and am looking for colour, (sic) you’ve mastered colour and are looking for drawing’. He also famously bettered himself to Raphael, although it is clear to anyone prepared to dismiss the hyperbole surrounding him that his celebrated skills as a draughtsman are, like Matisse’s, exaggerated. As Catesby Leigh points out in the online journal Standpoint, in an excellent deconstruction of Picasso’s sloppy drawing of Ambroise Vollard, a meretricious training that placed a strong emphasis on the phoney application of chiaroscuro would, in the end, serve Picasso poorly, particularly when dealing with the intricate and overlapping geometries of the human form. Picasso was, in fact, no more than a generaliser of the human figure; a brilliant cartoonist, at best.

As for Matisse, he continued to push the boundaries of taste and credulity right up to the First World War. By Armistice Day, however, he had retreated to a more comfortable creative enclave in the South of France where, over the course of several decades, before turning in his old age to scissors and glue, he churned out an endless succession of sketchy softcore nudes, banal interiors and monotonous still lives, causing the poet Jean Cocteau to predict as early as 1919, ‘The wild beast has turned into Bonnard’s little cat.’ Like Picasso, Matisse’s training was superficial but unlike Picasso he had far fewer artistic gifts to make up for it. He handled paint clumsily and any understanding of form was too often subsumed by a juvenile desire for novelty, although the gusto with which he exploited a love of colour and pattern is likely to always endure.

What both artists did have in common was a shared interest in the primitive artefacts which, from the point they had first surfaced in Europe toward the latter part of the nineteenth century, gathered a following of credulous disciples eager to equate their stylised vulgarity with bogus notions of intellectual liberty and spiritual truth. Where Matisse saw in these precatory masks and reliquaries from the French Sub-Sahara a refreshingly resonant schema of two- dimensional hominoid designs to overlay his vivid palette, Picasso saw an opportunity to re-impose sculptural form into his work. In both cases, the resulting works, some of the most celebrated in the Modernist canon, now look exploitative and shallow, occasioning, in 2006, Sandile Memele of the South African Department of Arts to accuse Picasso of cultural theft, claiming that he ‘would not have been such as renowned creative genius if he did not steal and re-adapt the work of anonymous (African) artists.’ Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, countered with the assertion that it was through artists such as Picasso that African tribal art came to be widely appreciated. Both miss the larger point; namely that the displacement and grafting of primitive forms onto the traditional framework of western figurative art, was not just spurious and arrogant but would, by virtue of the importance placed on the resulting work by collectors, critics and curators, muddle the standards by which the visual arts have hitherto been judged and from which a recovery has never been fully possible.

Greenberg would find many supporters for his modernist narrative, not least Alfred Barr who would open a museum dedicated to modern art in New York in 1939, although any resulting cultural enlightenment has proven significantly smaller than the rapacious commodification of modern art that inevitably ensued its opening, and which, as the twentieth century came to a close and the internet was switched on for the likes of Conspiracy Carrot and Tommy Slapnicker to hold forth, would come to both overshadow and dictate curatorial decision-making across the globe, to the extent that a year does not go by without another half dozen exhibitions devoted to these two cash-cows of modern art.

As to why so much art in the past has been concerned with narrative, sentiment and mimetic description designed to channel moral, religious, pedagogical and political aims and not with the inescapable fact that, first and foremost, a painting is made up of touches of paint on a flat surface, the answer is, in fact, a simple one: power, benefaction and God.

And on that final note, during a recent visit to the Louvre in which I was faced with a seemingly endless succession of morbid galleries filled with sulking Madonnas and bleeding Jesuses, it was hard not to feel some sympathy with Greenberg’s purist views. But in the absence of any ‘exhibitable qualitative criteria’, how then do you judge art? This question lies at the heart of Greenberg’s petulant essay of 1967, one, in which he was in fact attempting to answer his own critics. The answer appears to be that a responsible critic sidesteps predisposition, expressing instead ostensibly detached appreciation, the scope of which is determined solely by the ‘purity’ of any given artist’s work and, as such, the history of modern art is, in effect, revealed rather than told. And on that circuitous note, I will end with something Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote: ‘The historian gives me a reason, but he invents it; and criticism itself, of which we hear so much, is only the art of guessing, the art of choosing amongst several lies, the lie that is most like the truth’.