Matisse’s years between the wars was spent in Nice. He was a Northerner, but found the South to be liberating – the glorious light and color suited his intentions for an exotic form of Modernism. Many thought he was simply lost in the Orientalism of the 19th Century Salon – creating and painting his own version of an Ottoman era seraglio – but he was actually painting his way through the French Masters. Using artists like Ingres, Delacroix, Gérôme and Chassériau, among many others – Henri found his way into a different kind of Modernism with bright color, expressionistic techniques and a surreal Mediterranean classicism. This lesson about how to see the past was not lost on Picasso who used Matisse’s examination of the past in his own late works.
It is difficult in our times to see what’s worthy in these paintings – instead we move straight to the late work – the cutouts – and back again to his High Modern moments. But there is something in these paintings that persists, that demands that we reconsider this work.
“Look at these odalisques carefully: the sun’s brightness reigns in a triumphal blaze, appropriating colors and forms. Now, the Oriental decors of the interiors, all the hangings and rugs, the lavish costumes, the sensuality of heavy, slumbering flesh, the blissful torpor of the faces awaiting pleasure, this whole ceremony of siesta brought to maximum intensity in the arabesque and the color must not deceive us: I have always rejected anecdote for its own sake. In this ambience of languid relaxation, beneath the sun-drenched torpor that bathes things and people, a great tension smolders, a specifically pictorial tension.”