Henri Matisse: Blue Nudes I-IV

Installation view of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 12, 2014-February 10, 2015). Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art


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by CG Hughes

Henri Matisse spent the years 1947-51 decorating and fitting out the Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican convent at Vence. The stained glass windows, priest’s vestments, altar cloth and murals were all derived from gouaches découpés models. One would think that art, realized in a newly-minted formal language devised by one of the founders of modernism would have been guaranteed a warm reception in France.

Instead, the Parisian avant-garde and intelligentsia, dominated by Marxism and Existentialism, condemned what they perceived to be Matisse’s uncritical endorsement of a reactionary institution. At the same time, the church hierarchy viewed the chapel as an assault against traditional religion. The Dominican nuns for whom the chapel was created, were baffled by the choice of images, which included a great deal of algae and acanthus and comparatively little traditional Christian iconography. Matisse didn’t help matters by informing the press he thought of the chapel and more as a space for meditation than for organized prayer.

His friends made jokes about nuns, virtue, piety, chastity and old-age conversions. Picasso, a frequent visitor to Vence while the chapel was underway, quipped that if Matisse wanted a positive critical response, he should have decorated a brothel. Stung by charges of conservatism, impotence and simple piety, Matisse told his friend Rouveyre that in his new series of female nudes, he “would see the awakening of the converted.”

The “awakening” and the series female nudes to which Matisse alluded, was not a reinvigorated eroticism attested to by the sensual handling of paint or the depiction of carnal subjects. The tone and facture of the Blue Nudes are, in fact, as chaste as anything seen in the Rosary Chapel. Instead of pictorial heavy-breathing, the awakening embodied by the Blue Nudes is a formal one, that takes place within the context of the artist’s long-standing interest in the history of the representation of the female nude, which is quite different from and interest in nude females, although Matisse seems to have wanted to blur that distinction in his remark to Rouveyre.
With their return-to-first-principles emphases on drawing and the undraped model, the Blue Nudes look back to the academic tradition and ultimately, to antiquity; at the same time, they engage with modernist concerns including abstraction, primitivism and, surprisingly, specifically Cubist concerns, like formal completeness and material integrity.

That said, the Blue Nudes are involved in something more and less than historical self-positioning. By banning modeling and color modulation, yet suggesting three-dimensional its by means of overlap, occlusion and implied continuity, has created images that almost pre-cognitive—an awakening of vision.

CG Hughes received his PhD in the History of Art from UC Berkekey in 2000. He has taught Art History at UC Berkekey, UCLA, and USC. He has also held several positions at the Getty Research Institute. He is the author of False Start: Art History and Visual Culture Blog ( http://lostprofile.tumblr.com/)

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs