Like Waves Against the Sand: Preview of Matisse and the Sea at the St. Louis Art Museum – cialisdfr
Like Waves Against the Sand: Preview of Matisse and the Sea at the St. Louis Art Museum
Like Waves Against the Sand: Preview of Matisse and the Sea at the St. Louis Art Museum

Henri Matisse, Bathers with a Turtle, 1907–08, oil on canvas, 71 1/2″ x 87″, St. Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr./Photo: 2024 d. Succession H. Matisse and the Artists’ Rights Society (ARS), New York

The sea is a mystery, the original turned upside down. For most of human history, our visits were limited to the length of a single breath, and so in its depths grew myths and monsters unfathomable on land. The shimmering surface of the azure Mediterranean waters beckons the artists as a portal. A glass-like door to another universe whose songs were sung by scribes and sirens alike. It is not surprising, then, that an artist like Henri Matisse, whose creative antennae are so keenly attuned to light and color, should have been drawn to the sea in all its myriad moods, and that he should return to it as a leitmotif throughout his life. The curators’ case for “Matisse and the Sea” at the St. Louis Art Museum is compelling, if not always convincing, but art moves invariably on the calm waves of truth.

Anchored around the museum’s undeniably beautiful and strange 1907/08 masterpiece, Turtle Bathers, the show is a focused, career-spanning survey of prized works. Beginning with the divisionist experiments of the modernist master on the banks of Collioure, it ends with the colored and cut contours of a large blue nude body. It’s a journey that stretches from the south of France to the islands of Polynesia. But the site of Matisse’s most intense formal and conceptual interests is actually not the sea but the shore.

Henri Matisse, Three Bathers, 1907, oil on canvas, 23 3/4″ x 28 3/4″. Bequest of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan/Photo: 2024 Bequest H. Matisse and the Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

An artist of deep contradiction, publicly Matisse desired works of clarity and strong expression while remaining tightly guarded and private. As a union of different and diametrically opposed worlds, a space where the norms of society no longer apply, the coast is the perfect manifestation of his temperament. Even today, where else can you see bodies of all colors, stripes, shapes and types in the equivalent of underwear or less, and have them be so perfectly natural?

From the aforementioned Bathers to the curious Large Rock with Fish, Matisse scours the beach for signs of life, light, lust and horror. His world is populated first by fishermen and their boats. These earliest conceptions of the coast in works such as The Red Shore are his most literal. They reflect the conscious mind of the artist as he seeks form and technique to contain his expressive purposes. In two years he almost found it.

Henri Matisse, “Colliure (La Moulade),” 1906, oil on panel, 9 1/2″ × 12 3/4″, Private Collection/Photo: 2024 Bequest H. Matisse and the Society for the Rights of Artists (ARS), New York

In the terrific “Turtle Bather,” the beach is reduced to a viridian green stripe, the sea to an ultramarine stripe, and the three striated figures that dominate the scene look scared and intimidating. While the painting is undoubtedly an amalgamation of many interests, influences and ideas, it is undeniably Matisse’s autonomous projection. All who saw it at the time of its conception, including its creator, recognized the peculiar and powerful “power” that radiates from it to this day.

Although much ink has been spilled in an attempt to make sense of this hypnotic image—including essays cataloging de rigueur American concerns about race, ethnicity, and gender—none has been particularly enlightening. It is the work of abstraction and the subconscious mind. Like the undifferentiated blue formlessness of the ocean lurking in the background of so many of the works on display, it seems to mock those who seek materialistic explanations for its existence. Like the sea itself, it can only be experienced.

Matisse and the Sea is on view at the St. Louis Art Museum, One Fine Arts Drive, St. Louis, Missouri, through May 12.

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