Matisse, "Male Model", oil on canvas, 1900
I've been ignoring Matisse for some time now... probably for several reasons. A professor and a grad student (both will remain unnamed) did a bit too much worshipping of Henri during my graduate school years. I grew sick and tired of the constant "kvelling" over the old master. Furthermore, our culture is oversaturated with his work. He had a long healthy life and painted prolifically. There is so much work of his floating around that our museums constantly feature him in both permanent collections and special exhibitions year round. He is easily digestible to the public and his exhibitions are probably annually the largest financial workhorses for big institutions. Matisse can easily "show you the money!". Posters, coffee table books, postcards, and beach towels galore... I cannot help but think of the juicy debate Walter Benjamin would engage in regarding the mass production and marketing of this high art... hell, throw Andy Warhol into the discussion too... he could do screen prints of photos of Matisse a la Marilyn Monroe style. OK, I am veering farther and farther away from my endpoint... which is... that after all that tantruming... I love Matisse. I am currently putting together a introduction lecture for my figure painting students. I want to begin the semester with an inspiring presentation regarding the history of the figure in art and all the ways in which the figure has been interpreted. There is no other more classical tradition in the art school discipline than studying the figure and no object more holy and familiar to us than our own form. The study of the figure is a beautiful thing and quite to my own surprise, when I close my eyes and think of the painting that I find to be the most delicious to show my students... the most perfect study of the human form... it's "Male Model". Now, I am admittedly bias towards the female form. I really prefer seeing the woman's body painted for it's voluptous, fleshy fertililty, and roundness. However, this predisposition is obliterated by this painting. Matisse depicts this model with such chunky richness and incredible rhythm of cool to warm colors. We feel the clunkiness of his physique, the empty stillness of his downward gaze, the girth of his fleshy calf, the S curve of his vertebrae, the contrast of the cool blue of his right pectoral against the warm corals of the genitals. The warm tones of the entire body contrast so beautifully with the deep blue oceanic palette of the room. It's a feast for the senses and I am completely fed when I stare endlessly at this painting.
So, the next time the 1000th person asks me if I've seen the new Matisse exhibition at MOMA... I'll try not to roll my eyes. However, I will mention that if they want to drool a bit over old Henri's works, they should veer over to MOMA's permanent collection and sit awhile with "Male Model". He's all I need... Now, if I could just get him made into a beach towel so that I could squeeze myself into the composition. Creepy... I know.