by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery, Oslo
Sculpture with a Persian Vase by Henri Matisse, 1908

Matisse and the East

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 29 November 1997


Matisse developed his artistic style during a period when Europe was experiencing an unprecedented influx of art works and artifacts from the East, Africa and Oceania, an age of international exhibitions, expanding museums and adventurous private galleries. But while to most eyes this plethora of novelties seemed attractive simply for their curiosity and decorative value, Matisse found in them something more profound, more spiritual even - and ultimately identified in them the elements that made it possible for him to step beyond Western traditions and create a new synthesis of East and West in visual art.

The artist was emphatic about his debt to non-European art, but his works, often so simple on the surface, remain imbued with a kind of elusive aura that even his brilliantly perceptive rival Picasso found tantalizingly impossible to penetrate. Now in the aftermath of the retrospectives in New York in 1992 and Paris in 1993, 'Matisse: 'La révelation m'est venue de l'Orient'' ('The revelation came to me from the East') at the Capitoline Museums until Jan. 20 delves into the multiple sources of Matisse's inspiration by bringing together some 200 of the painter's works and more than 70 'Oriental' pieces from his own collection and from others, such as that of the Louvre, with which he was familiar - a complex venture, here carried off with great success.

The Russian magnate and connoisseur Sergei Shchukin, who had introduced Cézanne and Monet to Russia and was one of the first to buy Gauguin, then virtually unsalable in France, also became a passionate collector of Matisse, when he, too, was hardly known in his native land. Shchukin had a considerable degree of personal contact with Matisse and more immediate influence on the course of his career than on that of any of the other avant-garde artists he took up. The Russian bought his first Matisse canvas in 1906. Relations between Shchukin, also a collector of Russian icons and Oriental art, and Matisse, who was already deeply affected by non-European art were among the most fruitful between artist and patron.

Shchukin supported Matisse until the outbreak of World War I, securing many of his early masterpieces, and the 13 canvases on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (and numerous others from private and public collections, notably in Scandinavia) amply demonstrate the progress of Matisse's experimentation with composition, color and decorative motifs, drawn from a vast range of Oriental works as diverse as Mesopotamian reliefs, Coptic textiles, Islamic miniatures, ceramics, ivories and glass, and Japanese prints. Some of these objets are intermingled with the artist's own pictures - such as the 18th-century Iranian blue-glass ewer that actually appears in the still-life 'Sculpture With Persian Vase' (1908) and a 15th-century Herat miniature of the kind that inspired not only the structure and color scheme but even the physiognomies of Madame Matisse and the children in 'The Painter's Family' (1911) - while other relevant pieces are shown in a sumptuous display in the last room of the exhibition.

The directness with which the artist took colors from Oriental models is at times startling - some of the color combinations and even the style of figure outlines in the ancient Coptic textiles are, as it were, 'pure Matisse' - but it is equally clear that these forms and colors encapsulated for him the very essence of the secrets that Oriental art possessed and Western art lacked. by preparatory drawings, now in private hands, and the full-scale gouache-on-paper designs, owned by the Vatican Museums, for the stained-glass windows of the nuns' chapel.

It was the artist's series of 'Odalisques,' which occupied him for much of his time during the 1920s, that brought widespread fame, and it was an Odalisque that won him his first purchase by a museum in 1922. When he embarked on these paintings and engravings the lessons he had learned from non-European artists were already thoroughly absorbed and powerfully defined his palette and style.

Thus, the most 'Oriental' aspect of these pictures lies not in the fact that they are of exotic, semi-clad subjects in colorful, decorative settings, but that they are depicted in a style that subtlely owes so much to Oriental artists.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023