Review: ‘Matisse and the Sea’ at the Saint Louis Art Museum


A black and white photo of an old man standing on a beach
Matisse in Tahiti, 1930. Archives Henri Matisse, all rights reserved, Photo: F.W. Murnau

Like other shows that have sought to shed new light on artists known to a wide public, such as the Met’s Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” “Matisse and the Sea” at the Saint Louis Art Museum illuminates the permanence of the ocean in Matisse’s works and how they evolved. Through more than seventy paintings, ceramics and sculptures plus his famous paper cut-outs, Henri Matisse is revealed as not only a visionary but also a disciple and a collector.

The exhibition, which considers how Matisse’s stays along the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific coasts transformed his practice. follows an overall chronological course. It first examines his avant-garde artistic milieu and those who influenced him, such as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Aristide Maillol, Louis Valtat, André Derain and Pablo Picasso. The show includes work by many of these artists to demonstrate commonality in style and form in pushing the boundaries of post-impressionism. For example, Valtat’s pointillistic garden landscape, Garden at Anthéor in Spring (1902), exudes light and airiness, set in the colorful outdoors of southern France while Maillol’s curvy models foreshadow Matisse’s own bent and arched human compositions.

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Cézanne’s Three Bathers (1879-1882), acquired by Matisse in 1899, established his deep interest in the genre of bathers and nudes (often, nude bathers). In it, three naked female bathers gather near a river in what appears to be a forest, perhaps at dawn. Cooler hues cast blue and purple shadows on their exposed skin. Color is applied in thick impasto creating a vivid expression, unlike the more academic nudes that emulate classical scenes. Here, the women mostly turn their backs to the viewer, retreating in their friendship and the pleasure of their shared moment.

Carrying a deep reverence for Cézanne, Matisse’s ruminations over the possibilities of the nude and reimagining landscapes will grow from Three Bathers and his encounters with non-Western art. In Music (Sketch) executed in 1907, Matisse paints four paean characters in an unspecified landscape. This work already exudes many of the painter’s characteristics: the nude as an essentialized quality, androgynous curved figures, as well as the use of bold yet minimalistic color. The curvilinear, aquatic-like line work already channels his famous Dance (1910). One of the characters sits pensively, in a crouching position that Matisse will further explore in other works, such as in Bather (1909), where the painter grappled with his character’s hunch as they enter a body of pure ultramarine blue. In these early paintings, water is first a physical and symbolic stream.

A painting of three woman on a beach with small sailboats in the sea
“Three Bathers”, 1907; oil on canvas; 23 3/4 x 28 3/4 x 15/16 inches; Lent by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan. © 2024 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The show also follows a geographical itinerary. As Matisse moves to Nice, he is captivated by the changing colors of the Mediterranean Sea, which he observes from his studio. He paints interiors in which the ocean becomes a focal point rather than an ornamental detail. To him, the sea is more than an object of artistic scrutiny, it is an engrossing panorama and a lifestyle. Matisse is actively involved in Nice’s nautical club, for example, and we later observe how much his own time bathing, swimming and diving inspired his intuitional and sensitive relationship with oceans.

There are several stand-out works in “Matisse and the Sea”, such as Bathers With a Turtle and its three naked female figures observing and playing with a turtle. Their fertile bellies and breasts are protruding, like the African sculptures in which Matisse took a liking. The two “Oceania” tapestries, The Sea and The Sky (both printed on linen in 1948 after Matisse’s transformational stay in French Polynesia in 1930) represent abstracted marine life forms—fish, seaweed, crustaceans, corals—but also birds projected against a sandy background. They appear like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to complete the vision of an architect. Considered together, these three works communicate with one another, highlighting Matisse’s consistency in his repetitive exploration of motifs. 

In Bathers With a Turtle, he changed his mind. An analysis of the painting reveals that Matisse intended a pond or river as well as two landmasses to feature in the background, in the manner of Cézanne. At a later stage, he chose to extend the body of water to the sky, which accentuates a gradient of green-blue hues and, as in the “Oceania” tapestries, serves to cosmologically approach earth, water and sky into an interconnected system of harmony.

The paper cut-outs presented show us the artist “painting with scissors.” They tie an intention to radically experiment with color, abstraction, geometrical shapes and negative spaces, elevating “childishness” as a notion of untainted truth, in line with “primitivism”, a movement en vogue during Matisse’s time.

French critic Philippe Dagen qualified primitivism as a “modern invention.” Historically, the intellectual and cultural movement raised the “primitive” as an artificial antidote to the ills of modern society. Mainly encompassing non-Western references to tribal organizations of society and visual art, primitivism also became interested in childhood, madness and prehistorical art as sites of unobstructed expression of human truth. It led artists to explore essentialized versions of the strange, the faraway and the “other” to engage with myths, enchantment, dreams and escapism. Largely resting on a fabricated and sublimed notion of pre-modern or pre-historical precedence, primitivism sought to go “backward” to propel new propositions.

An abstract rendering of a seated woman done in bright blue paper
“Blue Nude I”, 1947; gouache, painted paper cut-outs on canvas; 41 7/8 x 30 11/16 inches; Foundation Beyeler Collection, Inv.60.1. © 2024 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Beyond Matisse as the towering cultural guru of mid-century aesthetics, exhibition curator Simon Kelly aptly recalls the importance of historicizing the artist, to “see his artwork as imbricated within the wider colonial project of domination,” as he wrote in one of the exhibition catalogue’s essays. Matisse’s oceans also represent France’s imperial ambition through its exploitation and control of territories as diverse as Algeria, Martinique and Polynesian atolls. When Matisse vacations in Tahiti or Tangiers, he does so as an embodiment of power.

Matisse painted numerous reclined “odalisques” inspired by his Northern Africa travels. While he modernized the style of the old Orientalists, he did so without fundamentally subverting a gaze of subjugation at the time of colonial exhibitions that recreated monuments, vistas and sometimes human zoos with proprietary grandeur in Marseille (starting 1906), Paris (starting 1907) and other French cities.

Matisse rigorously collected non-Western works. Together with Picasso, Braque and Derain, he contributed to an enthusiasm for “negro art” during the early 20th Century. But when does homage become appropriation, and when should it be a concern? European modernists largely redefine figurative art via the extensive poaching of these cultures. Demoiselles d’Avignon largely exists because of Picasso’s encounters with African art.

A large colorful painting of three nude women on a beach hangs in a clean museum space
Installation view of Matisse and the Sea at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Jeffrey L. Hirsch © 2024 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the works presented in “Matisse and the Sea,” we find traces of collected African “fetishes” in the facial expression of the violin player in Music, the pairing of male and female attributes and in the fleshy, rounded figures the artist painted and sculpted. At the more abstract level, Matisse was also mesmerized by patterns derived from Pacific Islands’ tribes—whether fabrics or war shields. While this is a sign of growing globalism and of Matisse’s intellectual curiosity and openness, these remain restless objects with their own history of uprootedness.

“Matisse and the Sea” captures a bountiful love of nature and the artist’s celebrations of freedom. Unlike Caspar Friedrich’s romantic ocean that makes humans shrink, Matisse’s sea grows and we grow with it. In many ways, Matisse used known surroundings and his love of the sea to paint a collective unconscious, in which water becomes the vessel of universal creation and fertility. In doing so, he also sought influences from other national cultures and visual traditions, including highly revered objects and symbols.

The curatorial choice to include Matisse’s works alongside others that have marked his practice elevates the works of unnamed artists from modern-day Gabon, Mali or Papua New Guinea and duly credits their significance. It also evokes the curatorial take from MoMA’s landmark 1984 show “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” to underscore these entanglements. By and large, there is no Matisse without the so-called rest of the world.

Matisse and the Sea” is on show at the Saint Louis Art Museum through May 12.

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