Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 18, 2017
Yve-Alain Bois, ed. Matisse in the Barnes Foundation 3 Vols. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2016. 824 pp.; 606 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $350.00 (9780500239414)
Thumbnail

Matisse in the Barnes Foundation continues a laudable program to publish the holdings of this renowned collection of modern European, African, and American art in systematic, scholarly catalogues. Yve-Alain Bois, long one of the most compelling writers on Henri Matisse, is the project director, editor, and lead author, joined by Karen K. Butler and Claudine Grammont. Conservation and condition issues, now a welcome concern in many major museum publications, are treated by Barbara A. Buckley and Jennifer Mass (for paintings) and Thomas Primeau (for works on paper).

Every one of the Barnes Foundation’s fifty-nine artworks by Matisse is reproduced (all the paintings are in color) and separately catalogued, with a dedicated notice, physical data, provenance, and exhibition and reference histories offered for each, meeting the minimum requirements for entries in a scholarly collection catalogue. But this three-volume book goes much further. There is a great deal of additional photographic documentation, as well as Albert C. Barnes’s and Matisse’s collected correspondence, notable for its warmth of tone despite the disastrous error of measurement that compelled Matisse to redo from scratch the Dance mural Barnes had commissioned from him in 1930. The catalogue notices contain a wealth of historical, biographical, artistic, and historiographic information derived from scrupulous research by Grammont and Butler in the Barnes archives and those of the Matisse family in France, as well as other sources. These texts, divided between Grammont and Butler, are sometimes so ambitious that they are substantial essays in themselves, notably Grammont’s on Matisse’s early masterpiece, Le Bonheur de vivre (1905–6), and Butler’s on The Dance (1932–33).

In addition to the impressive basic apparatus, the reader is rewarded with three intellectually stimulating thematic essays. Like some of his earlier publications, Bois’s long and lively text identifies Matisse’s mural The Dance and his contemporaneous illustrations for Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems as constituting a turning point, “Matisse’s awakening,” leading to the innovative art making of his late career. The text is also the best so far on Matisse in the late 1920s, a confounding period of his work. Grammont’s essay focuses on the impulse and character of Barnes’s collecting and the establishment of the foundation; Butler’s probes his intellectual formation and its impact on his thinking about the place of modern art in modern life. Each makes important contributions to an understanding of Barnes’s motivations and accomplishments, and the reasons for his enthusiasm for Matisse’s work.

Barnes’s Matisse was a painter. Of the fifty-nine works by the artist in his collection, fifty-six are in oil on canvas, board, or wood panel. There is one ink drawing, one gouache on paper, and two ex-folio plates from his Mallarmé illustrations (Matisse gave Barnes the last three). There are no sculptures, no woodcuts, no lithographs, no cut-outs. Barnes’s preference for Matisse’s painting was consistent with his views about the importance of that medium in an assessment of modern art, expressed most thoroughly in The Art in Painting (1925). This book established Barnes’s “method”—a systematic, sometimes minute analysis of the formal and expressive properties of a painting, focusing on color and the rhythm of composition, what he called its “plastic values.”

Written in collaboration with his colleague Violette de Mazia, Barnes’s Art of Henri Matisse (1933) applied his method to the work of the artist whom he considered to be the best living painter. The differences between that book and the publication under review could hardly be greater. Barnes famously forbade color reproductions of the paintings in the collection. His text is resolutely empirical and ahistorical, consisting principally of his own responses to the artworks he owned, and with which he was so familiar. These are presented in his “analyses” of individual canvases. Judged by the volume of writing on specific paintings in each of the publications, Barnes in the early 1930s and Bois et al. eighty years later are largely agreed on which works are the important Matisses—with one notable exception, a flip-flop of attention to Le Bonheur de vivre and The Music Lesson (1917). Barnes thought the latter was one of Matisse’s greatest paintings, giving rise in his book to fifteen pages of close-grained explication. Butler’s excellent catalogue text on The Music Lesson hardly minimizes its place in Matisse’s work, but the status of Le Bonheur de vivre has risen sharply in recent decades. In its radical stylistic inconsistency, this painting has come to be seen not only as a dramatic index of Matisse’s evolving theories of expression but as an unstable element, along with Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), in a chain reaction that fueled a dynamic chapter of French modernism. Grammont’s efficient but comprehensive text on Le Bonheur de vivre is notable for its intelligent analysis of this reception history. It is followed by a conservation report on the painting, which among other things tells us why the yellows we see on the canvas are sometimes lighter and sometimes darker than they were originally, when the painting surely looked even more lurid and strange than it does now.

Barnes was not in the main a patron and friend of artists, as his rival collector John Quinn was. Barnes bought his Matisses almost entirely in the secondary market. In amassing his collection, he made bold moves, but with most of his acquisitions someone else had already made a bolder move at an earlier time (Leo Stein, for instance). The great exception, of course, was The Dance. The importance of this painting in the context of this cataloguing project is signaled, even before sliding the heavy volumes from their slipcase, by the unifying cover motif of Matisse drawing figures for his mural with a long charcoal-tipped bamboo pole. Bois puts The Dance at the center of Matisse’s achievement, more or less to the exclusion of other key moments, as a hinge that allowed both a return to Matisse’s earlier decorative impulses and a launch forward to the dynamic late paper cut-outs. Butler’s more systematic analysis of the painting’s genesis, production, and reception is a worthy successor to Jack Flam’s book Matisse: The Dance (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1993). It is difficult to overstate the artist’s, and his patron’s, investment in this project. Matisse’s initial challenges followed by the potentially crippling setback of the incorrect measurements did not deter him. Barnes desperately wanted Matisse to finish the mural so he could feature his responses to it in his book, but this was not to be. Now this magisterial painting, which Matisse claimed would “complete the architecture of the room” in which it would be installed, has received the multi-pronged attention it deserves, even if it can no longer be seen in its intended setting.

The sense of leisurely pilgrimage one had in getting to Merion, Pennsylvania, is now lost to traffic-dodging on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. But of course easier access makes the collection better known. So the publication of complete catalogues of the most prominent artists and segments of the collection is fitting. Like the move to central Philadelphia, such a catalogue would not have been Barnes’s wish, despite his belief in the allegedly objective, “scientific” basis for his own writings. His hanging of the collection confirms the spuriousness of his claims to objectivity. The arrangement of artworks on the walls was personal to the point of whimsy, the antithesis of a rational ordering of the objects of study. Cataloguing the collection’s artworks brings individual attention to each, something that Barnes’s ensemble groupings suppressed in favor of formal echoes among canvases, between modern and older works, and between paintings and folk art or craft, especially the kind of wrought-iron fixtures he doted on. The unorthodox installation was part of the Barnes’s charm, and it largely still is, but this outcome was not a foregone conclusion. The controversy surrounding the foundation’s finances, the struggle for control of its board of trustees, the stretching and then rupturing of Barnes’s trust agreement, and the eventual displacement of the collection to central Philadelphia—all of that came later, after the death of the founding visionary in 1951.

It would be unreasonable to expect the publication under review to address these travails. That is done thoroughly elsewhere, perhaps with greatest balance in Neil L. Rudenstine’s The House of Barnes: The Man, the Collection, the Controversy (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2012). Nevertheless it is striking that the move from Merion to Philadelphia is mentioned by Bois and his team only twice: once in passing in Bois’s preface (I, 26); once, explicitly but briskly, in a Butler footnote (III, 65). The reader is not denied knowledge of this history but is also not encouraged to think too much about it. In fact in one place (III, 36) the Merion setting is repeatedly evoked in the present tense, as if no move had occurred. This (surely unintentional) elision of past and present, implying that the collection exists out of time, is misleading. Four years ago, writing about the differences between the Merion building and its just-opened Philadelphia simulacrum, Jed Perl elegized the loss of the experience of the original setting as a document of U.S. collecting history: “Sometimes a place where time has stopped functions as a time machine,” mentally transporting the visitor back through the decades (“The Barnes Foundation’s Disastrous New Home,” New Republic [September 23, 2012]: 27). Many decades from now, the Barnes on the Parkway will also function as a time machine, taking its visitors back to the early twenty-first-century’s widespread spectacularization of the museum experience coupled with the self-conscious reconstitution of the Barnes mode of display. Naturally a collection catalogue also cannot escape such temporal relativism—it too is a document of its own day. But the prediction here is that this publication will be regarded as definitive for a very long time.

John Klein
Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.