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How Can it Be Right When It Looks So Wrong?


A couple of posts ago, I wrote something about seeing Matisse's "Bathers with a Turtle" in the St Louis Art Museum, and how it's only now being acknowledged as one of the seminal works of early twentieth century art. Right in front of it is his sculpture "Decorative Figure", which was modelled around the same time, in 1908, and is as revolutionary for the language of sculpture as "Bathers" was for painting. It's another of those works that I have known about for decades, but only saw in books or online before. Being in front of it is an experience akin to seeing the Empire State Building or the pyramids for the first time: it both fulfills and exceeds your mental picture of it.

It's an extraordinarily bold piece of work, almost breathtaking in the liberties Matisse took with the figure. Every proportion is 'wrong', with the head being too large for the body, the hands and feet only approximately and occasionally fashioned, the breasts like two bronze globes, the swelling hip like a rock formation in the desert, the surface rough and unsmoothed. It goes far beyond the sense of volume that preoccupied Maillol, or the idea of fragments (the part standing for the whole) of Rodin. Yet it struck me as beautiful, and powerfully erotic.



I was looking for writers who expressed this better than me, and I thought of what William Tucker said in his "The Language of Sculpture" about how, in sculptures like this, Matisse's feeling for form and mass is guided by the purpose of his attention at any given moment, a response in clay to his sensations, rather than conventional proportions or angles or spaces. I couldn't find the exact quote, but I did find this, from Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, by Dorothy Kosinski and Jay McKean:


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