During a quick visit to St Louis last weekend, I dashed into the Art Museum for a few hours before joining my wife for her reading late Sunday afternoon. The museum is not easy to get to on a Sunday, without a car, being in the middle of a park on the western side of the city. It was worth trekking across the fields from the metrolink station, though. It’s not just the high quality of the collection that amazed me, but the fact that there were three or four works that I was seeing for the first time, more than thirty years after becoming introduced to them from an art history teacher in my high school.
One of them was the head of a peasant woman, by Van Gogh. My impressions: smaller than I imagined, only 14 inches by 10 inches, maybe; very dark earth tones, just like my teacher talked about; a feeling of painful honesty in the expression of the face, partly due to the labour, the slight lack of ease, in the way it was painted; the way that the left side of the face (to the right as you’re looking at it) is bigger than the other side, like the side of the head has been pulled round and flattened.
Another was Matisse’s “Bathers with a Turtle,” which is one of those paintings (like Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”) to which I responded positively when I was sixteen, even though I didn’t fully understand it. For the longest time, I thought the Picasso painting was clearly the better one, the best of the early twentieth century, perhaps. Now I’m not so sure. Now I think that Matisse’s “Blue Nude”, and this painting of the three lumpish nudes and one crudely drawn turtle, may be just as significant as Picasso’s African mask-brothel picture. It’s to do with the sheer daring of Matisse’s manner of painting. It may look like indecisiveness, and hesitation, and things that are left out, but I think the surface of the painting is alive with many hundreds of decisions, all playing in constant tension with an awareness of the guidance of the unconscious hand. There is thick paint, thin paint, scumbles and glazes, different widths of brush, areas that seem filled in by a child’s hand, impasto repainting, strokes with a gestural strength that could only come from an adult’s energy, sgraffito marks from a brush handle, areas of almost pure geometric abstraction (the head of the kneeling woman on the left), the way that the paint at the bottom of the painting is a wash, and contains a stain that looks like it was produced by a stray drop of turpentine. And always the colour, flooding your visual zone, always subject to some sort of organizing principle.
It’s daring, because this was a commissioned painting, and in it Matisse was thinking back to Cezanne’s “Bathers”, and the whole tradition of the female nude in a landscape that stretches back through Titian and Tintoretto to the ancient Greeks. And for his high-paying Russian (?) client, Matisse conjurs up this pressure-cooker of blue, green, and pink that calls into being a new future for painting, without quite being able to shake free of its past.
Also, I thought: how did this end up in St Louis? But then again: why not end up in St Louis? A hundred and ten years ago, most European art collectors and patrons thought the painting of Picasso and Matisse et al was completely barbaric and utterly without merit. It was left to a few Russians and Americans to follow their passion for the new and to pay the price that was demanded for this art. The money came from new world tradesmen, and their money was just as good as the money of a rich Frenchman or Englishman. So that’s why some of the greatest works of art of the early twentieth century are in places like Philadelphia, Cincinnatti, St Louis, and Chicago.