Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 20, 1999
John O’Brian Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse University of Chicago Press, 1999. 297 pp.; 30 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0226616266)

John O’Brian’s compact but ambitious book eludes categorization. Most obviously, it is the latest entry in the “modernism comes to America” genre. It is also a reception study more sophisticated than the usual “critical fortune” type, taking account of muted but tenacious ideologies as well as overt expressions of opinion and taste. Finally, the book positions itself within the recent trend of institutional histories in the art world, especially of museums and the trade in art. O’Brian’s point of entry into this intersection of diverse fields is the art of Henri Matisse and the response to it in the United States from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, the period when contemporary European art became the gold standard for visual expression in modern culture.

For O’Brian, Matisse was a barometer for the American reception of modernism; in his words, “Matisse’s work has been held up in the United States as an example of what should be admired or deplored in modern art” (p. 1). Was Matisse’s achievement a function of “aesthetic disinterestedness,” as Alfred Barr and other supporters claimed, or did his paintings simply contain “boudoir patterns devoid of human meanings,” in the words of Thomas Craven, one of the artist’s most fervent critics? Neither extreme, of course, offered an adequate explanation. The contradiction in these positions is reiterated in the book’s title, which fiddles with (and improves) Clement Greenberg’s expression of belief that Matisse’s mixture of calculation and sensuality summed up the prevailing mood of the period.

Complicating, and partly driving, the contemporary answers to the question of what Matisse’s work stood for were competing visions for the future of American art. The book’s strength lies in analyzing responses to Matisse’s work across a variety of interpretive communities in light of contemporary art politics in the United States. These sites of reception determine the organization of the book, with chapters on journalists, dealers, collectors, museums, artists, and critics. There is fascinating new material in each of these, but the key work of the book is its synthesis of diverse sources, signalled in the Prologue, “Matisse and the Culture Generally.” Here O’Brian sets out, in a condensed intellectual history, the context for the consumption and interpretation of Matisse’s art in the period. The way the author juxtaposes discourses of politics with discourses of modern art is one of the most compelling features of the book. It should interest anyone concerned with the American reception of modernism, and it is also a real contribution to Matisse studies.

Another discourse was then at work too—about sex. This theme appears as a leitmotif throughout O’Brian’s account, and is symptomatic. Intelligent writing about Matisse and sex is on the upswing. In this area only Jack Flam has long combined candor and scholarship, maintaining, in occasionally blunt Freudian observations about the motifs and formal qualities of his art, that Matisse was driven by a sublimated sexuality. But his plain speaking has been rare until recently. Others are now raising our interest in a variety of ways. Margaret Werth has enriched a Freudian approach to Matisse’s work in her close study of Le bonheur de vivre. John Elderfield has drawn connections between Matisse’s “feminine representations,” especially in the “odalisques” of the 1920s, and his need for self-expression. And Yve-Alain Bois’s “Matisse system,” a comprehensive analytical model for the artists paintings, describes their effects (“circulation + tension = expansion”) in an undisguised analogy for sexual excitement and release. Add to these the recent publication of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Matisse’s early life, with its new details of his liaison with a shop assistant and their daughter born out of marriage, as well as the growing acknowledgment in print of the artist’s later affairs, and the Matisse literature now swirls with attention to one of the most basic human impulses.

O’Brian has not so much written about the sexual content of Matisse’s art as about changing attitudes to it in the United States. Sexual frankness was a key component of the early scandalousness of his painting especially; then it became, in the hands of Barr and others such as Greenberg, a covert means to a higher end of aesthetic enlightenment. The gradual acceptance of Matisse’s work in the U. S. came about as “consideration of his work . . . shifted away from the seductiveness of his subject matter to the seductiveness of his paint” (p. 2). In other words, Matisse’s supporters sublimated their response to the sexual content of his paintings to emphasize an aesthetic, not an erotic, experience. This comes across most interestingly when Barr, presented in the late 1930s with the potential donation of Matisse’s White Plumes (1919; Minneapolis Institute of Arts) to the Museum of Modern Art, was unable to perform this sublimation. Barr didn’t want it for the museum, calling it “cheesecake” (p. 116). Its sexuality was too obvious and too close to the surface to be aestheticized. (By the early 1950s, Greenberg would recover White Plumes for aesthetic purposes with his hyperbolic claim for it that “What is really seductive . . . [is] the paint, the disinterested paint.”) Here, uncharacteristically, O’Brian goes off point with a needless aside about the contemporary cosmetics industry and the commercialization of beauty when the real issue was the status of Matisse alongside Picasso in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) collection. Barr preferred Matisses from his difficult period (1913-17)—in other words, when he came closest to Picasso—and made this the strength of MoMA’s Matisse holdings, so that, in his view, Matisse could stand his ground with Picasso in the seriousness department. (MoMA’s Picassos at that time were principally Cubist and several austere canvases from the late 1920s.) The received Matisse/Picasso antinomies that Elderfield famously listed in 1992 in order to deconstruct them had their origins in Barr’s fears that Matisse would seem too superficial to his museum’s audiences. But O’Brian’s claim is that it was precisely the hedonism, disconnected from real-world concerns, that was Matisse’s ticket to eventual acceptance and celebration in this country. Since, in Matisse’s work, the sexuality could be aestheticized, it was shown to be apolitical and therefore of a higher cultural order. It was much more amenable to this spin than, say, German Expressionism, where the sexuality was part and parcel of the politics. Obviously, changes in critical climate can produce the most remarkable turnabouts in reception, but O’Brian’s contribution here is to recover some of the elements of doubt and mistrust of specific instances of modernist incursion, and how they were put to use at the sites of reception in the creation of the Matisse juggernaut.

Sometimes the process of aestheticizing was conducted at the point of production. Matisse himself transformed hedonistic impulse into ascetic gravity in the Dance mural for Albert Barnes at his foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. This work and its long genesis have been thoroughly studied—and one would have thought definitively by Flam in his excellent book Matisse: The Dance of 1993. But O’Brian’s approach to Matisse through sites of reception has produced a slightly more textured view of this troubled commission. Both authors recount Matisse’s 1932 rejection, when he was in the middle of the Barnes commission, of an opportunity to paint a mural for Rockefeller Center, and the likelihood that the debacle over Diego Rivera’s frankly Marxist composition alienated the apolitical Matisse from this project, which he criticized as “propaganda.” Matisse finished his Dance mural in the following year. The result did not fully satisfy either patron or artist (despite their public statements), and Flam rightly attributes much of the problem to Matisse’s anxiety throughout the project, his perfectionism about the appearance of the composition in situ, and Barnes’s disappointment that Matisse had not equalled the achievements of Giotto and other great masters of the mural. But O’Brian goes further and considers the possibility that Matisse recoiled from Barnes’s pedagogic use of his collection—his Deweyesque employment of art as an instrument of social improvement (pp. 70-72). In this light, Matisse may also have been branding Barnes’s ends as propagandistic. His patron’s goals could have seemed to Matisse to be as political as either the Rockefellers’ or Rivera’s, and just as hostile to his belief in the autonomy of art.

Finally: the book has a very useful index. Illustrations are well chosen and the color plates are of generally good quality. The design is distinctive (I don’t recall ever seeing vertically-oriented page numbers), and more spirited than usual for university press art books. Hot pink and yellow dominate the dustjacket, along with well-placed blue to cool the hedonism, sending a mixed message appropriate to the paradoxes in Matisse’s reception that O’Brian has synthesized so ably.

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

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