Better with Age
The creative impulse improves as well as declines.
Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By DAVID GELERNTER
‘Matisse: In Search of True Painting” is a smallish but superb show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It focuses on pairs and series of related paintings, and the sheer loveliness of its best pieces resounds through the huge building and out onto Fifth Avenue. But it is sad that this small-scale, dazzling-masterpieces-only approach wasn’t extended to Henri Matisse’s late cutouts—which also occur in pairs and in series. Unfortunately, this exhibit, for all its beauty, shows off one of the deepest, darkest prejudices in the arts today: that an artist’s earlier works are bound to be his best.
Henri Matisse and glass panel (1948)
Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
It’s true that they are usually his most unexpected and “disruptive.” And most art historians have long since decided that an artist’s main goal is to kick people in the teeth. This strange idea is only to be expected, though, given that art historians are mostly intellectuals who admire theories and ideas rather than truth or beauty per se. It is natural that intellectuals should reduce art to political or intellectual terms, just as it is natural for a horse to evaluate a lawn in terms of taste and hoof--comfort, not aesthetic effect. Intellectuals do not see the world in aesthetic terms, and so they are always bound to have trouble with art.
But their tendency to exalt early works over late ones has damaged our ability to appreciate Matisse. His cutouts, all late, are among his greatest pieces. And they are far too rarely seen in public. The Met itself owns an especially beautiful one (Fleurs de Neige, 1951) that it rarely deigns to display. It’s time to renew our understanding of great artists’ tendency to do their best work late. Towards the end of his career, a major artist has so mastered his technique, and so dominates his materials, that he speaks to us directly in color or music or line or language. Instead of looking at him through the window (however brilliantly polished) of technique, we see him face to face. It might almost be said that, the greater the artist, the more likely that his greatest work will come towards the end of his career. Picasso and Matisse, rivals and friends, make the point perfectly: Picasso’s best work came towards the start of his work as a painter, Matisse’s towards the end of his.
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