Whenever I read about the contemporary critical reaction to the masters (sic) of modern art, I immediately think they're pretending.
Could Vauxcelles really be talking about 'Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra' when he says:
'I admit to not understanding. An ugly nude woman is stretched out upon grass of an opaque blue under the palm trees the drawing seems to me to be rudimentary and the colouring cruel'?
Or looking at 'Le Luxe I' when he sees 'a hateful contempt for form'? Can Charles Morice be serious (about 'Blue Nude'):
'troubling and pretentious, it signifies nothing see it as sadly deplorable proof of impotence aggravated by vanity'?
Surely they're hamming it up, like a certain sort of reactionary colonel, playing to an imaginary 'Oooh, isn't he awful but we love him' crowd. Because the alternative is even harder to contemplate. That they really couldn't see.
You tend, in the normal way of thinking, to take for granted that beauty, colour, balance, form, reside in a painting rather than in the viewer.
OK, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but isn't that just true in relation to lovers and babies? Elephants allegedly appreciate a beautiful sunset, but the erotic charms of beautiful elephants are I suppose species-specific (or am I presuming too much?).
I have real difficulty accepting that I love that opaque blue or appreciate the lovely form of 'le Luxe I' or the sumptuous colour and poise of 'Decorative Figure on Ornamental Ground' because I've been taught to. It may be the case, but it doesn't feel true.
I feel as though my reaction is spontaneous and deep, an expression of the 'real' me, not a learned thing. Easier to think, therefore, of Vauxcelles and Morice having learned their contempt and revulsion, that their not understanding is wilful.
Is it possible to see with non-twenty first century eyes?
So is it possible to look at what we know (from the billion dollar insurance value at least) to be masterpieces with non-twenty first century eyes, as if for the first time?
The exhibition organisers facilitate this by hanging Matisse and Picasso side-by-side. You can recognise themes and influences this way that you wouldn't if it had been two separate exhibitions.
This juxtaposition had an odd effect on me. When I saw it for the first time, I came out really angry with Picasso. If you'd asked me beforehand I'd have said, while I love Matisse, Picasso was the more interesting and innovative. When they hang next to each other, though, I notice a childish sadism and misogynism in Picasso that repels me. Why have I not noticed this before?
Blue Nude and The Second Sex
Purely coincidentally, my copy of Simone de Beauvoir's 'The Second Sex' has a copy of Matisse's 'Blue Nude 1952' on the cover. Perhaps subliminally I associate Matisse's nudes with a critique of femininity.
The common wisdom of feminist art criticism has it that the male artist = 'master': female nude = object reproduces and glorifies the oppression of women, the reduction of us to passive objects for consumption, but maybe it's not that simple.
I don't find Matisse's nudes objectionable. They seem more tranquil and self-contained than passive objects, and a lot of that has to do with the use of colour that Vauxcelles so objected to, calm blues, assertive magentas. Quite simply I could sit and look at them for hours.
Whereas Picasso's women seem (as they were in life) violently abused, fragmented and sullen.
Whatever formal distortions and simplifications Matisse employs, his women always have faces in the right place, and a sense of interioirity. You feel you could inhabit these bodies comfortably.
Picasso's violent dislocations, spiked, pierced and penetrated bodies, feel like records of violation. I want to cross my legs and cover my eyes. When they are sturdy and intact, they seem to glare out with, what in the military would be called, dumb insolence, as if they know what abuse the painter has in mind and they're having none of it.
See for yourself
Maybe it's me, the beholder, bringing my knowledge of his life. Maybe you'd see it differently. It is worth seeing. It's on till August 18th at the Tate Modern, Bankside, London.