Waking the Dead

Matisse and a model at work in Nice, 1928.Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Archives Matisse, Paris

I spend much of my time inside a museum asleep. And I’m not the only one: Every day the museums fill with sleepwalkers who lazily read wall labels, browse among pictures, and succumb to the slumberous murmur of the headphones. Now and then, you may happen upon a person who’s disturbingly awake, staring raptly at something. Such people disrupt the crowd flow and, what’s even more annoying, seem to suggest that you too should consider interrupting your nap. Of course, the art itself is usually asleep, especially when it’s famous. The Mona Lisa napped for centuries until Duchamp woke her with a mustache.

For a curator, the great challenge is to shake off the natural somnolence of the museum. That usually means placing art into an unexpected context. Two wonderful shows that have just opened in New York—“Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro” at the Museum of Modern Art and “Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams” at the Metropolitan—successfully awaken two of the most familiar painters in the pantheon. In both exhibits, the curators juxtapose a celebrated figure with someone or something less familiar. Cézanne is joined with his friend Pissarro; the art of Matisse is set beside lush pieces of decorative fabric. The pairings are not just an excuse to cobble together yet another show of a crowd-pleasing artist. Each is deeply illuminating.

The official theme of “Cézanne and Pissarro” is the dialogue between the two painters, which is historically interesting. During the earlier part of their lives, the two were often together, sometimes working side by side, and made many similar pictures. The exhibit does not set out to concentrate upon Cézanne, but Cézanne—one of a small handful of truly iconic modern figures—inevitably becomes its focus. The powerful subtext is “What makes Cézanne Cézanne?” What distinguishes him from his friend, a marvelous painter (and man of advanced views) who has nevertheless not had the same impact upon our culture? Or, to put it another way, “What makes Cézanne the modern touchstone?” The answer is elusive—visual rather than verbal. When you stand before two juxtaposed paintings, however, you’ll see what I mean, even if you can’t explain it. I can’t imagine a better introduction to what makes the modern modern.

Pissarro is the smoother, more seamless painter. His landscapes are prettier than Cézanne’s (which is not the same thing, of course, as more beautiful) and describe the countryside more exactly. They have a more anecdotal, illustrational quality. You might think, I wish I could walk down that lovely country lane, or wonder who lives in the handsome stone cottage. Cézanne—ever restless, anxious, questing—does not settle for such fine effects. He pushes. He insists upon the rough, not just the smooth. He does not disguise his hand, but lets the actual process of painting interrupt our sense of the “view.” He’s more abstract. He seems to be searching for some underlying structure, some half-glimpsed reality, with unrelenting intensity: He wants the secret that can’t be found. If Pissarro lives in the nineteenth century, Cézanne is still with us today.

Like Cézanne, Matisse is an iconic figure in the modern mind. As a young artist looking for his way, he once caught a glimpse of a piece of fabric on a passing bus. The flash of color and pattern moved and inspired him. Repeatedly during his long life he would turn to lushly patterned fabrics to help refire his imagination. The official theme of “The Fabric of Dreams” is this interplay between art and textile; fabrics from the artist’s collection are juxtaposed with the paintings in which he depicted them. Certain characteristics of the decorative arts, notably their flattening of form, obviously appealed to modern painters like Matisse who were leaving conventional perspective behind.

But Matisse’s response to decoration is deeper than this academic observation suggests. “The Fabric of Dreams,” like “Cézanne and Pissarro,” contains a powerful subtext: It’s the difference between these paintings and textiles—not the similarity—that the exhibit highlights. The decorative became a means to a greater expressive end. Matisse would visually loosen and unstitch the ornamental patterns and pile together many contrasting textiles that did not “go together,” refusing the safety offered by symmetry. Instead, he’d explode past the conventional decorative boundaries into a blissful state of too-muchness. (His pictures attain balance not through pattern but through magical formal mastery.) The paintings containing both riotous dress and naked flesh seem to unite but not tame desire. For Matisse, the decorative opened the door to paradise.

Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro
Museum of Modern Art.
Through September 12.

Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Through September 25.

Waking the Dead