© RMN - R.G. Ojeda
“How could we help but wish, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Musée Matisse, to evoke at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, so rich in works by Gustave Adolphe Mossa, that symbolist from Nice, the figure of Gustave Moreau whose studio was frequented by Henri Matisse? That is how the idea for this exhibition was born. I am indebted to Marie-Cécile Forest, director of the Musée national Gustave Moreau, for agreeing to take it forward together with Anne Stilz. She therefore gave her blessing to a real “extramural” activity for the Musée national Gustave Moreau, in Nice. The visitor will be invited to discover in the work of Gustave Moreau some of the premises of the work of Henri Matisse who was his pupil but did not limit himself to being a mere disciple.”
The Musée des Beaux-Arts pays homage to the painter Gustave Moreau with an examination of his work from the point of view of his pupil Henri Matisse, who entered his studio at the École des Beaux Arts in 1893.
This studio was a real hothouse, a research laboratory for artists who participated to a varying degree in the adventure of pictorial modernity in the twentieth century and particularly in its first controversy which erupted at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. Matisse could be found in the centre of Room 5 amongst those new dissidents, known as the “Fauve” painters! It is still topical today to wonder about the nature of the teaching dispensed by Moreau. Indeed, how could this father of Pictorial Symbolism, a movement hostile to “Progress” as promoted by Auguste Comte, capture the interest of those young students, avid for creative freedom? The Master’s teaching method consisted in first having his pupils discover the techniques of earlier painters - Poussin, Raphaël, Ingres - who he invited them to observe in the Musée du Louvre. In addition, Moreau willingly allowed them to discover for themselves by stimulating their imagination on the basis of two essential elements in painting: colour and drawing. Moreau’s remarks were often very poetic and evocative: “colour must be dreamed, thought, imagined …” or “to evoke thought by lines, arabesques and visual means, that is my aim 1.” The Master did not impose any method or rigidity.
He would willingly have taken as his motto Nietzsche’s famous saying “Become who you are”.
The arrangement of the exhibition is therefore divided into three sections. After retaining the essential values communicated by Moreau in his studio, we arrive in a second room reserved for the treatment of drawing. The painter used this technique to practise ornamentation to a sometimes extravagant degree. In some cases one can detect the beginnings of Art Nouveau, so elegantly does the sinuous arabesque glide over the surface of the work. Elsewhere, Moreau synthesises and refines to the extreme and continues to surprise. We understand what Matisse retained and gradually appropriated to create a whole decorative register
originating in the Orient which he undoubtedly subjected to concision and purification in his turn. Did Moreau not himself predict: “you are going to simplify painting?” Another room is devoted to the treatment of colour. A large number of original paintings, generously loaned by the Musée National Gustave Moreau, enable the viewer to follow the path which led Moreau from the use of a thick, rich and intoxicating colour to a total liberation from shade and nuance the point of dissociating them from his subject. Colour creates an opening, a window of light, a prism into a pictorial Beyond.
Moreau sang the praises of colour and drawing like a devotee expresses his faith! Placing his spiritual motivations above aesthetics, he stated: “… I am less concerned with expressing these words of the soul (…) than with rendering visible, so to speak, the inner flashes of intuition (…) which have something divine in their apparent insignificance and which, transposed by the marvellous effects of pure visual art, reveal truly magical, I would say even sublime, horizons.” Moreau thus pursued an absolute quest which it is tempting to rediscover in Matisse as a search for the Golden Age, visible in his early works: Luxury, Calm and Pleasure (1904) or La Joie de vivre (1905).
This state of harmony that Matisse wished to place at the heart of his artistic approach found its full resonance in his testamentary work in the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary at Vence. Shifting gradually by means of the purification of catharsis, using the technique of cut-out gouached papers, Matisse also reached the sublime aim of spirituality in Art.
To some extent Moreau and Matisse continued to affirm the line by Mallarmé “… let the window be the art, the mystical experience”. The aim of this exhibition is therefore not to compare or to assert a strictly formal justification of the work of the two artists. Matisse spoke highly of Moreau’s personality and Moreau supported Matisse by recognising his avant-garde qualities, but this demonstration is not restricted to enumerating causes and effects. It is rather about seeing the works of Moreau as Matisse himself might have discovered them. To look through the eyes of Matisse to perceive the real modernity in the language of Moreau and to sense the liberating qualities emanating from this. The ultimate cause served by Moreau was a form of transcendence of art which he named on several occasions “thought”, “pure visual art”, even “abstraction”!
This exhibition offers a genuine pathway through the thoughts of Moreau that the Master of La Danse might himself have followed. The exhibition rewrites the history of Matisse in the direction of Moreau, “against the grain” as Huysmans, great admirer of the master of L’Apparition or Salomé and author of the novel of the same name 2, might have said. He also described Matisse as “this mystic isolated in the heart of Paris”. This analysis will be offered during the presentation of nearly sixty pieces, exclusively from the Musée national Gustave Moreau.
Salome tattooed, Gustave Moreau
© RMN - R.G. Ojeda
© RMN - R.G. Ojeda