Hilary Harkness on Henri Matisse

Matisse blue nude001Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (Memory of Briska), 1907, Oil on canvas, 36  × 55 inches

Gertrude Stein is as famous for her art collecting as she is for her writing. As an American living in Paris with her wife Alice B. Toklas, she collected Matisse and Picasso in those early days as they were making revolutionary paintings that kicked off 20th century art as we know it. During her Friday night salons, Gertrude had a front-row seat as the productive rivalry between Picasso and Matisse unfolded.

When Matisse first unveiled Blue Nude  (a piece so radical for the time that it would be burned in effigy when it was included in the 1913 Chicago Armory Show), Picasso was incensed, saying “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.” But Picasso’s competitive ambition was stirred. He disappeared into his studio and wasn’t seen for weeks until he emerged with his answer, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Numerous art historians have noted that the middle character in Les Demoiselles seems to be Matisse’s nude rendered vertically and standing instead of horizontally. But for all the rigor of Picasso’s artistic response, he couldn’t match Blue Nude’s aura of easy aesthetic freedom.

Standing before it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-garde, I found it overheated and unsexy. With my time in San Francisco during the 90’s still in my visual foreground, I felt embarrassed to be seen standing anywhere near what felt like an ugly lesbian fertility object out of a dusty curio shop in Noe Valley. The clunky wooden frame that wouldn’t be acceptable anywhere near the Castro wasn’t doing it any favors.

But, there was something about the insouciant freedom expressed by Matisse that spurred me to think more about this painting in the context of my Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas series featuring the women living with their art collection.

I began this series of scenes in 2007 (before the Met’s show) at a time when I was in the midst of a relationship with a woman who, like Stein, had a charming demeanor, an inheritance, and a will of steel. Power struggles were a daily occurrence and they spilled over onto my canvas as I expanded my work, setting my armies of beauties aside and zeroing in on the private war between Stein and Toklas that played out over the course of their 40-year marriage.

Stein equated genius with masculinity. At her salons, she assigned Toklas and the other wives to sit away from her and the men. A repeating motif in my Alice paintings is the severed head of Ernest Hemingway, one of Stein’s protégés. At one point in their intense literary affair, Hemingway had said of Gertrude “I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it.”

Alice was likely aware of the intensity of Gertrude’s bromance (albeit, doomed) with Hemingway. Despite Alice’s labors in the kitchen preparing for dinner parties and in the bathroom meticulously grooming Gertrude’s poodle, she was sidelined as a tense sourpuss and eventually a laughing stock. Gertrude had the fame and the power that comes with wealth. After Gertrude’s death, Alice was left destitute and relegated to interloper status during one of the most important artistic moments in the early 20th century.

But, as I’ve imagined her, Alice wouldn’t be a victim. In my painting, Matisse’s Blue Nude (owned by Stein) is placed over the marital bed of Alice (left) and Gertrude (standing). It’s morning, and Alice and her one-night stand are lounging in bed when Gertrude arrives unexpectedly to serve mimosas. The blonde is surprised, but Alice is smirking as she continues to read a newspaper. Hemingway’s head sits rotting on a side table – mission accomplished.

Alice is relaxed and satisfied, amused by the discomfort of her sex partner. Far from being shoved aside by her wife, Alice is being waited on by her. Alice is the victor – like Matisse, she has been able to accomplish in her boudoir what Picasso was unable to do in his studio with Les Demoiselles. Alice has the virility of Matisse’s Blue Nude, a silken paradise to match his garden, and a sense of the painter’s freedom to do as she likes, for the sake of her pleasure alone.

My Blue Nude will be on display in the Roy Lichtenstein: Nudes and Interiors show that I’m co-curating at FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea from February 8 – May 17, 2014. Drop by and let me know what you think. Of the nudes, of Alice, of art.

Blue Nude 300 dpi
Hilary Harkness, Blue Nude, 2014, Oil on linen panel, 7.5 x 10.75 inches

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