Saturday, 31 October 2009

Matisse 'Woman in a hat' 1905

Matisse Femme au Chapeau 1905, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

This is clearly a provocation. The hat is vague and incoherent and topples awkwardly on her head, almost burying it; the skin is ghoulish and transparent, barely distinct from the background. The body is skewed, her right arm gauche and her left arm a loosely placed stump. Colours jut up against each other, seemingly present for their own sakes rather than in service to what they represent (the slab of orange neck).

Yet the picture as a whole has a unity, like a many-coloured map that describes the regions of a single nation. And amidst it all is evidence of the presence of a living person transposed into paint by the action of the artist. It is an uncannily real face, sketched with a directness that belies a greater concern for the act of looking that the faithfulness of the recording.

But for all its attempts to provoke, and for all the upset and hilarity it caused, its underlying structure is that of a rather conventional fin-de-si├Ęcle portrait of an elegant, modish Mademoiselle.