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: Paintings by Matisse and Kirchner


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Visitors to the Institute's current exhibition of Les Fauves will be struck by the fact that the most brilliant paintings in the exhibition were completed in 1907. Those who further analyze the exhibition will realize that as a movement the fauves reached their climax in that year. Having pushed their new language to its limit, the various members of the group began going their individual ways after 1907. For example, that year marks a turning point for their leader, Matisse. In it he completed one of his most characteristic and successful fauvist paintings. The Boy with the Butterfly Net, recently purchased by the Institute of Arts. This painting stands out as one of the most original and significant paintings in the exhibition, clearly illustrating the contribution of the revolutionary experiments of the fauves.Visitors who have seen the many important exhibitions of modern art held at the Institute during the past decade may recall other famous paintings of 1907, like the Young Ladies of Avignon by Picasso, which were once controversial but today are considered stepping stones in the development of contemporary painting. The year 1907 seems indeed to have been a fertile one for new experiments. The last of the post-impressionist, Cézanne, had died in 1906. Retrospective exhibitions of his work along with exhibitions of the paintings of Van Gogh and Gauguin had revealed the great contribution of these and inspired the new generation to greater originality in their painting.The predominant movement in France in 1907 was fauvism, and in Germany its counterpart was Die Brücke, The Bridge. No study of either the year 1907 or the fauves would be complete without mention of The Bridge, whose members were developing in Dresden a style of painting paralleling that of Matisse, Vlaminck, and Derain. The year 1907 also marked the turning point for Kirchner, the leader of The Bridge, who, like Matisse, had broken with reality, and had found a new language for the expression of his ideas. Perhaps the most characteristic and striking painting of 1907 by this little known, but talented painter, is called Seated Woman. It has recently been purchased for the Institute's permanent collection and is now on view in the galleries. Thus the Institute has acquired two paintings which brilliantly summarize the first revolutionary movements of our century.Although their aims were not identical, the members of Les Fauves and The Bridge shared an interest in new ideas and especially in the use of color as a language in painting. However, they both discarded outmoded content like the “soulful” subject, so popular at the time, for a true realism, based on the observation of life around them. Members of both groups drew inspiration from the paintings of Cézanne and Gauguin, and more especially from Van Gogh and Munch, developing their use of color and distorted form for purposes of emotional expression. Perhaps the chief difference between the two groups lies in their selection of subject matter. While the French painters choose landscapes and subjects of a general decorative appeal, the Germans choose subjects more directly associated with life, like the city, and occasionally social problems.The fauves never formed an organized movement as such. The various painters, Matisse, Rouault, Dufy, Vlaminck and Derain, worked independently, with the exception of a few vacations, but exhibited together through 1908, by which time each had said what he had to say with color and turned in other directions. The members of The Bridge, including Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, and Pechstein, worked, however, in close unison. They shared quarters and provided through their organization an opportunity for young talent to experiment and find a new style of painting appropriate as an expression of twentieth-century life. As Kirchner wrote to Nolde, “one of the aims of The Bridge, is, as its name implies, to conduct towards it all the revolutionary elements now in gestation.” As soon as their formula of pure color, applied in broad areas, and strong contour lines had been developed and successfully exploited, the group more or less broke up, each member going his own way.Henri Matisse, the dominant personality and leader of the fauves, was born in 1869. He gave up law to study painting, first with Bouguereau, and then more successfully, with Moreau. He met Derain and then Vlaminck in 1901, and won his first recognition at the Salon d' Automne in 1903, the year in which he first started to exploit the pure color and imaginative line of the fauves. By 1905 he was popularly called the “king of the fauves” and in that year commenced work on his first major painting, The Joy of Life, now belonging to the Barnes Foundation. This painting was to create an uproar when shown to his friends in 1906, the year in which he met the Steins from San Francisco, Leo, Gertrude, their brother, Michael, and his wife Sarah.Enjoying his first flush with success, Matisse took a short trip to Italy in 1907, the year in which he painted The Boy with the Butterfly Net. While in Italy he re-joined his friends the Steins, who became, along with the Russian merchant Shchukin, Matisse's first important patrons. Although it is not a commissioned portrait, The Boy with the Butterfly Net actually represents young Allen Stein, the son of Michael and Sarah. According to the writer, Walter Pach, The Boy with the Butterfly Net, was conceived and painted while Matisse was in Florence with the Steins. It was entered at the Salon des Independents of 1908, in which year Matisse opened his famous school, attended mostly by foreigners, including Sarah Stein, Allen's mother, Max Weber, the American painter who had saved enough money from his two years of teaching in Duluth to go to Paris, and Oskar and Greta Moll, the German painters and collectors who purchased the painting.At first glance, The Boy with the Butterfly Net creates the impression of a gaily colored poster. However, closer examination reveals that this painting has qualities which express in the most succinct and telling form, several of Matisse's chief objectives in his work at this time. By very careful planning the artist has found an equivalent for depth by creating broad areas of contrasting colors. He has also found an equivalent for traditional modelling in his heavy contour lines, so adroitly thickened and thinned to enhance the plastic effect of his forms. In addition to illusion of depth and modelling, realized in such original fashion, Matisse has employed beautiful and varied handling of pigment to dispel once and for all the idea of minor creative work.Once seen, this painting creates such impact with its sensual colors and feeling of movement that it cannot easily be forgotten. Above all, Matisse's choice of color contributes to its success. Using broad bands of blue for sky, green for foliage and grass, and red for the clay path. Matisse has provided an ample but highly simple landscape setting for the almost life-sized figure of the boy. The deep colors, applied so freely to these expanses, which seem so natural, but are the results of the most careful planning, lend weight and strength to the painting. Matisse has achieved the suggestion of movement in two very subtle ways. First, he has chosen pinks and whites for the flesh tints and the linen suit of the boy, creating the illusion of light and motion across the canvas. In addition he has arrested the position of the boy as he runs, freely changing the composition to suit his needs. The artist has changed one of the legs without attempting to hide the fact, which intentionally or otherwise, enhances the suggestion of motion.While Matisse was thus extolling color for purposes of decoration, and in this case to convey motion, his younger contemporary, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was quite independently exploiting it to convey emotions. Kirchner emerged as the natural leader as well as the most original painter of the group called The Bridge, which he helped form while still a young architectural student in Dresden. Born in 1880, he had been producing woodcuts of unusual vitality since 1895, and he had been painting since 1900. As soon as he completed his architectural studies, he abandoned his intended profession in order to continue his print-making, his painting, which was more important, and later the writing of his poems. During the course of a relatively brief career, he turned out a prodigious amount of work of high caliber in all three fields. Kirchner was an artist born with a daemonic urge to create.When the various members of The Bridge went their own ways, Kirchner moved from Dresden to Berlin, achieving almost immediate success with his paintings of the pulsating life of that great city. His paintings of street scenes and his expressionistic portraits, executed with bold color and slashing strokes, were purchased by most of the leading museums of Germany. Kirchner suffered a breakdown toward the end of his service in World War I and retired to Davos in Switzerland. But despite this he did not allow his art to stagnate. He kept on creating, often feverishly, until his illness and suicide in 1938.The rise of the Nazis saw the removal of Kirchner's paintings from virtually all the museums in Germany. Some were destroyed; others removed to Switzerland. Fortunately, Seated Woman had always remained in the possession of the artist, and so became part of his estate, from which it comes directly to the Institute. Few paintings could be more typical of the style developed by members of The Bridge, and, at the same time, be so clearly the work of a highly individualistic artist.Color is, of course, the chief characteristic of Seated Woman. Kirchner has taken pure color and applied it to broad areas with an eye for contrast. The divan on which the figure sits is a brilliant blue; her dress, red, with yellow trim, and the sleeves of her dress, green with black polka dots. The back of her divan is also red, repeating the accent of the dress. Despite opposing reds and blues, Kirchner has achieved a balance of color, one of the chief principles of his art. The strong contour lines, so economically employed, become an important part of his contribution to modern painting as a whole. The simplified composition enhances the informality of the painting, and when combined with color and line, produces a work which is charged with emotion, and, at the same time, decorative, in the true sense.Although Matisse in Boy with the Butterfly Net and Kirchner in Seated Woman have employed the same means of expression, primary colors and strong contour lines, their paintings differ as widely in emotional content as the French and German painters differed in personality.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Boy with the Butterfly Net (Net Allen Stein), 1907. Herni Matisse. Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund.
  2. Seated Woman (Franzi), 1907. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. John R. Van Derlip Fund.
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Source: "Paintings by Matisse and Kirchner," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 6 (February, 1953): 26-29.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009