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Permanent Collections: Let's Start with Matisse

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

This post is the first in a series I call "Permanent Collections." "Permanent Collections" is the result of countless hours spent traveling the country looking at paintings from institutions of all kinds: from large, encyclopedic collections built on the donations of many collectors--such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Cleveland Museum of Art; to well-known eponymous legacies, like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Phillips Collection; to small, obscure museums with one or two gems in otherwise modest collections. Future posts will feature other highlights from my travels to museums, both in the real world and online.

I begin with a Henri Matisse painting owned by The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Home to signature works by Caravaggio, El Greco, Velazquez, Turner, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Pollock, and Rauschenberg, the Cleveland Museum houses one of the greatest collections of paintings in the United States. Its most famous Matisse work, Interior with an Etruscan Vase is a prime example of the artist's late style. However, I've decided to concentrate this inaugural post on one of the museum's lesser-known Matisse paintings, The Windshield, on the Road to Villacoublay (seen above), because its evocation of a road trip makes it a logical choice for this first post. Moreover, I first encountered the painting in person after a few days on the road, touring Midwest colleges with my daughter.

Painted on a summer day in 1917, The Windshield gives a sketch-like depiction of the road from Paris to an airport near the city. According to the Cleveland Museum's website, "while being chauffeured by his son Pierre," Matisse suddenly "decided to paint the road from inside the car, which proved challenging, as zooming traffic forced the artist to keep the windows shut and constantly rocked the old Renault back and forth." This burst of creativity doesn't surprise me. For more than a dozen years, Matisse had sporadically painted pictures of windows, most notably The Open Window, Collioure from 1905 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). And when he moved from Paris to Nice later in 1917, windows would take on a bigger role, figuring prominently in his paintings into the early 1920s. Placing windows in his works allowed Matisse to overtly address the paradox inherent in figurative painting: its role as an illusory opening to a world beyond the surface of the picture versus its physical presence as paint applied on canvas. In The Open Window, Collioure, Matisse deftly played with this contradiction, allowing the viewer to at once imagine himself moving through the window to the boats and water beyond, while at the same time being keenly aware of the brushstrokes and the tactile qualities of the paint that creates the illusion. In The Windshield, Matisse has created a more dynamic sensation of movement. The painting's subject alone suggests fast, forward motion, and Matisse accelerates this feeling with an old formal trick: two lines converging at the horizon to create great depth in the picture. We can imagine the car quickly arriving at the vanishing point way off in the distance. Moreover, because the painting includes parts of the car's two side windows, the viewer can almost feel himself physically inside the car, hurtling down the road. Indeed, the painting makes it clear that the viewer is riding in Matisse's seat: we can see an early stage of The Windshield peeking up from the bottom edge of the image, as if resting in our lap. For all this dynamism, however, The Windshield also seems still; Matisse depicts the car without a driver, so, despite sensing the contrary, we have to assume the car is parked. This paradox alludes to the equivocal nature of painting that Matisse had directly addressed in The Open Window, Collioure. In addition, the sketchy quality of The Windshield--its obvious brushstrokes, irregular lines, and its lack of crisp detail -- undercuts the picture's illusion of three-dimensional space. Like the tactility of the earlier work, some of The Windshield's formal properties remind us that what we're really looking at is an assemblage of paint on canvas. And in some respects, this assemblage does not create as compelling an image as The Open Window, Collioure. The Windshield's palette is much less vibrant, and its interplay of shapes is not as intriguing. Nonetheless, if I could own either one, I'd pick The Windshield. First of all, it's one of the few paintings in which Matisse includes details that tie the painting to a specific era. The two-paned windshield, the wheel-hugging fenders, and the bulb-horn next to the steering wheel all indicate that we're looking at an early-twentieth-century car. And secondly, I can't think of any artist among Matisse's contemporaries who ever depicted the view from inside an automobile. The Windshield, on the Road to Villacoublay may not be one of Matisse's best paintings, but it is one of his most unusual.

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