Particularly exceptional in its use of the sanguine or red chalk technique, this self-portrait dates from 1941.
1941 was a difficult and crucial year for Matisse. In the midst of the Occupation and beset with worries, Matisse underwent an important operation. Surprised to find himself still alive in the months that followed, he turned to drawing. "These self-portraits have a quality of tenacity and determination which is expressed by the technique. In these drawings, one strongly feels the fragility of the man, but also the triumph of the artist against adversity." (John Klein, in Henri Matisse, Autoportraits, Le Cateau-Cambrésis, Musée Matisse, 1988, p.21).
Matisse painted only one painting in 1941, Nature morte au magnolia (Paris, Musée national d’Art Moderne). The background is bright red. In 1940, La Blouse Romaine (Paris, Musée national d’art moderne) employs the same background colour. Apart from these rare incursions into pure colour on canvas, Matisse was absorbed entirely by his works on paper. He considered them to be as equally powerful as his paintings. The process was the same. Matisse himself took photographs of each stage in the elaboration of the work as it developed across the paper or across the canvas. His particularly rich and eloquent correspondence with his friend the writer and draughtsman André Rouveyre, (they were both pupils of Gustave Moreau and together at the Ecole des Beaux-arts from 1892 to 1897) attests to this. As he did with each new movement and each new rhythm in the elaboration of La Blouse Roumaine, Matisse sent him the photographs of his drawings and in particular of his self-portraits. He wrote to Rouveyre: "I have returned to work and I have begun with drawings of myself. I am sending you a few photos so that you can tell me if I have not wasted too much energy…" (Rouveyre assured him that he had kept all his capacity, in La Revue des Arts, volume 6, n°2, p.69). In the intervals between these long sessions of drawing, Matisse told of how he experienced an unconscious cerebral fermentation. However beyond the methodology of these mature works, it is interesting to note that Matisse applied his way of working to his drawings as well as his paintings. With Matisse, from here onward, drawing was not simply considered as an auxiliary to painting. It was no longer a simple preparatory sketch or confidential outline of a composition. At the turn of 1941 and in a time of adversity, drawing became an autonomous mode of expression. Whilst remaining within the margins of a piece of paper, (which as we know are shifting margins in Matisse’s work: a window is always open), the power of his creative talent is evident without reference to an exogenous work. Escaping the academic confines of the subject his drawings became an absolute space of freedom.
Beyond testifying to the autonomy of drawing, Autoportrait,1941 also testifies to the modernity of a new vision. Just as drawing was no longer confined to the domain of the preparatory study, likewise the genre of the self-portrait reached new heights. The self-portrait was no longer an essentially private mode of expression. It developed in Matisse’s conception despite the circumstances towards a public art form. In continuation of a tradition he admired, Rembrandt, Poussin and Maurice-Quentin de la Tour, the red chalk technique was in itself a very 18th century practice which recalls that of pastel and of the "three crayons". Its use within the context of modernity is all the more remarkable and Matisse employed the genre in order to affirm the symbiosis of the artist with his work. If certain portraits from this period (of which a great many are black line drawings) are of a more or less introspective nature, (the artist was suffering and a certain candour was only possible in the genre of the self-portrait), Autoportrait, 1941 is of a more conceptual type. It may have allowed Matisse to understand the underlying principles of his work. An almost arrogant counterpoint to Autoportrait painted in 1906 (Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst), Autoportrait, 1941 focuses Matisse’s reflection on the great trilogy of the figure, space and colour. It is interesting to note that the drawings dates from the same year as "The lost 1940 Interview", a discussion held during the war with Pierre Courthion (published later by Serge Guilbaut). The choice of red chalk mingles line with colour in an exceptional union. In the case of Autoportrait de 1941, the question of space is equally meaningful and exceptional as the sheet unfolds. Facing the portrait looking left, Matisse has voluntarily circumscribed the space and renounced emptiness. There is authority in this decision. The figure is a pure subject of study, an accomplishment of the modern principle of identifying the artist with his art. He wrote: "Each of these drawings carries, according to me, an invention which is particular to it and comes from the penetration of the subject by the artist, who goes as far as identifying himself perfectly with his subject, so that the essential truth in question constitutes the drawing. It is not altered by the conditions of the drawing’s execution; on the contrary the expression of this truth through the flexibility of line and its freedom yields to the demands of the composition: it nuances itself, it even reinvigorates itself, through the artist’s turn of spirit that expresses it. Exactitude is not truth." (Vence, May 1947, foreword to the exhibition Henri Matisse, dessins, Liège, 1947).
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