From a few carefully chosen lines

THE fact that Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was one of the master draftsmen of the 20th century was proved once and for all by the recent retrospective of his drawings at New York's Museum of Modern Art. In works ranging in time from early academic student exercises to highly personalized figure studies completed during the last years of his life, and in style from the realistic to the almost totally abstract, Matisse made it clear that he belongs to that very small group of artists whose best drawings can be called great. Only Picasso and Schiele, in this century, have established that they also belong in this select company, although several other artists, including Kollwitz, Grosz, Modigliani, Mondrian, Moore, and Bellows have occasionally come quite close. Being able to draw well is one thing; achieving the rarefied level occupied by the likes of Lautrec, Van Gogh, Degas, Daumier, and Ingres is quite another.

Although the art world is fairly united in this view of Matisse's art-historical importance, a few dissenters continue to question his reputation as a great draftsman. The issue is not so much one of ability as of accomplishment. For all his talent, these individuals insist, Matisse never fully realized his potential, never carried his linear productions to the point of greatness.

Specifically, they point to the apparent casualness, the sketchy, unfinished appearance of the vast majority of his works on paper. Compared with the power and precision evident in almost every one of Picasso's drawings, those by Matisse seem flaccid and tentative. They may be handsome enough in a decorative way -- and a few may actually be quite beautiful -- but all in all, they are too fragmented and slight to be taken seriously as major art.

These objections, it seems to me, are based on a perception of drawing that runs counter to Matisse's own, and that finds its roots in the muscular, volume-oriented, and richly textured chalk or wash studies of Michelangelo, D"urer, or Rembrandt. Much as Matisse may have admired that approach, it definitely was not his. For his stylistic inspiration, he looked back to the elegant linear rhythms of Raphael and the great artists of ancient Greece and India; the richly patterned miniatures of the Near East; and other sources that stressed line over volume, the gently lyrical over the aggressively monumental.

In addition, it should not be forgotten that Matisse was an avowed modernist, and that his dedication to two-dimensionality was as much a matter of principle as of inclination.

He was also the one who wrote: ``I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me.'' And: ``I have always seen drawing not as the exercise of a particular skill, but above all as a means of expression of ultimate feelings and states of mind . . . conveyed directly to the spirit of the spectator.''

He was not, in other words, concerned about depicting objects -- be they people, plants, or vases -- exactly as they appeared in a three-dimensional world, but in distilling and transmitting his perceptual and emotional responses to what he saw in a manner calculated to trigger similar reactions in others. Rather than verifying the identity of an object by reconstructing its form, volume, and texture on flat paper, he invented an extremely simple graphic vocabulary that permitted him to evoke what he felt about his subjects with a minimum of technique.

The majority of his mature drawings are pared down to the irreducible, to a few flowing or erratic lines, a dozen or so dots and dashes, several charcoal smudges heavily outlined in black, or a number of daubs and smears of ink. His subjects are not so much delineated as suggested, and exist in his works as much as lines, dots, and smudges as representations of what they were in ``real'' life.

Unlike most other Western drawings, which tend to be rather technical and detailed, many of Matisse's sketches and studies appear almost totally lacking in any evidence of skill and technique, and seem as carelessly and innocently executed as a child's scrawls. This apparent effortlessness, however, was achieved only after years of careful and constant observation and practice. Some of his ``simplest'' images, in fact, required dozens of preliminary sketches.

A few are so simplified as to bear only the slightest resemblance to the objects from which they were derived and must be viewed more as ideograms representing qualities or as highly sophisticated linear performances than as evocations of things actually seen.

It was only during the early years of his career that he occasionally worked in a more traditional mode. In 1919, for instance, he made several pencil drawings of young women wearing plumed hats, drawings that were both faithful to his models and remarkable as demonstrations of how images of beauty and elegance could be fashioned from a few carefully chosen lines. These studies are so stunning and classically ``perfect'' that they should convince everyone of Matisse's genius as a draftsman and cause all those who fail to see the quality of his later works to take at least one more serious look.

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