Amongst the pairs and series of paintings on the same theme which Matisse produced, we find his goldfish paintings. The Pompidou Centre’s exhibition displays two masterpieces from 1914 on this theme: “Intérieur, bocal de poissons rouges” [“Interior with goldfish bowl”] and “Poissons rouges et palette” [“Goldfish and palette”].
Sea creatures and fish, common in Matisse’s work, are well-known signs of his movement towards a simplified and synthetic painting style. His teacher, Gustave Moreau, had told him presciently, and somewhat reproachfully, “You are going to simplify painting…” and “You cannot simplify painting to such an extent, reduce it to this. Painting would no longer exist…”. Matisse’s goldfish are indeed “simplified”. In order to “synthesise” them he looked to those of the Japanese prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai, even though he did not follow their expressive curves, which can be seen in the works of many “art nouveau” artists. He saw the stylised dolphins on Greek vases at the Louvre and spent six years copying Chardin’s “La Raie” [“The Ray”], which he called “the greatest still life of fish”. Above all, he observed them directly. He declared that study at the École des Beaux-Arts ought to be replaced by an extended period at the zoo.
Goldfish, these placid and silent beings, which stimulate eye movement and illustrate the plasticity of space, help to achieve Matisse’s objectives for his paintings: condensation, identification, meditation and visual relaxation. In this sense, Matisse, who was highly aware of the Asian art, tapestries, ceramics and illuminations which he had seen between 1893 and 1901 in Paris and Munich, has a vision similar to that of oriental artists. As such, it is not a coincidence that the goldfish bowl motif appears in works produced during or after his two trips to Morocco in 1912-1913. In the central panel of his famous “Triptyque marocain” [“Moroccan Triptych”], (Pushkin Museum, Moscow), a young girl, Zora, kneels on a dark blue terrace which carries her like a flying carpet, with, in front of her and to her left, a goldfish bowl, and, on her right, two oriental slippers with red insoles. In this daydream set against a turquoise-blue background, the floating slippers provide a counterpart to the fish. The left panel shows a man sitting pensively in the shadows, while a container in front of him is illuminated in the the door of the casbah. The same ordinary and exotic reverie is the subject of “Café marocain” [“Moroccan café”] (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg), where two subjects meditate and daydream beside a goldfish bowl, whilst listening to a musician play behind them. The two goldfish and the human subjects share the same orange-ochre hue. Matisse declared his wish that the viewer experience the same contemplative relaxation when faced with his painting.
He produced a veritable series on this topic between the spring and summer of 1912. We may cite “Poissons rouges sur fond brun” [“Goldfish on a brown background”] (Copenhagen), “Poissons rouges et sculpture” [Goldfish and sculpture”] (New York) or “Poissons rouges [avec fauteuil]” [“Goldfish (with armchair)”] (Moscow). Apollinaire remarked that there were many goldfish at art shows at this time. He called it a fashionable subject, an obsession, attributable perhaps to the Chinese exhibitions. Matisse’s goldfish are much more than this. They are a metaphor for painting, limited and liberated in a bowl, a studio or the mind, a coloured object which draws the eye, often in a centripetal way, and brings organisation to the painting, to “achieve the state of condensation of impressions which makes the painting”. In these works, Matisse wishes to bring together plant, animal and human, a task which, in his opinion, had been made very difficult by the European renaissance.
After “Café marocain”, he continued the series in 1914 and 1915 with the two works which are currently on display at the Pompidou Centre.
In “Intérieur, bocal de poissons rouges”, the elevated perspective, raised surface, division of similar shapes and colours and of simple objects, in regions which are separated from each other, at the front and the back, inside and outside, stretch and distend space to the extent that the eye perceives motion which is attributed to the immobile fish. Against a predominantly blue background, the two red daubs form a harmonious whole which is reflected by secondary points of intensity in the shine of the windowsill or the many shades of pink. Correspondingly, in the foreground, the green interior of a deep cup, over which lies a grey, oval-shaped shadow, provides complementary opposition to the red note. The fish is able to move like the eye of the painter, from the cup to the bowl and from the bowl to the water of the river, and vice versa, as the curve of the spindly plant bends out of the window, emphasising the bridge with its leaves in silhouette, which turn into steps. Opposite the studio on quai Saint-Michel, on the other side of the Seine on quai de la Mégisserie, goldfish were sold. In 1906, Matisse commented on his painting “Fenêtre ouverte à Collioure” [“Open Window at Collioure”]: “the atmosphere of the landscape and of my room are but one and the same”. The title of the painting, at first sight anodyne, evokes a mental aspect: the bowl is the mirror of the studio; the studio is the painter’s goldfish bowl. Moreover, the English title of the work during its first showing in New York in 1915 was “Goldfish”. The goldfish swims around its bowl just as an idea runs through one’s mind, and the cylinder of the bowl reflects the Cézannian cylindrical view.
“Vue de Notre-Dame” [“View of Notre-Dame”] (New York, Museum of Modern Art) and “La porte-fenêtre à Collioure” [“French Window at Collioure”] (Paris, Pompidou Centre) of autumn 1914, which Matisse also referred to as “Le balcon ouvert” [‘The Open Balcony”], are two of his works using stripes, scratches and contrasts between transparent and opaque areas, which preceded and prepared the ground for “Poissons rouges et palette” .
In October 1914, Matisse wrote in a letter to Camoin: “I am doing a painting, it is my painting of the goldfish, which I am repainting with a character holding a palette in his hand who is observing (brown-red harmony)”. He enclosed a drawing in which the human subject, seated on the right, contemplates the placement of the bowl, the plant and the fruit. By the winter, in the final work, the character had been replaced by a tangle of lines and streaks which bring the different parts of the painting closer together, like a curtain or an open window. The table and the container in the previous work have been replaced by a brown area where a rectangular palette and a white finger indicate the snow-white, cylindrical bowl. Viewed as a whole, it is reminiscent of a piano with its music rack and sheet music; similarly, a lectern is visible in the heart-shaped ironwork which surrounds the red-accented stand. In the triangle of ocean sky, similar to a metronome, the railing becomes a boom and the canvas becomes the sail. Once again, above the golden fruit, a small green plant connects the water in the bowl with the blue of the sky.
With the combination of blue, white, red and brown, Matisse achieved the musical harmony which he was seeking, and an echo of the war which had been declared in August 1914. The musician-painter (see “Intérieur au violon” [Interior with Violin”], 1918, Copenhagen, and “Le violoniste à la fenêtre” [“The Violinist at the Window”], 1918, Paris) concentrates and offers a counterpoint to the disorder of the war with his cubist-style work, during a period in which he was close to Juan Gris.
In 1923, André Breton expressed the opinion that this painting was amongst the three or four greatest modern works and encouraged its purchase by the fashion designer Jacques Doucet, who placed it with the three key works of his collection, along with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” [“The Young Ladies of Avignon”] by Picasso and the sketch for “Cirque” [“Circus”] by Seurat. “Deformation, intense penetration of the life of the author in each object, magic of colours, everything is there…” (Breton). For Georges Duthuit, the painting evokes the humid atmosphere of a boat: “this humidity, this silence, make the red of the goldfish appear even more brilliant. They occupy only a small space in the painting, but it complements all the rest of their surroundings”.
There would be more paintings featuring goldfish alongside pensive subjects between 1923 and 1929. It was at the end of the 1920s that Matisse came to want a larger space for his painting. His air travel and his discovery of Polynesia and New York were similar experiences and the decoration of “La Danse” for the Barnes Foundation was the illustration of this new impulse.
However, it was above all a serious operation in 1941 which led Matisse, who felt that he had been given a second chance in life, to break free and move “beyond any motif”, away from painting, to enter “a larger space, a veritable plastic space”. In so doing he rejected the “little game of the paintbrush” and produced his gouache cut-outs which seemed to take flight from the walls of his room.
After the purifying, abstract work of his album “Jazz” in 1943 for the publisher Tériade, his painting became, in his own words, “airy and even aerial”. Or to put it another way: “After this purification, I left my sandals at the door, like in a mosque.”
Amongst all the masterpieces of this era, “Les bêtes de la mer” [“Beasts of the Sea”] (1950, Washington) and “Les poissons chinois” [“Chinese Fish”] (1951, Los Angeles), which is a sketch for the stained-glass window of the dining room of the publisher Tériade’s villa (today it is at the Matisse Museum, at Le Cateau-Cambrésis). Matisse stated that one of these fish is a dugong, a sirenian: “Here is a dugong… and above is a sea creature in the form of seaweed. Around them are begonia flowers”. In the enormous gouache cut-outs of “La piscine” [“The Swimming Pool”] (1952, New York), fish and merpeople swim or fly alongside stars or starfish.
The scale of these works, with the light illuminating and colouring the architectural spaces, whether this was the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence or Tériade’s dining room, turned goldfish bowls, interiors and rooms into seas and skies, and Matisse, in the manner of a Chinese artist, declared: “It seemed to me that my drawing was like the breathing of the sea”.