Monday 18 August 2014

Venus in a Shell

Ink drawing of the sculpture Venus in a shell II (1932) by Henri Matisse on display in the current exhibition Henri Matisse: Cut-Outs at Tate Modern 

Venus in a Shell I

Venus in a Shell II

The two bronze versions of Venus in a Shell reflect opposing modes of sculptural expression that Matisse explored in other works at the beginning of the 1930s. The smooth surface, rounded volumes and generalized form of Venus in a shell I reflect the same formal concerns and curvaceous sensuality of works such as Tiari. Venus in a Shell II exhibits the rough angularity, carved planar surfaces and raw physicality seen in Large Seated Nude.

Large Seated Nude (1925-29), Henri Matisse

Similar juxtapositions of refined and coarse treatments of a subject appear in series or complimentary compositions throughout his career, beginning with Madeleine I and II and continuing through Reclining Nude II and III and the complete series of Backs.  

Backs (1955), Henri Matisse

Matisse’s rendering of the goddess of Beauty has its roots in both the poetic and the mundane. Preparatory drawings he made at this time to illustrate the book Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé echo the pose and composition of Venus in a Shell

In the drawings a curvaceous seated nude with arms above her head emerges from surrounding forms. The oft-noted source for this was a photograph Matisse had taken in Tahiti of a cloud formation that looked to him like a nude woman rising from a billowy source. 

The artist associated this vision with a poem by Théophile Gautier that described a sculpted cloud against the sky, rising like a nude maiden from the water of a lake and echoing the myth of the birth of Venus, who emerged from the ocean on a clam shell. One also finds this evocation of the birth of Beauty in the painting The Yellow Dress, in which Matisse represents his stunning young model as a chaste torso emerging from her billowing gown. 

The Yellow Dress (1931), Henri Matisse

For Matisse, this vision of the birth of Beauty also evoked the more quotidian scene of the modern bather. Studies for Venus in a Shell recall his earlier drawings of bathing women such as The Bath and Woman Standing in a Tub. The drawings represent the artist’s first attempts to come to grips with the formal aspects that he tackles in Venus in a Shell. Venus in a Shell II was the last sculpture Matisse modeled until 1949. It was at this point that he began cutting paper shapes with scissors. The cut-outs would become his primary sculptural vehicle for the rest of his life. 

Blue Nude (1952), Henri Matisse

La Nascita di Venere (1486), Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus (1486), Sandro Botticelli