Ruthless Hedonism; The American Reception of Matisse / Edition 2

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"Oh, do tell the American people that I am a normal man; that I am a devoted husband and father, that I have three fine children, that I go to the theatre." These words were spoken by Matisse just before the Armory Show in 1913—a pivotal moment, after which his work was seen in America as an example of what should be admired or deplored in modern art.

In this ambitious study, John O'Brian argues that Matisse's sober presentations of himself were calculated to fit with the social constraints and ideological demands of the times. Matisse's strategy included cooperating with museums, cultivating private collectors, playing off dealers one against another, and reassuring the media that, whatever his reputation as an avant-gardist, the conduct of his life was solidly bourgeois.

Moving from the late 1920s, when Matisse's output was shedding its outlaw reputation, to the early 1950s, when his work was canonized, O'Brian shows how the way Matisse's work was viewed changed as attention shifted away from the seductiveness of his subject matter to the seductiveness of his paint. The art's resolute rejection of political concerns, its deployment of decorative design for visual satisfaction, and its representations of pleasure encouraged American audiences, who in the 1930s deemed the art disreputable, to celebrate its gratifications by the early years of the Cold War.

This intriguing, wide-ranging investigation of Matisse's self-promotion, America's uneasy embrace of modernism, and America's consumer culture and politics provides a rich context to Clement Greenberg's words published in the Nation in 1947: "Matisse's cold hedonism and ruthless exclusion of everything but the concrete, immediate sensation will in the future, once we are away from the present Zeitgeist, be better understood as the most profound mood of the first half of the twentieth century."

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Editorial Reviews

Charles Darwent
Ruthless Hedonism is an interesting exercise in what, in recent years, have come to be known as reception studies. Most provocative is the chapter which debunks the myth of Matisse as the ultimate source of inspiration to the young Abstract Expressionists. With the possible exception of de Kooning and Motherwell, members of this movement are persuasively shown to have had either little interest in Matisse or to have been actively antipathetic towards him. But the main problem with Ruthless Hedonism remains its lack of a central thesis. Implicit in O'Brian's view of Matisse's American success are the ideas both that it was undeserved and that it brought about by knowing collusion between the artist, the art Establishment and the art market. Snippets of individually plausible fact are woven into a more generalized conspiracy theory which does not ultimately convince.
The London Times Literary Supplement
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226616261
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 298
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John O’Brian is professor of art history at the University of British Colombia.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Matisse and the Culture Generally
1. Journalists: Recasting the Image of the Modern Artist
2. Dealers: Paul Rosenberg and Matisse Fils
3. Private Collectors: Museum-Going Millionaires with a Taste for France
4. Museums I: Public Relations and the Semiprivate Museum
5. Museums II: Private Relations and the Semipublic Museum
6. Artists: Contending with the European Modernist Canon
7. Critics: Clement Greenberg's Defense of Material Pleasure
Epilogue: Merchandising Optimism

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