The Gravity of the Human Face: Two Portraits by Matisse

The Italian Woman (1916)
Olga Merson (1911)

Impressions from a corner of “Matisse in the Studio,” now on at Boston’s MFA.

Before she’s anything else, the Italian Woman is beautiful. Her shoulder is lopped off — but it doesn’t look lopped off. She just ends right where her sleek, straight hair does.

Olga Merson, too, is graceful in a manner which should look violent, but doesn’t. She has a black gash of paint looping round her waist, from her chin all the way to her hip. The first thing that strikes me about the painting is the rightness of this curve.

The sleekness of the Italian’s hair is broken by a little tuft on her cheek. It adds to the gracefulness — at first. It pairs nicely with the little loop on the other side of her collar. Nicely — then, ominously. Something is beginning to close in — on me, on her, on her gracefulness.

The painting is concentrated, condensed, in the Italian Woman’s face. It’s sculptural, weighty, grave. (This disappears in reproduction.) It holds my gaze for a long time. Modelled on African masks, it reveals nothing — but it isn’t a mask. It seems to point to things which even the most open face couldn’t reveal. The label quotes something Matisse said of a different (I think) painting of an Italian: “I succeed in picking out among the lines of his face those which suggest that deep gravity which persists in every human being.” That deep gravity — yes.

Olga’s face is the polar opposite. The Italian’s was concrete; hers is uncertain, lost in a haze of scratches, redraftings, movement. You can see just where her likeness refuses to be captured.

The reason the Italian’s shoulder doesn’t look lopped off is that it’s enveloped in the background. Space is wrapping itself around her. Pressed between two panes of hair like an insect in glass, soon she might dissolve entirely.

But where would she be disappearing? Is she pressed into the canvas — or squeezed out of it? Is she turning into a painting — or retreating into her weighty humanity? What is this strange space encroaching on her? Is it the painted space — or the real one? Or is it not space at all — but time?

It was only once I got home that I realized: the two paintings (neighbors at the exhibition) are mirror images of the same thing. They’re about captures and escapes. Olga flees through her face; the Italian — through her body, her shawled shoulder and uncertain hands. The Italian is pinned to the canvas by her face; Olga — by her waist. These are the paintings’ respective centers of gravity.

Just what sort of capture is this? We have the gravity of the Italian’s face — but beneath that, all is hidden. Suddenly it’s the sketchy arms that look like capture, and the face — like resistance. Perhaps the mirror lies elsewhere. Perhaps in their reversed ways — through lightness and through weightiness — both women are fleeing through their faces.

As I tear myself away from the Italian’s face, I’m still uncertain — who’s capturing whom?

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