The despair of the physical: Materialism in George Santayana and Henri Matisse, 1900–1950
This study is about the persistence of realism into modernism. My principal aim is to establish the relationship between two central figures within the realism—abstraction debate—the philosopher George Santayana (1863–1952) and the painter Henri Matisse (1869–1954)—and offer an alternative epistemology of modernism based on their practices. This “realist” epistemology of modernism departs from the one provided by both its Hegelian inspired supporters and its vitalist detractors.
Part one considers the debates surrounding the “revolt against materialism” at the turn of the twentieth century. The focus of these discussions is Santayana's resistance to vitalist and pragmatist attempts to dissolve the world into the self. As an alternate to these experience-based epistemologies Santayana develops the terms of a “critical realism.” Critical realism vindicates knowledge of an objective world without having to regard perception as an intellectual interference, but also without giving up the commonsense belief that objects are separate from the sensations which mediates our knowledge of them. Simply put, the foundations of signification in arbitrariness has no bearing on our ability to know the world.
Santayana's critical realism has wide implications for the interpretation of modernism. In the second part of this study I consider the impact of critical realism on Matisse's enterprise. A detailed examination of both his writings on art and his practice reveals the artist's lifelong fascination with his personnalité. As he describes it, his personnalité “generates” the terms of both “imagination” and “nature.” This idea shows that the predominant questions regarding figuration and abstraction in the artist's work—including those questions concerning “doubling” and seriality—are misguided. Alternately, the focus should be directed toward understanding a “recursive” set of imagery: images of inertia, stasis, and repetition that pervade his oeuvre but have been ignored in the literature because they do not contribute to the vitalistic discourse that permeates Matisse scholarship. In particular, I focus on an unexplored series of small sculptural figures made in the years between Le bonheur de vivre (1906) and La danse (1909) that exemplify his fascination with personnalité. With these works in mind I attempt to reorient the global narrative on the artist from a vitalist perspective to a more recursive set of issues and concerns.