Odalisques in Harem Pants, Icons of Modernity


Modernism has come to seem increasingly like an act of creative theft or translation: Think of Picasso’s relation to African tribal art, or Duchamp’s to American plumbing. And consider, as an early autumn treat, this ravishing show at the Metropolitan Museum, focusing on the bits of cloth that over the course of decades fired up Henri Matisse’s imagination. The grandson and great-grandson of weavers, Matisse spent his childhood in a northern French town known for producing luxurious silks, amid a riot of pattern and color. Animated by amorous and sensual longings, throughout his long career he turned to textiles the way a woman tries on a new blouse, thirsting for transformation.

His first affair was with a “toile de Jouy” (or so he misnamed it), a piece of canvas picked up in 1903 at a Parisian secondhand clothes shop, whose blue-and-white printed pattern of arabesques and flowers billows and swells throughout his early still lifes, upturning perspective, overwhelming the carafes and fruits he assembled atop it. Later, there were spoils gathered on his travels: woolly, flame-red Algerian rugs, striped silk Ottoman robes, and Moroccan screens made of fabrics embroidered and pierced like fretwork, the props for 1920s Orientalist fantasies. Put to best use, their wild ornament and color turn his hieratic nudes and odalisques in harem pants into icons of modernity.

Seeing these and other textiles from Matisse’s private collection—1930s Parisian couture dresses, Romanian peasant blouses, Congolese Kuba cloth—hanging next to his paintings, drawings, and late cutouts, the echoes of a complex dialogue between cultures become audible. And yet, sometimes it’s as if a Cézanne were placed beside a plate of apples—the thing itself so finite, compared with the art it inspired.