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Can art that asks nothing of the viewer be called art?

Henri Matisse’s “The Parakeet and the Mermaid”
Henri Matisse’s “The Parakeet and the Mermaid”
Photograph: Stedelijk

If a museum bills a show as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event, and the show is so popular that the museum’s doors stay open all night on the last weekend of a near half-year run, and a critic makes a “guarantee that “this exhibition will be among the most popular ever staged in this country” can you guess what the museum is showing?

Would you believe Matisse’s cut-outs? Me, neither.

You have to wonder why Tate Modern feels the need to ballyhoos an artist who has as many museum exhibit credits as Matisse does, especially when so many living artists go without. Adding to the wonder is why Matisse has so many museum credits in the first place.

This is blasphemy, I know. My apologies to Matisse's legions of fans. Certainly his cut-outs are handsomely colorful and decorative. But so is wallpaper.

Lest you think I'm giving too little weight to his art, he downplayed it himself when he wrote in his Notes d’un Peintre, “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter... like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.”

Not that Matisse’s “cerebral sedatives” mean his palette is subdued. Did I say wallpaper? Make that uproarious wallpaper.

Even in his famous painting “Odalisque with Raised Arms,” you get the wallpaper pattern effect as the curls of hair under the female model’s arms complement the pronounced curlicues in the decorative background panels and chair in which she lounges.

All of which makes this other assertion from Matisse preposterous: “What I am after, above all, “is expression. The chief aim of color should be to serve expression.”

Nice thought, Henri, but your zeal for expression doesn’t match your penchant for wallpaper design. Neither does this other assertion of yours: “What interests me most is neither still life not landscape but the human figure. It is through it that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life.”

“Religious feeling”? In wallpaper?

Of course, I'm poking fun at only Matisse's cut-outs, made later in his life when he was too ill to stand at his easel. It's probably not fair to quote from journals written when he was a young painter.

But we're still left with wondering about the throngs packing a show of cut-outs. What’s up with that? Unless Londoners are so stressed, so oppressed by their lives that a “mental soother” is their cup of Earl Grey.

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