I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I am forced to interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture," wrote the French painter Henri Matisse in 1908, looking back on a decade in which he and his friends had revolutionized image making.
Many of the results of that revolution can be seen at the Royal Academy in London, where 86 paintings and seven sculptures from the collection of Gabrielle and Werner Merzbacher are on show until mid-November.
The Merzbachers, both German-born, moved from the U.S. in 1964 to Switzerland, where Werner, then 36, joined the fur business begun by Gabrielle's paternal grandfather Bernhard Meyer. In the 1970s, the Merzbachers began putting together one of the best private collections of 20th century art. They already had inherited some great pictures from Mayer, who owned important works by Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Matisse. And with these for inspiration, the Merzbachers began building a collection suffused with bright, often violent color.
As strange as it may seem, at the start of the 20th century color was contentious. Old theories of art still held that the color in a painting should be secondary to the drawing: get the structure down and then color it in. But from the 1870s Impressionism had disturbed this dull consensus. The Impressionists painted outdoors and quickly. They showed that lines did not exist to sight, but were imposed on the world by the mind. In other words, we see structure because we know it exists. The Impressionists gave structure to their paintings by juxtaposing colors.
Artists were not content merely to mimic perception. Theorists of color began looking at both how we see and what effects color has on our feelings. And with the paintings of the Postimpressionists, in particular Van Gogh, color began to be freed from nature. Van Gogh exaggerated and distorted color to communicate his vision of the world. For example, in his Sunny Lawn in a Public Park (Arles) (1888) Van Gogh creates a secret garden by forgoing the use of color to suggest realistic depth. His subjective use of color was taken up by the next generation of painters including Matisse.
With Matisse painting rediscovered primary color: red, blue, yellow; colors he put down on the canvas right next to each other, vibrating wildly, with no concern for reality. By 1905 many Parisian critics still found the color combinations emerging from this Postimpressionist art peculiar. Matisse and his French followers, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, were nicknamed les fauves (the wild beasts) because they painted lemon yellow and lime green skies above pea green seas upon which sailed geranium red boats. There was another wild color that these Fauves used: white.
In Alfred Sisley's Impressionist view of Willows on the Banks of the Orvanne (1883), we see pollarded willows in their May foliage, fresh leaves shimmering in a breeze. In part, it is Sisley's use of white highlights that produces the effect of bright light reflecting off the landscape.
White also shows up from behind the sketchy greens, reds and pinks in Matisse's Interior at Collioure (circa 1905), giving an appropriate Mediterranean airiness to the scene. In Derain's Boats in the Port of Collioure (1905), green dabs are laid on a field of white, which shows through as light jumping off the waves.
In Germany, Van Gogh and Matisse inspired so-called Expressionism, and the Merzbacher collection has 40 examples from the two groups of artists that pioneered the movement. The first, based in Dresden, called itself Die Brücke (The Bridge). The paintings of Erich Heckel, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluf look like a clash of Van Gogh meeting Nietzsche: fierce color contrasts are used to depict a passionate intensity. In Heckel's Red Roofs (1909), the evening scarlet of the tiles spreads out across the flaming sky, where flicks of royal blue dance recklessly. A house and garden have become hallucinatory.
Expressionism's second group, originally based in Munich, was made up of the Russian Wassily Kandinsky, the German Franz Marc and the circle around their one-issue journal, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). As the journal's name hints, this artist group was concerned with the romantic and mystical. The collection's seven paintings by Kandinsky show him unshackling color from objects as he invents abstract art. But before quite doing so, he painted Angel of the Last Judgment (1911), in which we can make out a glorious, multicolored archangel lifting the last trumpet. Kandinsky is perhaps suggesting the confusion, delight and anxiety we might feel on encountering such a being.
Alexei von Jawlensky, another Blaue Reiter, wrote of the years 1905-06, "I understood how to translate nature into color according to the ardor of my soul." His drawing became schematic, as color carried his paintings' emotional content. In Helene with Dark Blue Turban (1910) the clash between the cold fuchsia background and the warm red of Helene's blouse delivers an electric charge.
Emotion and ardor fill the collection, as if Gabrielle and Werner Merzbacher had said to themselves, "We like this picture," rather than, "We must have another Matisse." This concern for each painting gives the collection its tautness and also its excitement, particularly when we come across such an oddity of technique as Two Figures in a Landscape (1931-1932) by the Russian Kazimir Malevich.
Malevich wrote on color theory in painting, stressing its link to the spiritual. He saw his paintings as icons, channels to another reality; their colors did not need to be realistic. Who are these masked women stiff against a striped landscape as flat as the backdrop in a photographer's studio? Perhaps they are people in the new earth Malevich has seen, one colored by mystery, self-possession and a bucolic beauty. What emotion does the work convey? The innocent shock of another world of color.