Towards the end of the first world war, Henri Matisse, working in Nice, travelled up the coast to Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Renoir, in his late seventies, was living in the splendour of his Mediterranean estate at Les Collettes. “He received me very cordially, and I showed him a few of my paintings,” Matisse recalled. “He looked at them with a rather disapproving expression. Then he said: ‘To tell the truth, I don’t like what you do. I wish I could say you are not a good painter, or even that you are a very bad painter. But one thing holds me back. When you place some black in the canvas, it stays in its plane. I have lived my life believing you couldn’t use that colour without rupturing the chromatic unity of the surface. It is a hue I have banished from my palette. Yet, you use a colourful vocabulary, and you introduce black, and it holds up. So, despite my feelings, I have to say you are surely a painter.”
The story sums up why Matisse, born in the 1860s, still speaks to us as an artist of 20th-century experience, while Renoir, born in the 1840s, belongs to a bygone age which we can only enter as historical fantasy. Although black has had an emotional and intellectual charge in painting since at least Rembrandt and Velasquez, it is above all the colour of modern, and especially postwar, art.
Among the first to grasp this commercially was the canny dealer Aime Maeght, who in 1946 launched his Paris gallery with a sensational exhibition called Le Noir est une Couleur (”black is a colour”).
The title, a quotation from Matisse, was understood as a rallying cry for the European avant-garde in war-ravaged France; including work by Matisse and Georges Rouault, the show bid for continuing Parisian dominance in an art world where power and influence were visibly shifting to the US. It made Maeght’s name and the beginning of his fortune.
Nevertheless, the art world soon left Paris - and figurative painting - behind. Maeght retreated to the Cote d’Azur, constructing in the 1960s one of the great temples to mid-century European modernism, the Fondation Maeght in the village of St-Paul-de-Vence, in the hills behind Renoir’s Cagnes. This unique, light-filled, glassy building, its pine-tree gardens dotted with Miro and Giacometti sculptures, offers each summer an exquisitely distilled, slightly off-centre exhibition on a theme in 20th-century art - the nude, the illustrated book - which shows the descendants of the Ecole de Paris to limpid, beautiful advantage.
This year, however, under the new direction of the dealer’s son Adrien Maeght, the Fondation has gone grand and global with a reprise of the seminal 1946 show, again called Le Noir est une Couleur, but updated to 2006. Black paint on canvas has rarely looked so stunning and so varied as it does here in the Mediterranean sun: the subtle black of American abstractionist Ad Reinhardt, the brutal black of Austrian actionist Arnulf Rainer, the sensual black of French lyricist Pierre Soulages, Jean Dubuffet’s scribbled light scratched out of blackboard black, Miro’s playful black, falling like night over colourful, daytime, floating forms. Altogether here, some 100 major black works in all media, each one of the highest quality and selected for historical significance, are juxtaposed with elements of the bright-hued permanent collection, such as a bobbing Alexander Calder mobile, or Miro’s yellow and blue stained-glass window. How, in this context, they shimmer and dazzle - and as they do so, how seductively they tell a refreshing, European-led story of art from 1946 to 2006, one that turns upside down every preconception of the dominance of American abstraction, minimalism, conceptualism.
Provocatively, Le Noir opens with late works by Bonnard - his last still-life, “Kitchen Utensils”, with its dark sieve marooned in an orange field - and Matisse, whose depiction of a chalice and cloth, evoking his chapel in Vence up the road, emphasises a contrast between the matte black gouache and the shiny white of tiny flowers.
“Black with ultramarine has the heat of tropical nights; tinted with Prussian blue, the cool of glaciers,” wrote Matisse. Brilliantly, he and his French contemporaries are here assigned the roles of ancestors to American abstraction. In the Maeght’s clean white galleries the monumental Americans line up in all their high puritanical seriousness and exhilarated celebration of space: Ellsworth Kelly’s swaying, harmonious “White and Black 1”; Robert Motherwell’s lacquered “The Blackness of Black”; Barnett Newman’s zip of yellow slicing down the edge of a black mass; “Yellow Edge”, the savage gesturalism of Willem de Kooning; the large black waves and haughty vertical strokes of Franz Kline. But here, they are diverted away from America’s open road and co-opted on to the elegant boulevard of European modernism.
As seductive is the role the Maeght gives to two other pre-war European artists - the near-surrealist late Kandinsky of “Mottled Black” and Fernand Leger, represented by the iconic ink and gouache “Jazz” and the almost abstract “Large Tails of Comets on a Black Ground”. Both Kandinsky and Leger favour bold black outlines and rhythmically cut shapes, the controlled agitation of their contours and intense sonority between black ground and colours. They were “pioneers of modernism”, says the Maeght, “before the great catastrophe made it necessary to reconquer black as a colour in order to forget the irremediable and dark abysses of the camps and the bombs. For them, black is a space where constellation and comets float... They are the giants who prefigure the catastrophe.”
Art out of death, light out of darkness, hope dredged out of the trauma of war and the mid-century collapse of civilisation: the Maeght reading of art and its impulses is an essentially humanist, transcendent one. Several rooms here suggest secular chapels. One houses Claudio Parmiggiani’s trinity of drooping black robes, “Iconostasis”; another sets Lucio Fontana’s eye-tricking “Concetto Spaziale”, with its darting points of light tripping through a dark ground, under Miro’s stained-glass window like an icon in a Russian church. A vital thread throughout is European historical experience: works ranging from Gerhard Richter’s gloomy “Star Picture” (1969) to Christian Boltanski’s 2005 “Great Hamburg Street School (Hidden Children)” - a collage of photographs of lost children, partially painted over in black - are memorials to the second world war.
Similarly, there is also a link between the apocalyptic themes in Anselm Kiefer’s fragile wooden book “The Rhine” of 1959 - evoking the rushing flow of the dark river - and Anne and Patrick Poirier’s “2235AD”, a mesmerising model, constructed from recycled materials painted glossy black, of a post-atomic cityscape, made in 2000.
The origin of the Fondation, built as a memorial to commemorate the death of Maeght’s second son, Bernard, colours every show here with the sense of art as consolation, beauty wrought from pain, order from chaos. Francois Fiedler’s playful painting-installation to mark Aime Maeght’s own death has black oil continually dripping down a canvas, like energy winding down, a portrait of dying. It is offset by Jean Tinguely’s “Metamorphoses III” - cut-out black shapes dancing gracefully, endlessly, on a white ground, suggestive of pulsating life, and amusingly installed here over Marcel Marien’s spooky black-and-white, velvet-and-lace-cuffed puppet hand that plays a piano.
Few museums anywhere manage to combine such lightness of touch with a still, meditative atmosphere, far from that of the madding crowds of the Cote d’Azur, and allowing visitors a long slow look at art that is rooted in line, colour and the tactile quality of paint. Dotted among the masterpieces are 21st-century conceptual works, mostly French. These include Philippe Favier’s “A Rose Cousin” (2006), showing white rose petals trapped under black glass, Helene Delprat’s video of a monochrome clown, “Le Defile” (2005), Francois Morellet’s wobbling neon noughts- and-crosses tubes, “Apres reflexion no 5” (2002), and Bernard Page’s wooden and Plexiglas step-ladder, “Clair-Obscur III” (2005). None makes the earth move, but all acquire gravitas by the association with high modernism, and all remind us how irrepressible is French lyricism, classicism, and the urge to order.
Such illuminations make this show reverberate far beyond its idyllic Mediterranean setting. Absorbing into a coherent argument work as diverse as Picasso’s paintings, Tony Smith’s minimalist sculptures and a self-portrait video-collage by Nam June Paik, Le Noir is visually fabulous, intellectually riveting, and curated with flair and spark.
It is also a bold, original answer to the starry, nationalistic version of art history championed by New York’s Museum of Modern Art - by which European pre-war art is a prelude to the main act of American greats that followed. No modern art gallery in any European capital has yet dared challenge this reading. But if the jumbled ahistorical hangings at Tate Modern and the Pompidou Centre are symbols of European intellectual self-doubt and fragmentation, the Maeght is an audacious, rearguard answer. It offers a historical continuum which celebrates the art of individuals, distinct epochs and cultures, against the current of the transatlantic house style that is London-New-York-Paris conceptualism. Vive la difference.
“Le Noir est une Couleur” is at Fondation Maeght, St-Paul-de-Vence, France, 0033 4 93328163, to November 5.