Raised Image Around the image of the figure is a rectangular border of dots. This is the edge of the bronze panel. At the top of the page in the centre is a raised block that runs vertically down the middle. This is the head and the long spine. To the left of this at the top by the head, are two parallel horizontal lines, this is her arm that is bent at the elbow and raised to her head. The first bulge below the elbow is a breast. Below it is the pinch of her waist, then the curve of her hip and a straight line for her leg. Further in, next to the bottom of the spine is the curve of her buttock and the other outline of the leg. On the right of the head is the downward curve of her shoulder and arm. It ends in a series of stepped angles for her hand. Slightly further in towards the spine is a single vertical line that follows her ribcage, down her thigh to the slight bend in her knee and her ankle. Immediately to the right of the spine is a vertical line describing this edge of her spine, the angle of her other buttock, her knee and down the leg.End of Raised Image Description
Orientation This large relief represents a female nude seen from behind. She is standing with her legs slightly apart. Her left arm is raised with the elbow bent, so that the her hand seems to be touching her forehead, which is out of our view. Her right arm hangs against her body parallel to a long ponytail that hangs down the middle of her back. The figure is life size but the top half of the head and her legs from the lower calves down are cut off by the top and bottom of the panel. The entire panel is approximately the size of a door.End of Orientation
Back III belongs to a series of bronze reliefs that were made over twenty years. The earliest work in the series is now lost. The first three surviving Back sculptures were made between 1909 and 1917 and the final one was finished in 1930. Although the panels were not conceived as a series, they share the same dimensions because Matisse created each new Back from a plaster cast of the previous one which he then altered using clay.
The first relief in the series was no more than a copying exercise, an anatomically acurate study. But as the series progressed, each of the five states revealed an ever bolder and more radical approach to the human form, a shift which to some extent reflected Matisse's increasing interest in non-European art.
Matisse began collecting African carvings in 1906. As he explained, he was interested in how ‘they were conceived from the point of view of sculptural language…made in terms of their material according to invented planes and proportions’. In other words, African art used techniques of simplification to create sculptures that were emotionally powerful without necessarily being anatomically accurate.
As we look to the end of the series, Matisse's interest in non-European cultures is evident. The figure has undergone a dramatic simplification, moving away from naturalism towards a more elemental and physical sense of the human body, much as Matisse had observed in African sculpture. These later Backs may also have been modified to reflect the different body shape of African women. Certainly, In 1908 Matisse had made a sculpture based on a photograph of Tuareg women in which he emphasised their compact, stocky proportions.
The influence African art also helped reintroduce the principle of direct carving to European sculpture. Most conventional sculpture of the period was the result of clay modelling, which would gain a permanence either when cast in bronze or transposed to marble by assistants. Matisse's early Backs, with their carefully modulated, naturalistic curves, belong to this form of sculpture. But direct carving went back to an earlier tradition of removing material from an existing block of wood or stone to ‘reveal’ the sculpture within. The simpler, rougher forms of the later Backs show Matisse carving into his material and taking away from it.
Matisse's earliest surviving version, Back I, is broadly naturalistic. The nude stands with her weight on her left leg and her right leg is bent. Although simplified, the response of her body's muscles to this pose is well defined. Her right arm is slightly bent and her sausage-like fingers curl against her hip. In this early version her head is fully depicted within the frame of the panel. It also rests closer to the crook of her raised arm so that the fingers of that hand are visible beyond her head. Her hair is up and we can see her left breast below her raised arm, which gives an additional sense of depth.
By Back III, the nude has lost all extraneous detail. Her fingers have disappeared, her right leg is nearly straightened and the individual muscle groups of the shoulders, back, buttocks and legs have been reduced to simplified zones of body mass. The left breast has become a flattened form and the nude’s hair is now a long, thick ponytail that doubles as the spinal column. This creates a vertical axis around which the two sides of the figure balance. The nude now fills the majority of the panel, bursting out of the top and nearly touching the left edge with her raised elbow.
The surface of Back III reveals Matisse’s working process. It is pitted and scarred by the knife he used a to cut away hard plaster from the cast of Back II. This gives the sculpture the appearance of something that has been carved in wood rather than modelled in soft clay. The direction of the thick chisel is clearly visible in creating areas of diagonal hatching into the surface. The modelling itself is done in blunt, broad strokes resembling those of a palette knife or a cheese wire. The sculpture is sensuous not because it emulates smooth skin but because it invites us to trace across its surface the physical effort involved in its creation.
The penetration of the ground into the volume of the figure has become more extreme in Back III. The process of cutting away and simplifying areas of the body means that space has become an important sculptural tool. The curve of the left buttock is suggested by flattening the space around it, so that the left leg seems almost cut off from the torso.
Matisse recognised that relief sculpture was an ideal stepping stone between fleshy three-dimensionality and the necessarily flat representation of the body in painting. “I sculpted as a painter,” said Matisse, “I did not sculpt like a sculptor.” In relief sculpture, he could deal with the mass and form of the body in real space, and at the same time clarify his sense of how to represent the human form on canvas. We might say that the woman represented in this relief stands between the realms of sculpture and painting, or between three-dimensional reality and the flatness of painted representation.
Matisse developed these sculptures alongside work on major painted compositions in which human figure was often a central feature. He described his excursions into sculpture as 'nourishing' his art as a whole, and it is often possible to see where these experiments in relief and his painting overlap.
As an example of how Matisse's Backs relate closely to his representation of the figure in painting, we can make a comparison. Displayed on the left is a illustration of the basic form of Back III. The illustration on the right shows a figure from Matisse's monumental painting, Bathers by a River, which he began in 1909 and completed in 1916. There is a clear similarity in the way the figures have been simplified. Both are structured around a prominent vertical central core, which is heavy line divides the body in two. It runs from the centre of the head, down the spine and between the legs.
Back III has a totemic, architectural quality. This powerful physical presence comes from the combination of its scale, its radical simplification, its vertical emphasis and the visible evidence of its production. It has replaced superficial sensuality for a more archetypal potency.