Saturday, May 23, 2009

How Easy Is It Anyway?...How Hard Can It Be?

Matisse started as a painter who was very much tied to the things he saw, but steadily he moved to the point where he wanted much more than that. Colour and all the elements of art needed to be distanced from the 'simpler' act of seeing, while somehow still grounded in 'experienced' reality. It's this duality that still gives such strength to his work. And if we think that this was an easy victory, and not really much of a step, fairly familiar terrain already explored previously by Gauguin and Cezanne just to name two who were at least in the same ballpark, we should think again.

I am mightily surprised by the actual record because the Fauve works produced in Collioure in 1905, seem, on the face of it, such a joyous release. But not everything is as easy as it might at first seem.

" More than forty years later, Georges Duthuit described the state in which his father-in-law [Matisse] approached the act of painting, a tension so extreme that those closest to him risked being sucked in with him to the verge of breakdown or vertigo. "The obvious forebodings experienced by the painter-who is at the same time so prudent, and so orderly that people call him 'the Doctor'---made him tremble. During the few years when he was able to endure this vision, Matisse spent whole nights without sleep, nights of desperation and panic." From now on Matisse would never again be free from the insomnia that had first attacked him on Belle-Ile. Amelie helped him through the interminable nights by reading to him, sometimes until dawn. The novel Matisse remembered reading in 1905 was Alexander Kuprine's Yama, an account of life in a provincial Russian brothel which deeply disturbed him. In fact, he could not have read this particular book (which was not published in French until 1923): it was a freak of Matisse's imagination that transposed Kuprine's powerful images of brutality and exploitation in a nocturnal underworld back to the summer at Collioure, when the stable, familiar daytime appearance of normality seemed to be blown apart before our eyes.

It is not easy to understand today how paintings of light and colour, mediated through scenes of simple seaside domesticity----a view of fishing boats above pots of scarlet geraniums on the studio windowsill, Amelie wrapped in a towel or seated barefoot on the rocks----could have seemed at the time, both to their perpetrator and to his public, an assault that threatened to undermine civilization as they knew it. But Matisse was not simply discarding perspective, abolishing shadows, repudiating the academic distinction between line and colour. He was attempting to overturn a way of seeing evolved and accepted by the Western world for centuries, going back to painters like Michelangelo and Leonardo, and before them to the Greek and Roman masters of antiquity. He was substituting for their illusion of objectivity a conscious subjectivity, a twentieth-century art that would draw its validity essentially from the painter's own visual and emotional responses.

Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, Volume 1, Penguin, 1998


  1. I am so happy to have found your blog through Aaron Lifferth - your work is fantastic!
    Btw, this is precisely the book I am reading at the moment - it is so interesting, especially for someone who loves Matisse's work like I do.

  2. Thanks Liza! I loved this book and made the 2 volumes last as long as possible...finally finished it yesterday. The title is very appropriate....thought I knew a lot about Matisse but so much here was completely surprising.