Monday, February 4, 2013

A Look At Matisse's Creative Process.

I recently went to the Metropolitan Museum's "Matisse:  In Search Of True Painting" show.  It was way, way interesting!  As a painter, I liked this show's emphasis on Matisse's processes:  In particular, his reworking of paintings; his repeated use of the same composition (with variations) and his work on sets or series of paintings.  It is unusual for a museum exhibition to reveal the work that went into an artist's finished product, which makes this show quite special. Matisse's canvases always look so elegant and effortless, so it is something of a revelation to see how many metamorphosis they went through.  But, as this show makes clear, they were the products of a very deliberate multi-stage process. The show also chronicles Matisse's aesthetic development, beginning with his stylistic borrowings from Cezanne and the pointillist Signac-----as can be seen, respectively, in "Still Life with Purro I, "1904 and "Luxe, calme, et volupte," 1904.
Luxe, calme, et volupte, 1904.

But, mostly, the exhibition displays the evolution of Matisse's own style:  His rejection of three- dimensional illusionism in favor of emphasizing the two-dimensionality of the canvas surface through the use of flat color and line.  I'm not an art historian, but I think Matisse may have been the first modern European painter to completely eschew the tradition of spatial illusionism that evolved during the Renaissance.  "Nasturtiums with the Painting 'Dance' I," 1912 (below) is an example.

The painting suggests three-dimensionality because of the scale, placement and juxtaposition of objects:  The chair in the lower lefthand corner establishes a foreground both because of its placement on the canvas and its comparative size in relation to the table with the nasturtiums, which in turn, through scale and placement, establish that the painting "Dance" is a background of sorts.  However, the painting is obviously meant to be viewed, first and foremost, as a two-dimensional work.  In addition to the composition, I love that it is so, well, self-referential.  Matisse liked to depict his artwork-----both sculpture and painting----in his compositions.  Another example includes, "Goldfish," 1912, which showcases one of Matisse's sculptures.  The frequent use of his artwork as subject matter turns it into a recurring motif, standing for the realm of the artist's imagination.  Thus, setting up a dichotomy between the sphere of imagination and the mundane one of everyday objects.  The latter is represented in "Nasturtiums with the painting 'Dance' I" by the chair, table and plant.

Another favorite theme of Matisse's is the dichotomy between interior and Exterior spheres.  That can be seen in many of the paintings in this show, including: "Woman on a Divan (Room at the Hotel Mediteranee)" 1920-21; "Interior with Goldfish," 1914.

Woman on a Divan, (Room at the Mediteranee), 1920-21.

Interior with Goldfish, 1914.

The dichotomy that is represented is between the private and intimate environment of these rooms and the public, non-intimate one shown through a window.  As the Met's Rebecca Rabinow points out in her text for "Matisse:  In Search of True Painting," because windows connect the outer and interior spheres, Matisse's use of them is symbolic:  The windows are passageways between the two spheres.  While, of course, any painting has to work on purely visual grounds, themes and motifs can certainly add interest to a work.  That is something that I think about as a representational painter.  The problem is to develop a visual vocabulary that is accessible enough to be understood and that isn't gimmicky.  Matisse has certainly succeeded in doing that:  Nothing ever feels forced or phony in his paintings, instead his art always seems absolutely perfect.

I also loved the late paintings in the show such as, "Interior in Yellow and Blue," 1946 and "Large Red Interior," 1948.
Interior in Yellow and Blue, 1946.

Large Red Interior, 1948.

Both paintings play with notions of space by conflating two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects through the use of line and color.  In "Interior in Yellow and Blue" there is little difference between the treatment of the wall hanging and the tabletop with lemons, indeed Matisse gives equal weight to the two by using the same intense blue in rectangles of similar size for both.  In "Large Red Interior" the painting on the wall seems more substantial than the objects in the room.  Matisse plays with the viewer's notions of what is real or artificial in a very clever, fun way in these and other paintings.
"Matisse:  In Search Of True Painting" is on through March 17, at The Metropolitan Museum.

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