Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Matisse: 'Bacchus Stripped'

Damon and the Hulk
talk aesthetics at GoMA
A little while ago I spoke at the Gallery of Modern Art, on the drawings and artistry of Henri Matisse. It was part of GoMA's exciting 'Matisse: Drawing Life' exhibition program.

A transcript of my talk is now available in full below. Because of copyright, I have not included the Matisse images (if this changes, I'll put them in).  But if you hunt around on the internet, I'm sure some of them will be available...

If this talk interests you, my book Distraction has a longer chapter on Matisse, alongside Proust and Heidegger on art.

“I have always tried to hide my own efforts and wished my works to have the lightness and joyousness of a springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labours it has cost.” – Henry Matisse, letter to Henry Clifford, Vence, February 1948
Matisse could make a snack into a miniature orgy. Take his ‘Peaches in a Vase’. In his hands, it becomes a bouquet of bums, artfully arranged in an shapely bowl. As with his women, flowers, chairs, teacups, Matisse makes even stone fruit sexier than normal – and I like stone fruit. 
And yet: there is no sweet taste, no fuzzy skin, no moist pulp. Not even colour: pinks, oranges, yellows. Just black lines on white paper. This is Matisse’s magic: hints of Bacchanalian intoxication, but all with an ascetic’s austerity. Robert Hughes once described Matisse’s ‘The Dance’ as one of the few wholly convincing modern depictions of divine frenzy, and Hughes is characteristically spot on. But for the master, there was no intoxicated abandon. Matisse’s portrayals of possession were always achieved with gritted teeth, clenched fist. 
Put less melodramatically, Matisse evoked ecstasy or sensual repose, but he did so with discipline, ferocity and a certain ruthlessness. Yes, he said he wanted his artworks to be like an armchair after a hard day’s work. But Matisse was not a Jason recliner kind of man. He was intense, obsessive, passionate. He once said that he felt like strangling someone just before working. He had within him some font of violence, which often took him from his wife, children and grandchildren, or had them tip-toeing around him. This was the savagery genteel Victorians saw in his early work, when he was allied with the Fauves. But this fury and lust were bridled with a bourgeois discipline – a physical and psychological strength that kept him working almost every day of his long life. This is what directed his intense, immense drives, and kept him creating and destroying, draft after draft. To make works of decadent carnality and overflowing joy of life, Matisse was ascetic. 
Nothing makes this clearer than Matisse’s drawings, which he described as the ‘spirit’ of his art – the vision, he told museum curator Henry Clifford, that guided colours’ appeal to the senses. Like Picasso’s Vollard Suite, this is where we see the artist exploring, experimenting, with purity of line. 
Take his ‘Dawn’ series, drawn in Matisse’s Nice period – his Hugh Heffner odalisque days, in pyjamas amongst the harem. We first see the model soft, gently shaded in greys, reclining with head on cocked arm, in front of a decorated rug. In his paintings, she and other models were part of the decorative play of lines and colours – not solids, but patterns amongst patterns. But in the drawings, the fleshy model became, a year later, a stark form of black and white. A dot and an arc for her eyes. A dot and an arc for her breasts, belly. Obtuse and acute arches for her calves, thighs, arse. Yet she is more sexily sculptural in this than in the earlier sketches and paintings. Odalisques suggest decadence, intimacy, longing – abandon or post coital snoozes. But Matisse captures the mood, not with frenzy, but with precision and continual revision. ‘These drawings are more complete,’ wrote Matisse in 1939, ‘than they may appear to some people who confuse them with a kind of sketch.’ In other words: simplicity is not simple. 
All well and good. But why this labour? Why struggle with pen and ink, or linoleum and scalpel, when Matisse might have been a lawyer? He’d have been financially secure, a good son, and exemplary citizen of the French bourgeoisie. Instead, he gave it all up for the madness of art school and penniless painting. 
It began when Matisse was a young law graduate working as a notary’s assistant, in a provincial town. He was bored, restless, depressed. He amused himself by shooting putty pellets from his pen at passers-by – damned good fun, plus alliteration. Then Matisse got sick – acutely so. He was bedridden for months with a stomach complaint. To stave off the young lawyer’s ennui, his mother gave him a box of paints. A simple distraction – or so she thought. In so doing, she ended her son’s safe legal career. ‘Before I had no interest in anything,’ said Matisse. ‘I felt a great indifference to everything they tried to make me do. From the moment I held the box of colours in my hand, I knew it was my life.’ And not only colours: pencils, pens, etching needles. 
From then on, Matisse worked tirelessly at what he called his ‘higher ideal of beauty.’ Beauty was vital for Matisse – vital in its original meaning: to do with life. He needed beauty: in the studio, in his models, in plants and furniture. And, more importantly, he needed it on paper and canvass, in clay and bronze. ‘What I dream of,’ he wrote in 1908, ‘is an art of balance, of purity and serenity.’ 
But Matisse was also seeking honesty: his art gave him a truer vision of himself and his world. Grace and charm were a start, he said, but not enough. He had to discover the ‘essential lines,’ he said, which were less pretty, but more faithful to the mood and meaning of things. ‘At the final stage the painter finds himself freed,’ Matisse told Tériade in 1936, ‘and his emotion exists complete in his work.’ This is what the artist never saw in his notary’s files; what was lacking in ordinary bourgeois life: a clearer, more vivid portrait of his own psyche. He never quite knew what he was drawing, he said – not until it was in front of him – until he was in front of him: all the ambiguity and transience of his mind, suddenly given simplicity and solidity on the page. 
This is what the American philosopher John Dewey described as the transformation of experience into an experience. Experience is the to-and-fro of life: we act upon the world, it acts upon us. Back and forth, constantly, between creature and environment. We touch, and are touched. We watch, and are watched. Back and forth, constantly. It is a rush of sensations, perceptions, thoughts – often vague and shifting. But it is not completely chaotic: there are patterns, structures, forms – unities, in other words, with beginnings, middles, ends, or centres and circumferences. Dewey points out that we enjoy these: endings, finales, harmonies, climaxes. We have an animalistic longing for these unities: each what Dewey calls an experience. This, argued the philosopher, is the value of art: it makes experience into an experience. Out of all the tangle and mess of ordinary life, the artist takes the most suggestive ‘stuff’ (sounds, colours, textures, shapes, shades) and plays with it until it exemplifies the tangle and mess. Beauty, in this, is not simply prettiness, but our enjoyment of these unities. The result is not just a record or report of the artist’s feelings: it is the artist’s feelings, in the language of paint or ink. As Matisse put it: ‘I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of expressing it.’ Art, for Matisse, was a way of celebrating life, but also of understanding it, and himself. A combination of refuge, catharsis and revelation. 
But art’d be an obscure hobby if it were only for artists. (Some art is.) Obviously it is also valuable for audiences – psychologically valuable, rather than just economically. Yes, you can literally buy a Greek island with the ticket price of a big Matisse. But the real payoff is what it does for the psyche. It gives us poignant, striking, or beautiful experiences, which then enter back into experience itself. In this art enriches, intensifies, informs our congress with the world, and does so with a curious combination of intimacy and public display. 
In a gallery, studio, concert hall or any other home for art, very personal experiences are evoked and provoked. And yet: this occurs with a common world; with a thing, right there, on a wall or a pedestal. So we can point to it, and say: ‘Here is what I saw, and this is what I felt and thought.’ In short, art helps us to discover ourselves, but also to share ourselves. 
Let me do some sharing, from this exhibition. Matisse’s lithograph ‘Acrobat’ (1931) is an astonishing piece of simplicity: perhaps five lines, which suggest not only the model’s figure, but her precarious balance, as she stands on her sharply tapered leg. There’s no solid support, foot flat on the floor. She’s upright because of her outstretched leg, curled arms and backwardly arching head, all suggested with light precision. She’s become lines of force. The aesthetic of gracefulness combines with respect for the acrobat’s quiet strength, and regret at my own clumsiness, as I sit nursing my stained shoulder and back, and old Judo wounds. The acrobat is an embodied ideal of elegant muscularity, refined to its most beautifully austere. 
‘Polyphemus’ does something different altogether. Matisse has squashed the scene into the frame: Odysseus and blinded Polyphemus, the Cyclops, are all entangled. The spear is part of the eye, stuck in the socket, and the Greek hero’s torso seems to stick to the giant’s splayed leg, next to his limp, vulnerable cock. Using lines to compress space, Matisse replaces epic grandeur with straining intimacy. The result is a reminder of the odd carnality of primitive combat – the way bodies intermingle as they struggle; the weird communion of combat I remember from Karate. 
Then there’s his Pasiphaé series, with its bright white lines on black. Picasso explored this theme of women and bulls in his stunning Vollard Suite, and here Matisse is replying in linocut. The French Master never quite manages the Spaniard’s savagery, his primal lust or violence. But in Pasiphaé Matisse certainly does his magic with lines. One page of Queen Pasiphaé is a single line: undulating quickly for her hair, then sharply for her classical nose, then in rounded curves for her chin, neck, shoulder, breast. With her one, white line, she’s completely alone, in the dark. She’s more hieroglyph than portrait; a myth of lonely fear – and a little ecstasy, with her slightly smiling mouth. And this is exactly what Matisse was doing: taking away everything superfluous, until he hit upon the single, precise symbol of ecstatic horror.  
The point is not that my strange impressions are authoritative; that there is a hidden code in Matisse’s work, which only I and Dan Brown know. The point is that Matisse’s line drawings, his etchings, his linocuts, are dense: sparse in detail, but packed tightly with what evokes and provokes. With their deceptive simplicity, they exemplify all art; they austere wealth of every great painting, symphony, dance, sculpture. When we look at ‘Acrobat’, with its handful of lines on paper, we can say: this is art. 
On this, let me end with a story. The novelist, poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis was once looking at a Baroque church in Spain. It sickened him a little, its ‘lavishness and bombast’. All the eyes, hands, feet, stuffed together in their Christian seizures, without room to swing a hair shirt. Kazantzakis sighed, and remembered one tale of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and divine intoxication. Dionysus came from India, wrote Kazantzakis, decked out in oriental bling: rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces. His eyes were rouged, his nails painted. He was head to red toes in bright silks. But when the god saw Greece’s clear Mediterranean shores, Dionysus stopped and threw his jewellery away, and the rags from his skin. By the time he stepped foot on Greece, he was naked – pure human physique and physiognomy without clothing or makeup. ‘The god of drunkenness had become the god of beauty,’ wrote Kazantzakis. ‘Such is the path of art.’ What the novelist wanted in the Baroque church was exactly what Matisse gave his best drawings: Bacchus stripped.

1 comment:

Jill in a Box said...

I really enjoyed this, particularly after reading the Matisse chapter in Distraction. Matisse has always been a favourite of mine and you have helped me appreciate and understand him better. Thank you.