For this week our homework was to chose an article (we were given three articles to chose from, one each, without knowing which article we were going to get), read it, and report back with pictures and comments.
The article I chose is called ‘Matisse develops his “aesthetic of blinding”‘ and it is a piece written about a particular aspect of the art scene in the year 1910. The other two articles were written about an area of art in the 1960s and the 2000s. At first I thought I was unlucky, having chosen the most ‘traditional’ era. After reading the article this response seems ironic.
What was the article about?
The article is about Matisse pushing the boundaries of ‘decorative’ and challenging traditional notions of aesthetics with the paintings Dance II and Music, and the lead up to and ramifications of that.
Matisse: ‘When I paint green, it doesn’t mean grass; when I paint blue, it doesn’t mean sky’ (p. 7, Orienti, S. Matisse Hamlyn, Middlesex). This saying lies at the root of all Matisse’s work: he was able to get away from the claims of nature. How did he manage this?
The focus of the article is 1910. Matisse, known for experimentation, in that year sent the two canvasses to to the Salon d’Automine, an annual showcase for contemporary art. The two works were met with quite severe criticism. Despite being normally used to such a response, on this occasion Matisse was deeply affected, especially when his rich Russian patron, Schsukin, first rejected and then accepted the commission he was responsible for. The whole incident shook him greatly. This incident is what the article centres on.
What lead to this situation?
Matisse was no stranger to causing a stir with his art and his vibrant explorations with colour. He was used to a negative reception. His involvement with the Fauvists attests to that.
In 1907 Matisse had been engaged in a ‘friendly’ rivalry with Picasso. In answer to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which explored exploratory ideas about primitivism and perspective, he painted Bathers with a Turtle.
What was Matisse trying to do with this painting? Looking at this painting it is hard to focus on anything. It is bewildering. The viewer isn’t quite sure what to look at and wonders ‘why a turtle?’. For the first time Matisse reduces the decor to areas of plain colour.
Matisse’s next step in his exploration of decor was Harmony in Red painted in 1908.
This painting is so full of confusion and colour that the spectator is rendered unbalanced upon looking at it.
With his ideas of decoration it was almost as if he was laughing in the face of traditional values of decoration, of the painter and the viewer.
Matisse’s next move
In 1910, the art world seemed ready to return to more traditional notions of representation after a few years of rebellion, yet Matisse refused to condone this. This was the point at which he submitted his next two major pieces of work. He labelled Dancers II and Music ‘decorative panels’.
The works had an impact because of the high-pitched colour, the scale and the lack of elements. They were far from ‘decorative’ in the traditional sense. Dancers II said to convey the feelings of emotional liberation and hedonism. It was criticized for being ugly and barbaric.
As Matisse said ‘a square centimeter of blue is less blue than a square meter of the same blue’ which might make us think of the likes of Rothko and Newman with their attempts at the sublime. These paintings were extremely radical for their time.
I find Music much more challenging to look at than Dancers II. In fact I find it very disturbing. It is the ‘ugliness’ of the colours, the way the figures appear to be placed on the canvas and their disturbing facial expressions that I find quite haunting. Matisse’s Russian patron Shchukin described it as ‘boy werewolves hypnotized by the first ever strains of the first ever instruments’. It lacks movement whereas Dances II has a sense of motion that is quite pleasing to me. Lawrence Gowing describes Matisse’s use of form in this painting as expressing the ‘essential irrationality’ of Matisse’s style. The static equilibrium of Music compares to the dynamic equilibrium Dancers II.
The works after 1910 went off on a tangent from the direction Matisse had been following. Dancers II and Music were followed by two Spanish still lives, and Matisse’s famous large interiors of 1911, such as Interior with Eggplants.
This painting is designed to confuse. All the colours and patterns are competing with each other for the viewer’s attention. Where is the negative space? The painting is almost moving, swimming before the viewer’s eyes. It takes a while to notice that there really are eggplants (or aubergines) in the painting – small and insignificant as they appear on the table. Mattisse has blinded the viewer to their presence.
Matisse says in his ‘Notes’: ‘To me, expression does not lie in the passion that appears suddenly on a face or shows itself in some violent movement. It is in the whole arrangement of my painting’ (p. 32, ibid).
Someone called Reynal is going to have the final world on Matisse: ‘the mystery of Matisse’s amazing magic lies somewhere between his imagination and his gold-rimmed spectacles’ (p. 29, ibid).
Unknown author, ‘1910: Matisse develops his “aesthetics of blinding”‘.
Wikipedia article ‘Dance (Matisse),’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dance_%28Matisse%29 [last accessed 17 April 2013]
Orienti, S. (1973) Matisse Hamlyn, Middlesex