Whosoever does not have a low opinion of joy is a likely connoisseur of Matisse’s Art.
Henri Matisse defies slotting. He emerged on the art scene of early 20th century as ‘fauve’ – the wild beast- demolishing every rule of formality and use of colour yet his grounding in tradition is beyond doubt. He never painted or signed a political resolution. Epoch-making world wars, violent ideological struggles, Nazism, Fascism, nuclear arsenal have no trace in his work but he claims that ‘painting is life by other means’. His is the most soothing and colourful repertoire but in it are the most drastic experimentations in the history of art. He has been derided as ‘beautiful’, ‘interior designer’ even as suffering from ‘mental illness’ for his art. At the same time in his life time and later he remains a ‘paladin of modernism’. It may sound fanatic but we may safely say that whosoever does not have a low opinion of joy is a likely connoisseur of Matisse’s Art.
Socio-political prism is a wrong parameter to apply to Matisse. He is undoubtedly a painter of luxury, comfort and refuge. His aesthetic sensibilities are more inclined towards pleasant. His oeuvre exudes calm and luxuriant beauty. However, from this universe of balance and pastoral bliss, his relentless confrontation with the rules of the game comes shining through. His instinctive grasp of the form and emotions surrounding his subjects along with his natural talent for visual communication enabled him to create high art out of seemingly trivial and occasionally childlike output. He once remarked “one must study an object for a long time to know what its sign is.’ He was able to catch the sign with its inner most depth and communicate it in terms of forms and colours which were entirely his own. One of his most famous paintings ‘The Dance’ (1910) is the case in point. Dubbed as ‘one of the few wholly convincing images of physical ecstasy made in the twentieth century’ the painting captures the rapture and energy with very simple anatomical details of five dancers ‘deliberately gauche and childish’. Saturated blues and greens of painting along with terracotta flesh do their mysterious alchemy to give us the complete and fully realized product where his sublime reading of the sign ties flawlessly to the basic physical details. Result is a painting ‘modernist in a way that has not faded.’
Matisse could say ‘Exactitude is not truth’ and prove it by conveying emotions and ‘the inherent’ truth of human situations. His Conversation (1910) shows the painter in his pyjamas having conversation with Mme. Matisse. This very basic rendition looks unskilled but somehow manages to impress as a masterpiece evoking a complex interplay of sight and imagination. Great art has that liberty.
A logical corollary of ‘the quest for depicting the inherent truth’ was capturing the core by chiselling out the surplus from the ultimate form. Starkly unequivocal form, devoid of any ambiguity was his quest. His achievement is in accomplishing that within the broad and pleasant ambit of decorative formality. In his work this minimalist approach never compromises the monumentality of the output. His painting like Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907) was precursor to the ultimate distillation of form in his paper cut outs- the definitive chromatic and rhythmic improvisation. He said his life was ‘a constant struggle for complete expression with a minimum of elements.’ He achieved this in his cut outs with sculptural richness. His La Danseuse (1949) Nudes in cut outs especially Zulma (1950) exemplify an exhilarating economy of contours with maximum articulation. Not only with regard to formal distillation but they were also the pinnacle of his audacity of colour. These cut outs are testimony of his gift of creating beauty with any medium. It was a prolonged hurrah of an aging giant. ‘Everything that is not useful in the picture is, it follows, harmful’ he said in 1908, He fulfilled that in the evening of his life.
The ‘modernist’ was a creature of tradition. Influence of Courbet is evident in the greens of Large Landscape, Mont Alban of 1918. Manet whispers from the tantalizing ambience of Fish and Lemons, 1921. Distinctness of black as a colour in its own right not just a darkness induced by the absence of colour recalls the earlier master. Emergence of photography had rendered faithful recreation reality a less exalted pursuit. Impressionist started exploiting the formless sensations of art with disappearing laws of perspective. Gaugin, Van Gogh and Cezanne stretched the vistas of colour. They deepened the role of colour in communicating the mental state and emotions.
It was left to masters of 20th century Matisse and Picasso to take the process to a different level. They did it by making the act of painting the supreme end in itself. This was a liberating foundation as it allowed them to have a virgin template to work out their own rules. Their prodigious talent and gigantic genius made them a worthy bearer of the mantle of the prophets of new art. Picasso’s phenomenal talent was directed at torturous reinterpretation of perspective. He was a protean giant shattering the form and imposing his will through his lines. Matisse called himself a ‘slave of form’ and was dedicated to convey it with purest economy of strokes. His primary vehicle was colour and lines were subservient to it. His were not abstract paintings but pure forms that conveyed luxury. Matisse’s creative space has been called a ‘boudoir’ where as Picasso’s brutal intelligence made it an ‘operating theatre’.
Matisse was a genius of colour. His chromatic panache is perhaps unsurpassed. Van Gough’s yellow is there but Matisse took colour as the very condensation of emotions. Art critic Robert Hughes has wondered “what other artist could handle those deep, resonant cobalt blues those fuchsias and oranges, those velvety blacks and soprano yellows, without producing an effect akin to coloured gumballs?” His intuitive grasp of colours was, like music, equated with nuances of feelings. His lines were not ‘the container of his colour but the edge produced by its expansion.’ He said that colours must react to one another to avoid a cacophony. To achieve this he professed, ‘let colour be the force in a painting’. His infallible gift of creating hues, though at odds with nature, was able to produce the most ‘right’ experience. This he achieved through uncanny juxtaposition and inherently rebellious harmony. His ‘The Red Studio’ of 1911 can be seen in this context. A crimson drenched canvas, the painting is an aggressive testimonial of Matisse use of colour as a vehicle to scream fictitiousness of art. An artificiality that is a potent device to convey the most deeply felt feeling with utmost force and precision. It is not an easy painting to watch as it does not allow you to enter from any one point but forces you to take a plunge. Objects do guide the eye but this is done not to give you a feel of plasticity of the studio but the emotion that it perhaps induced in Matisse. No wonder ‘The Red Studio’ has been admired for proving that ‘art can form its own republic of pleasure.’
‘The fauve’ was a law student who took up painting rather late and in his day-to-day life he maintained a formal profile with staid tweeds, professorial visage and fierce protection of his private life. However, He is all about passion and emotions. He sought condensation of sensations. Once ignited by the passion his pictorial intelligence was capable of taking him to any length on the path of greatness. He wrote in Notes of a Painter (1908) “I prefer, by insisting upon essential character, to risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability. Underlying the succession of moments which constitutes the superficial existence of beings and things, and which is continually modifying and transforming them, one can search for a truer, more essential character, which the artist will seize so that he may give to reality a more lasting interpretation.” He accomplished that but the bigger achievement is that he did so without compromising on beauty and formal decor. This is the core of his appeal.