Art Thoughts, Week 2 – Matisse & Material

View of the Sea, Collioure (La Mer vue de Collioure), Henri Matisse (French, 1869 – 1954), 1906, oil on canvas, BF 73.

Matisse, the most famous son of a dingy northern French mining and textile-manufacturing area, was a lover of textiles. In many of his paintings, his handling of paint mimics the basic materials of weaving. A foundation of compositional threads were laid down, and the colors stitched in, around and between the pentimenti. There is not necessarily any loss of perspective or depth in most Matisse paintings; it is just accomplished by color and value rather than DaVincian sfumato, or smokiness. In fact Mattise’s aesthetic is more like a camera: all parts from finger’s distance to infinity is in the same focus. All things remain on the surface, like a tapestry flung across our view.

This beauty of a Fauve painting (shown, this time, above) has a very circular core. The winsome, willowy tree wraps around the canvas from the right to left, and lightly cascades olive-colored leaves near the top, creating a canopy over the village nestled bowl-like on the shore, which, sandwiched by the sea and sky, cuts through the painting’s center.

There is something of Wayne Thiebaud in the Fauve works of Matisse...or rather, there is something of Matisse in Thiebaud. The colors of Fauvism – a moniker that means “wild beasts”, and given, like many memorable names are, in mocking and jest, thus sticking forever – are normally thought of as being acidic, caustic; sardonic even. But here they are merely decadent, perhaps foretelling Matisse’s eventual, more mature bent, and thereby reminding me of the venerable Californian Thiebaud. The colors make the sweet-tooth salivate a bit: cotton candy pinks; watermelon and key lime; mangoes and lemon chiffon; blackberries and strawberries with cream – all these sweets can be found in this painting; an Easter basket for sure.

But there is some seriousness here: as with many Matisse paintings, there is a definite “there-ness”– a sense that this could be nowhere or anywhere else but here at this moment – along with a certain incoherency. That is, it is simultaneously a place – Collioure – but at the same time a thoroughly unique “Matisse-ified” Collioure. Along with the place, another significant presence in the painting is brushes. In every corner, no attempt is made to mask the artifice. It is a painting of Collioure, not Collioure itself – not even a picture of it, really. This is the epitome of abstractness; even more than the work of someone most often associated with modernist abstraction such as Jackson Pollock. Pure abstractness is slight and subtle, a comedic twisting of reality; Pollock is an overt and brutal representation of an icy ideal. Modernism has not, in bucolic Collioure, become tainted yet.

And yet, so much of it comes down to the materiality of the painting. It is a picture, but it is a picture made of materials; of stuff. Matisse treats the painting exactly as what it is painted on: a fabric. In this, he was confident. With the experimental calligraphy of his brights and filberts, he has woven us not only – in retrospect – a diminutive early masterpiece, but also somehow more importantly, a sweet memory of 1906 south France.

GUY  – (Thursday, 20 November, 2008)  

Read the chapters on the fauves in Guy Eglinton's book, Reaching for Art. Aristodimos Kaldis duplicated these chapters and gave them to his most respected fellow artists.

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