Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 7: Harmonious: Matisse, Charles Prendergast, Robert Mangold
>> Thursday, November 12, 2009 – Barnes Foundation, Charles Prendergast, harmony, Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Matisse, Robert Mangold
Charles Prendergast, Figures on a Mule
Robert Mangold, title unknown
Harmony, when first approached (and indeed when first looked up in the dictionary) seems to reference a musical sensibility first of all. And this sense will in fact be important as we investigate how spiritually-attuned artwork addresses (or utilizes) the idea, execution and look of harmony. And indeed, music plays a crucial part in the well-being of the spirit and the psyche, and the promotion of all levels of harmony: the notes play on our spirits as surely as they are played on an instrument; and as surely as the elements of a well-crafted artwork play upon our emotions. A first implication of something possessing harmonious elements, is that that thing must be composed of various components among which harmony is accomplished – otherwise, the harmony will not be contained or internal within the piece, and not emanate from it. An impetus for harmony may come from a single thing, but true harmony requires numerous constituents. In fact, both definitions of harmony I found in the dictionary used the word “parts”. In addition, the root from the Greek from where “harmonious” is derived, is the word for “joint”, as in elbow, shoulder, etc. This suggests our first implication, and suggests another: a joint is not only two parts, but it is two parts which may work together, to accomplish more than the individual part may – together, a joint (harmony) can encourage success; a means towards a better end. Our forearm and bicep can accomplish much more than just the forearm; and combined with the parts of the hand, wrist and fingers – the possibilities for working in harmony are almost endless. A third implication is a shift from here – for harmony to be derived, and thus for it to achieve something (even if only greater harmony) their goal needs to be a common one. If a joint (partners desiring harmony) work against each other – nothing will be achieved. On the other hand, what Jehovah said about those working on the tower of Babel, in the book of Genesis: with a common language, “nothing will be impossible for them”. So common cause and common belief – towards a particular end, even, like I said, if only more harmony – are necessary. (This brings to mind some of the early American utopian experiments, especially one named “New Harmony”, in Indiana.)
There are numerous signifiers in art that can point towards harmony, and a harmonious desire. We will turn to that next. And as I mentioned, music; dance; as well as pattern and repetition, will play their parts here in their investigation of spiritual harmony through artwork. Each artist we examine will utilize the idea and tool of harmony somewhat differently, but commonalities will arrange themselves around some themes: harmony within oneself (our individual parts); harmony with others (direct communal harmony as individual parts); and harmony with nature (a different party altogether, but inextricable connected to us – and often requiring reconciliation).
The first artist we’ll look at will be Henri Matisse. Now, even Lipsey admits that Matisse, if not fully agnostic, spoke little about a spiritual content or concepts within his artistic practice. (This can also be said about the last artist we'll look at, Robert Mangold). This however, does not dissuade us from noticing a very real pattern of desiring of (generally) a spiritual nature in his art, and more specifically a desiring and implication of true harmony in his expression. In fact, Lipsey states a belief that “the spiritual potential of equilibrium is easily overlooked. Nothing sticks out, no brows are furrowed, no weighty vows are taken, no grinding remorse is experienced. Yet the balance in Matisse's pictorial world is not slack or routine; it gives the impression of being earned over and over again by a return to first principles and rediscovery of wholeness” (Lipsey 263). And connected to this, Matisse himself said, “What I dream of is an art of balances, of purity, of tranquility, with no anxious or worrisome subject, which would be, for all cerebral workers – for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that relaxes his physical fatigue” (Lipsey 250). (Notice any inklings of an early Barnes in that last quote?) In the first Matisse we'll look at, The Music Lesson in G 19, there is a strong current of harmony which pulls from two harmonizing elements we've noticed: the harmonious nature of a community (here Matisse's family), and the harmonizing nature of music (and actually, addresses how they might be connected, by showing two members of the family involved in making music together). In fact, a third element of harmony is implied here as well, which is internal harmony, which is harmony within oneself. Observe each of the figures of Matisse's family – each one is (besides the mother and son at the piano) absorbed with their own activity, and seem to exude an inner harmony, while at the same time implying harmony among the various family members – they are happy to be with each other, it seems, as Matisse has included all of them within his framing of the picture. In fact, some think that he included the violin as his own presence within the family portrait. (Framing, incidentally, will be come important as we continue, in achieving a sort of harmony; for one, within the painting itself, but also as a tool which encourages a harmonious feel or spirit within the painting's scene). But firstly, a few more words on the use of musical themes in spiritually-attuned art, and its use in the encouragement of harmony. Music, among many other things, draws together; attracts; it soothes, comforts, encourages and inspires; it levels out, democratizes (like all good art). Think of the story of how young David was hired as a skilled harpist to comfort the tortured soul of the Israelite King Saul. When music is present in an artwork's composition, much of this is inferred. We know that, as in many families, there was conflict in Matisse's. But music in The Music Lesson could perhaps be an emotional linchpin for an otherwise tenuously-relating group of people. In other words, music served to make them more of a family. Matisse may actually be implying this by the inclusion of his violin – music, he might be saying, is one thing that unites; helps hold us together as a family; soothes our emotions; draws commonality (mother and son, e.g.). And that is how I (he might go on) as the progenitor of both this family and painting, have chosen how to convey that harmonizing impulse. More could be said about this painting and its implied harmony: for example, by the inclusion of a garden – the touchstone, often, for human and nature harmonization – but music especially plays a large part in this piece and its harmony.
Another dominant element that Matisse utilizes in his paintings that evokes, or even reaches back to an important precedent for desire for harmony, is that of mythological themes. And this harmonizing element will allow us to continue on into our next artist – but first a few more words on Matisse. Let's look next at Joy of Life, to investigate this. In fact, this important painting again combines mythological themes with two other elements that we've already mentioned: music, and of course nature. By mythological themes, I refer to a particular type of Arcadian state; a Garden of Eden, with an idyllic spirit of freedom; the utopian harmony of a former, more pristine state, prior to inter-human wrangling – the kind of idea that was both attractive and insidious as exoticism in certain times. There are implications of classical myth in the playing of the Pan flutes, and in the agora-like philosophizing groups, free-thinking in free time. The overall feel, too is as said, of an idyllic space in which music, dance and free-thinking is both the result of, and the cause of, a great harmony; a self-perpetuating harmony of a self-reliant, enclosed place (as nature is occasionally viewed). This form of mythology seems to have acted as a touchstone of ageless consistency for balancing out or harmonizing Matisse's pictorial and aesthetic relationship with the seen world – it is an idealized standard of sorts; a visual and metaphorical pitch-pipe. Here too, is the place to reiterate how Matisse utilizes groups of figures, again encouraging the concept of harmony in his artwork. It can be seen in this painting, and in the last one, and combined with the further harmonizing of music; music shared between people, or the mere implication of space for sharing of those elements, such as we see here in the Joy of Life. That providing of space, whether natural or domestic, which we can see in this painting and the last, is in and of itself an important element of a spiritually-encouraging harmonizing. Space implies the availability of freely-associated or created communities – peaceful relationships that mediate; modulate; bring sanity and calmness to one's soul.
On this note, let's move to G 16 to look at Charles Prendergast's work on panel, Figures and Mule . We last mentioned appropriate space as being evocative of or facilitating to a harmonizing nature in Matisse's work. As far as color, the almost-shocking yellows, pinks and greens also serve to heighten the senses, and illustrate the unique opportunities afforded in this space of freedom: the color is at a high pitch. Space also plays an important role in Charles Prendergast's works on panel. Not unlike (and perhaps even more so than) his brother Maurice's works, Charles' utilizes a clearly frontal and flattened picture area – all the figures, foliage, even the crafted and geometrically undulating hills and streams are up in the front – delineated strongly by carving of the gesso layer. Here is an even more idealized natural space, to the point of almost feeling alien or other-worldly – but not negatively; heaven rather than Hades, or purgatory. There are several other elements, as well as connections to Matisse, which illustrates a sense of harmony as well. Firstly, like some of Matisse's works, Prendergast has created a new-world mythology; an Eden where figures, angels, animals and plants all are interacting and cooperating incredibly harmoniously. It is like a gilded, Transcendentalist version of Edward Hick's Peaceful Kingdom paintings. And even though Prendergast has populated it with varied figures, it is a type of personal yearning at the same time it is universal: an on-going Eden left from before the Fall, a place one may return to and re-mine for its spiritual treasure of peace, and co-laboring among sundry groups and elements. To convey this “treasured space” sense, Prendergast has utilized a material treasured for its value, and beauty as well as its metaphorical, mystical properties: gold. And mixed with the baser materials of paint, bole (an undercoat for applying gold leaf) and plaster/gesso, Prendergast is enacting a type of psychological alchemy; seeing if what is depicted may produce a gilded spirit as well as surface – and by using gold, suggesting that it might very well do so!
There are other signifiers of a desire for harmony: music in some of Prendergast’s paintings; charity between beasts and humans, as well as celestial beings – but by far, the most important formal signifier may be the clarity with which he conveys and crafts all of this within his framed Arcadia. By virtue of his talent, work and materials, Prendergast has both made all elements of the picture incredibly clear and therefore valued – each leaf, flower, limb, feature and detail of the panel is afforded equal value – and this I think conveys an incredible sense of and desire for harmony of a spiritual nature. Each detail is given equal clarity; and thus nearly equal devotion and time to craft. This may speak not only to the conscientious craft and technique of Charles Prendergast, but also to the spirit in which it was conceived and made. Along with this, the integral frame, also gilded, holds it together as a package; a place-away; a transcendent place of harmony, peace and good-will to all who desire it – not only for Charles Prendergast the person and artist, but also for all viewers who spend their own time perusing the space he has crafted so lovingly.
Since we have now mentioned the integral frame, and therefore the idea of delineation, packaging, and other forms of framing, let's continue with that idea, in front of a Matisse, again. Looking at Le Danse, here in the balcony, a thematic continuation can be seen, in the form of an arch, and subsequently, a repeated arch. One may protest that this was simply the space which Matisse was given, by Dr. Barnes, and that he had to aesthetically deal with it regardless – but I think both Matisse's spatial acuity and willingness, as well as Barnes' insight into the motifs and technique of Matisse, easily move us beyond that protest. In other words, an arch ended up being a natural boon for Matisse, and may even predict his later commissions for more directly religious spaces. The second thing the arch suggests, which is reiterated by the careful outlining of the forms with subsequent “edging” brushwork, is the neatness and care with which the dynamic dancers are flattened and delineated by the deliberate brushwork. This serves both to allow their activity to contrast, and fine-tunes, in a way, the poignancy of their expressive dancing. This is not unlike the seeming effective incongruousness of his later cut-paper pieces being incredibly and unexpectedly vivacious and animated. So, here as in many other Matisse works, the delineation and reiteration of edges and therefore shape/form show a care to harmonize not only internally within the composition, but also psychologically and spiritually – for are these not integrally connected, as we've been seeing repeatedly – the physical/formal with the spiritual/psychological?
Along with Matisse in the “internal compositional” harmony which seems to suggest a yearning, however verbally unexpressed, for a spiritual harmony, is the work of Robert Mangold. Among artists reticent to expound on their work, Matisse must be counted – but Mangold must surely be near the top of this list as well. In the spirit of mid-century trained Abstract Expressionists, Mangold adamantly refuses to talk about his work in any contextual, metaphysical or symbolic way – he insists all that is necessary is there, within the piece itself. So, why include Mangold in a discussion of how formal means may point to spiritual concepts? Well, in a way my response nearly answered it. The clues are already there for us to pick up on, so let's take Mangold at the rules of his own game. On the face of them, Mangold's paintings are formal arenas – color, shape, line and layering of paint are all extremely important, and really, are all we have to begin working with. The first thing we may notice, piqued as we are for it, is the arched shape of many of his canvases. Inspired by a painting by Pontormo, Mangold has incorporated this shape repeatedly. To me, this seems to suggest a search; a yearning for not only a compositional harmony, but also an “overarching”, and comprehensive, corresponding life harmony. An artist (almost) always does a piece (and here it's a series!) for more reasons than are evident “on the surface”, regardless of how they may protest. Case in point: Mangold responding to the classical harmony within the Pontormo. Someone reaching back for inspiration and answers belies a desire for something which is not in immediate grasp. An arch (as we discussed briefly in front of the Kulmbach last week) suggests a stability; an internal, pre-existing harmony, to which the rest of the formalism that Mangold introduces responds to (the ovals, for instance, or the color relationships) and move along with towards an even tighter, more peaceful, self-perpetuating (as in Prendergast) harmony among all elements, and I believe the artist and viewers themselves.