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Monet at Giverny

In her New York Times review of the new book by Nicholas Delbanco, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, Brooke Allen makes it clear that she, like me, was excited about the topic. Making art when you are older: What shifts? What shows up? What happens to our expression as we age?

While Allen wasn’t satisfied with Delbanco’s undertaking (and put a call out for someone to take on the topic and do it up right), her review is full of memorable commentary. She includes reference to a famous poem by Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom With Time,” that speaks to what can happen, how there is a “distillation, a new intensity, a sloughing off of excess and ornament in favor of deep essentials”:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

Delbanco’s book questions why some artists continue to produce great work in their later years (such as Matisse, Monet, Picasso) while others hit a high point when they are young and then give in to the slow entropic demise of growing old. This old vs new productivity was the topic of a fascinating book by David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Galenson is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and his approach to the topic is quantitative and linear. It is a valuable lens on a topic that still, in my opinion, is full of mystery and the unanswerable.

A passage from Allen’s review is worth keeping in mind:

Delbanco treats his material in anecdotal fashion and draws few conclusions from his research, though clearly some generalizations can and must be made. Look at Michelangelo’s half-finished “Slaves,” apparently struggling to escape their blocks of marble; Titian’s “Death of Actaeon”; Verdi’s “Otello”; Liszt’s “Czardas Macabre”; Francis Bacon’s minimalist late works. All these suggest that the aesthetic of old age involves a slimming down and stripping away. Delbanco does remark on this syndrome in individual cases: he is surely correct to emphasize, for instance, Monet’s “Nymphéas” and the other late-period Giverny works, in which, “if his vision now was less than ­­20-20, what he trained himself to paint had an inward-facing coherence that outstripped mere accuracy.” He discusses the same qualities in “The Winter’s Tale” (though Shakespeare, dead at 52, was not quite old even by 17th-century standards): “The late plays,” Delbanco observes, “are less sequence-bound or yoked to plausibility. It’s as though the peerless artificer has had enough of artifice.”

This is true, and Delbanco offers one intriguing explanation. In youth, he posits, “it’s the reception of the piece and not its production that counts. But to the aging writer, painter or musician the process can signify more than result; it no longer seems as important that the work be sold.” It is a profound observation; with time and age, the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward. But this is surely not the only reason for the concentrated effect of late style. The simple specter of mortality must count for something: as Samuel Johnson remarked in a different context, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” And then there is the radical shifting of perspective and values brought about by age, something to which people past their 50th birthdays can attest. Delbanco quotes Carl Jung: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

I was so struck by Allen’s phrase, “the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward.” That’s a shift I can attest to.

Plays that deal with visual art and art making can be problematic. I remember seeing La Bohème as a child and already being cognizant that the bohemian lifestyle portrayed in the opera was mythic, a well used trope that only people like my father believed was real. (He tried to discourage me from pursuing my life as an artist with this warning: “All artists are immoral. They sleep with their models. It is not a career for anyone with standards.” Did I miss that class in art school?)

My friend Benny Sato Ambush recently sent me a copy of David Hare’s, The Bay at Nice. This small jewel of a play (a “chamber piece” in Campbell Robertson’s words) takes place in a museum in Leningrad during the Communist era. Valentina, once a young and wild art student in Paris who studied briefly with Matisse, has been asked by the museum curator to authenticate a painting that is purportedly by Matisse. No longer young, idealistic or even nice, Valentina’s character owns most of the performing space in this piece (Estelle Parsons and Irene Worth played the part in productions in London and Hartford.) We meet Valentina’s daughter Sophie and grope through the difficult life decisions she is facing in her relationship with her mother, her husband, her lover and a totalitarian government. There’s plenty to chew on. And as I told Benny, Hare captures an essence of visual art that does not feel forced or theatricized. Several passages are memorable and feel authentic to me. This isn’t your all purpose gaggle of bohemian wannabees singing, drinking and eating.

A few samplings:

Valentina: Picasso lived in a house so ugly—a great champagne millionaire’s Gothic mansion with turrets—that all his friends said ‘My God, how can you abide such a place?’ He said, ‘You are all prisoners of taste. Great artists love everything. There is no such thing as ugliness.’ He would kick the walls with his little sandalled foot and say, ‘They’re solid. What more do you want?’

The Museum Assistant: All art is loot. Who should own it? I shouldn’t say this, but there isn’t much justice in these things. If we examined the process whereby everything o these walls as acquired…we should have bare walls.

Sophia: Down here below you, people are forced to be ridiculous. Yes, We lead ridiculous lives. doing ridiculous things, which lack taste. Like working for a living. For organizations which have ridiculous names. ‘Oh, I’m from the Department of Highway Cleansing.’ “Oh, I’m Vegetation Officer in Minsk.’ that’s work. its called making a living. Mother, it involves silly names and unspeakable people—the mathematics teacher, for me to work beside her, to have lunch, to watch her pick her dirty grey hair from the soup, it’s torture, I’d rather lodge beside an open drain. But that’s how people live. We have to. We scrabble about in the real world. Because we don’t sit thinking all day about art.

Valentina (on the topic of Matisse): He taught us rules. He believed in them. not Renaissance rules. Those he was very against. He disliked Leonardo. Because of all that measuring. he said that was when art began to go wrong. When it became obsessed with measuring. Trying to establish how things work. It doesn’t matter how they work. You can’t see with a caliper. Of course there were rules. he was a classicist. This is what no one understood. He disliked in modern painting the way one part is emphasized—the nose, or the foot, or the breast. He hated this distortion. He said you should always aim for the whole. Remember your first impression and stick to it. Balance nature and your view. Don’t let your view run away of its own accord. For everything he did there was always a reason…

He said you should think of the body as an architect does. The foot is a bridge. Arms are like rolls of clay. Forearms are like ropes, since they can be knotted and twisted. in drawing a head never leave out the ear. Adjust the different parts to each other. Each is dissimilar and yet must add to the whole. A tree is like a human body. A body is like a cathedral.

Hindu altar, Kanchipuram India, 2008

Blue Arabesque, by Patricia Hampl, is a book-long meditation and memoir that starts with her deep and sudden connection to a painting by Matisse hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. Writing not as an artist but as a thoughtful wisdom seeker, Hampl describes a conversation she has with a 60 year old nun who has lived in a monastery cell since she was 19. When asked if she could name the core of the contemplative life, the nun gives her a one word answer without hesitation: Leisure.

I suppose I expected her to say, “Prayer.” Or maybe “The search for God.” Or “Inner peace.” Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality.

She saw I didn’t see.

“It takes time to do this,” she said finally.

Hampl’s description of the “this” in the nun’s answer is “the kind of work that requires abdication from time’s industrial purpose.”

Is there any other nation that has put time to industrial purpose with the fervor of this one? A word that is loaded with subtextual contempt, “leisure” is rarely offered up as the core requirement for anything valued in our bottom line, materialistic, time-managed, wired world. Contemplation, and the leisure to have it, are almost considered illicit, wasteful, indulgent.

Hampl later refers to our lifestyle as a “raid on ease,” a phrase that epitomizes the feeling of being under siege to do more of everything, and to do it faster and better. In her deep connection to the painting by Matisse, she is reminded that “the birthright of the uninterrupted gaze” has been lost.

Maybe that has been the point, even the project, of modernity: to abandon the gaze, to give over to the glimpse.

That’s not a trade off I’m wiling to make.

Large Reclining Nude, by Henri Matisse. Baltimore Museum of Art, Cone Collection

When I first came to the east coast from California all those many years ago, there were two museums outside of New York City I was determined to see right away. The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania was at the top of the list. The second was the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The experience of seeing the work at both of these venues was as monumental and memorable as I had hoped. For fin de siècle art lovers, these two collections are a feast of extraordinary proportions.

So it was with nostalgia that I again sat in the world’s largest collection of works by Matisse in this, the least likely of cities. Or so it seems to me, since I have now come to equate Baltimore, Maryland primarily and foremost as the setting for the greatest TV drama every produced, The Wire. But in spite of its struggle with rampant inner city poverty and problems, it is city that was once lucky enough to have been the home town of the infamous Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta. Their compulsive collecting, at times brilliant and at times just downright odd, resulted in the largest donation of art the Baltimore Museum had ever received, and ever will. Some of my all-time favorite Matisse paintings—like The Blue Nude and Large Reclining Nude—were purchased by these two passionately devoted, self-styled collectors.

I was particularly struck by a display documenting the creation of Large Reclining Nude. Matisse sent photographs to Etta Cone as this painting progressed, and the over 10 very different renderings are an insightful study in the way a painting works its way into its final form. Clearly Matisse had a marketer’s mind since Etta bought the painting when it was finally finished, deeply invested as she was in its creation. (This “buy in” approach of endearing one’s children to non-family members has a history of success as well.)

As effortlessly as Matisse’s paintings can look to the viewer’s eye, this graphic evolution demonstrates how much hard work is actually involved in getting to what appears effortless and easy. It is frequently necessary, says Matisse, to “put your work back on the anvil twenty times.”

And more specifically, in Matisse’s words:

Each picture as I finish it, seems like the best thing I have ever done…and yet after a while I am not so sure. It is like taking a train to Marseille. One knows where one wants to go. Each painting completed is like a station—just so much nearer the goal. The time comes when the painter is apt to feel he has at last arrived. Then, if he is honest, he realizes one of two things—either than he has not arrived after all or that Marseille…is not where he wanted to go anyway, and he must push farther on.

Destinations that, as soon as they are reached, are no longer The Destination. That might sound like a portrait of hell on earth to anyone who is goal oriented, measuring results through arrivals, completions and column checks. But for makers like me, that’s just the way it works. I think we like to be on a journey with the destination TBD.