Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In Praise of Matisse

I came to Matisse pretty late in the evolution of my art education. I had heard of him, of course, and had a couple of his iconic images (like " Dance") parked in my brain. Once I started painting on my own, I came to appreciate his originality, his daring, his flexibility, his sense of color. Over the last few years, I've been even more impressed by his versatility and the sheer volume of his works. Since I've been keeping my Tumblr blog, I keep bumping into pictures by Matisse that I have never seen before, and they almost always knock my socks off. Like this one:

Reading Woman with a Violet Dress (1898)
This painting is of a kind I like to think of as "tweeners." It's not a photorealistic rendering by any means, and it's not a pure abstraction either. It's somewhere in between, and Matisse is having it both ways. 

Look at it as an exercise in color and form, and it's a pretty delicious abstract: a wonderful mixture of shapes and tones and movements that echo one another and move our eye around in a largish circle. Purple is a tough color to work with, which is why a lot of artists avoid it. (How many purplish paintings can you call to mind?) And yet here the violet tones manage to feel warm and inviting. There are strategically place elements of gold in the foreground that help to accent the blues and reds elsewhere. 

Look at it with the title in mind, and there she sits, hair in a bun, reading her book (or magazine, perhaps), table laden beside her, light coming in from above and to the right. Her dress is a study all in itself, no single color anywhere, but a scumbling of blues and reds and whites that "reads" like draped cloth but in no single place actually looks like it. In fact, there's not a patch of solid color anywhere in the picture. The intermixing and only partial blending of the colors gives the picture its painterly resonance. Everywhere you look there's something interesting going on in terms of the "how."Look at how economically the wine bottle, the cake, and the fruit are rendered. Look at the shadowed end of the white tablecloth in the foreground at the far left; surely no white tablecloth ever actually took on the turquoise hue Matisse has selected, but in this context that color—or mixture of colors—works perfectly. Look at the wall in the upper right background: not a square inch of solid color anywhere. One imagines Matisse wielding his brush with energy and rapidity and total self-assurance. You can see the brushwork everywhere, infer the movement and direction of the strokes. What you can't imagine—at least I can't—is how it must be to be able to paint like that. Looks easy enough, but go try it and see what happens. In any event, it's a gorgeous painting, and my guess would be that there are many people who know and love Matisse who have never seen it. 

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