Page 12 - Studio International - July 1966
P. 12

Matisse and subject matter

     Comment by Jasia Reichardt

     When considering the radical twentieth-   constitute the painting. Even his titles   depicting the object out of scale or out of
     century influences on contemporary art it   stress that the identity of the sitter is vastly   context was the primary issue in
     is possible to distinguish two major      subservient to the colour of her garment.   transforming it into a work of art.
     categories into which they fit—the        As in the case of the nude in the yellow   Matisse's approach to subject matter was
     influences generally inspired by original or   armchair (1926), the figure becomes a   confined to the arrangement and selection
     programmatic ideas (Duchamp, de Stijl,    foil for four separate floral patterns of the   of elements which in themselves did not
     Dada), and those which are more directly   screen, cushion, chair cover, and       appear to possess any intrinsic value, and
     aligned with, the impact or expression of   upholstery.                            of which the choice represented neither a
     the actual works themselves. The latter    In 1946 Louis Aragon set out to make an   social nor an intellectual comment; they
     stand to gain less through close analysis,   inventory of the objects and particularly   were simply relevant to his pictorial
     or indeed one could even say that such    the armchairs which Matisse painted. His   intention. In this way Matisse can be seen
     analysis might be irrelevant to both the   intention was to photograph the real    to follow in direct line from the
     concept and the understanding of the work.   objects and to compare them with the   impressionists and post-impressionists,
     Among the great artists to whose work this   paintings. The project was never      whose search for total aesthetic harmony
     applies is Matisse. Discussed in recent   completed, and perhaps Aragon himself    was supported by the belief that any thing
     years probably more than ever before, the   finally decided that the undertaking was   the artist chose as his subject was as good
     work produced in the course of more than   futile, and that the collection of      as another. Matisse did not draw one's
     sixty years of his career has made more   photographs would not necessarily embody   attention to the identity of the sitter or
     venues in the exploration and understanding  any understanding or appreciation of the   location. By examining any given situation
     of modern art, in terms of pure painting,   paintings themselves. It is true that   he drew open conclusions about the
     than most programmatic ventures           Matisse's work is largely based on a very   formal aspects of the composition, and with
     aspiring to relate art to society, art to   limited number of items as subjects, but   diffused, generalized sensuality applied the
     theory, or art to art.                    this limitation only stresses the vast personal   same attitude towards a voluptuous model
      Matisse's work makes nonsense of any     resources and innovations he brought to   as towards a bowl of fruit.
     firm distinctions that one might like to   commonplace though carefully-selected    To his limited range of subject matter
     make between figuration and abstraction—  items.                                   Matisse introduced his own idiosyncracies—
     such a division simply becomes irrelevant   In the recent spate of articles dealing   it is as if he had stripped the composition in
     and redundant. Like the two sides of a    with the artist and the object, it may seem   front of him of its particular identity
     single coin, what is of essential interest is   strange at first that little or nothing has   in order to endow it with a new one.
     the value of the coin rather than whether   been said about Matisse's armchairs,   Flesh colour might have been evoked
     it is heads or tails that is uppermost; and   windows, tables, flower vases, not to   through its complementary, forms
     Matisse's aim to reach 'that state of     mention screens and various pieces of    simplified and compressed, outlines
     condensation of sensation which constitutes   ornamentation. The reasons for this are   emerging as narrow gaps between areas of
     a picture' could have been voiced with    not as cryptic as they seem. In the cases   colour.
     equal reason by Pollock or Bacon, Picasso   of Lichtenstein's frankfurters, Warhol's   One can make analogies between
     or Barnett Newman.                        Brillo packs, Oldenburg's soft telephone   Giacometti's insistence on sculpting the
      It is not surprising that comment on his   and Jasper Johns' beer cans, these items   `real' head, the head as he saw it, and
     pre-Fauve pointillist painting Luxe, calme et   (i.e. the subject matter) are very closely   Matisse's concern with retaining the
      volupté  precedes most dissertations on his   linked with the significance or the content   the illusion of third dimension. Whereas
     work. Irrespective of any formal          of the work. In Matisse's case they merely   Giacometti's insistence seems unrealistic
     connotations, the title, which Matisse took   act as a vehicle or point of departure for   in view of the sort of heads he did create,
     from Baudelaire, refers to the atmosphere   organization of space, form, and colour.   Matisse's aim was also contradicted by the
     and approach of his subsequent work.      The approach of the pop artist is        artist himself. The process by which his
      Few artists have dealt quite so          exemplified by the intention to reinstate   forms were flattened and simplified, or
     specifically with subject matter and yet   the banal and the commonplace, and      even sometimes made more complex (as in
     relied so little on the particular specificity   through this means to deal with the more   Decorative figure on an ornamental background,
     of the objects depicted. Few have never   crucial, if more tenuous, aspects of painting,   1927) through use of pattern, produced
     allowed references to the object to be lost,   sculpture or object making. In the case of   the sort of effect which Escher deliberately
     and simultaneously applied significantly   Jasper Johns' beer cans (casts of beer cans   developed in his etchings. The perspective
     abstract techniques to composition. In    painted to look like the original article)   looks plausible enough until one tries to
     Matisse it is the stance, positioning,    the significant element is that one of the   work it out. In Matisse the dark and light
     relationship of objects, form and colour,   cans is almost imperceptibly smaller than   shading often contradict the plasticity of
     and the liberties taken with them that    the other. In many cases the process of    the form, while flatness stresses the surface

      Contributors to this issue               Gene Baro publishes widely on the visual arts and on   Ella Winter (Mrs Donald Ogden Stewart), the writer,
                                               literature, and contributes to  Art International, The   was born in Australia and brought up in England.
                                               London Magazine, The New Yorker, and other periodi-  Her autobiography, And Not To Yield, was  published
      Jasia Reichardt, who contributes a monthly Com-  cals. He is also London Correspondent of Arts Maga-  by Harcourt, Brace & Co. two years ago. She contri-
      ment to Studio International, is assistant director of the   zine and Art in America (both of New York).   butes articles on a wide range of subjects to British
      Institute of Contemporary Arts.                                                   and U.S. magazines. Her collection of paintings,
                                               Frank Popper  was recently made a Doctor of the   drawings and sculpture was started about thirty
      Patrick Procktor exhibited in the first 'New Genera-  University of Paris for a thesis entitled  L'image du   years ago.
     tion' exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1964,   mouvement dans /es arts plastiques depuis 1860,
      and has had two one-man exhibitions at the Redfern   which deals at length with Kinetic art and the work of   Edward Lucie-Smith, poet and critic,  David Thomp-
      Gallery—in 1963 and 1965. He has contributed occa-  Agam. His thesis will be published as a book by   son, critic and writer, and Dore Ashton, the American
     sional articles to  The New Statesman  and other   Gauthier-Villars, Paris, this autumn.   writer, contribute regular commentaries to  Studio
      magazines.                                                                        International.
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