Page 24 - Studio International - July August 1968
P. 24

Matisse as a teacher

                                                                    John Lyman

                                                                    Henri Matisse is dead. What a contradiction in terms!
                                                                     For the last fourteen miraculous years he had defied mortality. It
                                                                    had always seemed paradoxical that the work of this sober, reflective
                                                                    man, with the grave mien of a doctor, looked as though it had been
                                                                    dashed off in a moment of gay exuberance but since, following an
                                                                    operation at the age of 72, he had become partially incapacitated,
                                                                    unable to leave his bed for more than half a day, his art had grown
                                                                    incredibly in youthfulness and vitality.
                                                                     My first acquaintance with Matisse's painting was when, in the
                                                                    spring of 1909, I saw his Fontainebleau Forest in the Salon des Inde-
                                                                    pendents. Its summary intensity haunted my dreams. In the fall,
                                                                    Matthew Smith and I (we had become friends a year earlier at
                                                                    Etaples) resolved to attend the 'Academie Matisse'. Nothing could
                                                                    have been less academic than this nest of heretical fledglings, lodged
                                                                    in a disused convent under the trees of an ancient garden.
                                                                     That was the time when everybody said of a picture by Matisse :
                                                                    `My six-year-old child could do better than that.' Today it is said in
                                                                    certain avant-garde circles that his painting is too facile. There is no
                                                                    real difference between the two statements except that the earlier
                                                                    one was excusable because it was evoked by naive surprise at a
                                                                    spontaneity that had not been seen since at least the Middle Ages.
                                                                     Facile, his painting? Blind or dogmatic he who can say so. If
                                                                    Matisse rarely repainted, he began his picture again on a fresh canvas
                                                                    five, ten, fifteen times, until the moment of final decanting was
                                                                    reached. It was the same with his drawings: trial sheet after sheet
                                                                    fluttered to the floor until, with final concentration, he condensed
                                                                    into the subtle modulation of a line an incredible wealth of content.
                                                                     He was quick to censure the superficial device, the merely decora-
                                                                    tive abbreviation, the lack of 'density' as he always called it. That
                                                                    was the burden of his teaching. Students who came to him to learn
                                                                    modern tricks got no encouragement. 'Learn to walk on the ground
                                                                    before you try the tight-rope' was his constant reminder.
                                                                     Continental art teachers seldom criticize oftener than once a week;
                                                                    Matisse visited us only once a fortnight and then his criticism usually
                                                                    took the form of a long chat about fundamental principles and
                                                                    qualities. We were about fifteen in the school. The late Edward
                                                                    Bruce was massier. Besides Matthew Smith there was Per Krog who
                                                                    became a leading painter in his native Norway, Hans Purrmann, a
                                                                    number of other Germans and Scandinavians, and some Austrian
                                                                    women whose most memorable aesthetic gift was their own blonde
     A self-portrait of c. 1900 and, facing page Woman with Amphora and
     Pomegranates, a gouache on cut paper of 1952 (Private collection, Paris).   beauty.

                                              Martin Shuttleworth  is senior lecturer co-  Andrew Forge is head of the painting department
      Contributors to this issue              ordinating art history and complementary studies,   at Goldsmiths College, London. His book on
                                               Leicester College of Art. His novel 'The Lovekillers', is   Rauschenberg is due to be published next year.
                                              to be published next year.
                                                                                       Howard Hodgkin is a practising painter and teacher
     John Lyman, born in Maine, 1886, went to Canada   Elma Askham Thubron was formerly head of the   at Chelsea School of Art.
      as a child. He studied at the Royal College of Art,   painting department, Lancaster College of Art. She
      London, and the Academie Julian, Paris, was a pupil   has also taught at the University of Illinois.   Phillip King,  the sculptor, teaches at the Slade
      of Henri Matisse, and a friend of Per Krog, Matthew                               School and St. Martin's School of Art. He is re-
     Smith and J. W. Morrice. Lyman died in 1967. His   Harry Thubron  is head of the painting school,   presenting Britain at the XXXIV Venice Biennale this
     tribute to Matisse was first published in Canadian Art   Leicester College of Art.   year.
      February 1955 (Now Arts Canada).
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