Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Painting Light With Dark

When I was in NY I had the opportunity to see some wonderful exhibitions. One of my favorites was the Matisse show, "In Search of True Painting", at the Metropolitan. I've seen many shows of Matisse, some at museums in France that are totally devoted to his work, so it is no small thing when I say that this was the best Matisse show I have ever seen. It was exceptional because it examined process and often quoted Matisse rather than art jargon.

At the last Jewish Artist Lab we discussed whether we liked explanatory text with paintings. The group was divided, but all were in agreement that they abhorred art jargon, fine words that create nothing of real meaning. I like clearly written explanatory text and try to add it to my work.

The beauty of this show was that they let Matisse speak and give us a view into his approach and thoughts. In his paintings titled Bowl of Apples on a Table and Apples (23rd & 24th image down) he is reported to have said in a 1936 interview, "Why should I paint the outside of an apple, however exactly? What possible cause could there be in copying an object which nature provides in unlimited quantities?" Matisse is as concerned with backgrounds as he is with the subject and used black freely. "Before when I didn't know what color to put down, I put down black. Black is a force; I used black as a ballast to simplify the construction." I found that I especially liked his paintings that made use of black.

I was interested in his process of sometimes working in tandem, repeating compositions to compare effects. He worked in pairs, trios and series. His focus was not just a finished painting, but an examination of the process.

I learned a bit about working in pairs when I prepared to exhibit my Lithuania series in London. I repainted several paintings on canvas rather than the original board to make them easier to ship. The act of painting the same subject twice was a learning process. I often tried to "fix" something only to find that I preferred the original and the "fix" lost something. As I lived with them I became equally fond of the "second child", loving each painting for the features that made it unique. I usually work in series and have observed how my style and process evolve with each painting. I become bolder and more relaxed as I progress, more confident that something interesting will result even if not what I anticipate at the outset.

The text noted that in 1914 Matisse was focused on means of representation, the role of color and what constitutes a finished canvas. I chuckled at the last item as I know too well how sometimes a too finished canvas loses something that existed prior. I have often wished for an "undo" button. I find I need to live with a painting in my studio for some time before I declare it done and I've been known to take a painting down from a show and totally rework it.

Of the paintings that really gripped me visually, one was Interior With Goldfish (18th image down). Matisse was intrigued with using a window as a passageway between interior and exterior space. In a 1914 interview he notes, " When I paint I see (my subject) in relation to the wall, in relation to the light of the room in which it is enclosed, in relation to the objects that surround it." I loved the repetition of forms, both the linear forms, but especially the arcs that formed the bridge and goldfish bowl.

The other one that I found especially pleasing was Interior With a Violin (29th down) in which his use of black so beautifully captured the difference between light and dark. He literally used black to paint light.

One room was totally composed of his process and reproduced a show he had at the Galerie Maeght . In that show he exhibited photos of paintings as they progressed so you can clearly see the experimental nature of his process. a similar progression is shown in photos of his painting The Blue Dress.

 I have always loved Matisse's later work and his use of color and form. Interior With an Egyptian Curtain makes use of black to paint light in addition to rich colors.

The show is now closed, but a catalog is available as well as some useful text and images on the Metropolitan Museum site.

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