26 December 2008

Reflections on Matisse

One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
— Geddy Lee, Rush (“Spirit of Radio”)

Bicker, bicker, bicker . . . brouhaha . . . balderdash . . . ballyhoo: it’s only talk. (Back-talk.)
— Adrian Belew, King Crimson (“Elephant Talk”)

That he did not expect to meet such a blithely lethal female at a kiddie pool in the middle of a park in Dayton goes without saying.
— Lee Schulte (“Of Gnawing Time”)

These reflections bear not directly on Matisse’s work, but on this quote, which I harvested a couple of years ago from a too-brief visit to Hilary Spurling’s excellent two-volume life of Matisse:

What I want is an art of balance, of purity, an art that won't disturb or trouble people. I want anyone tired, worn down, driven to the limits of endurance, to find calm and repose in my painting.

I posted this (without comment of my own), and J.Z. Herrenberg asked if it were part of my own artistic creed — which is a great compliment, of course, from one who has heard some few pieces of mine.

These are artistic purposes to which I can readily assent (and I hope this may be evident from some of my sacred choral music, for instance). One of the illuminative aspects of these remarks, for me, is that it is Matisse saying them. A great many of his canvases and cut-outs (to say nothing of the design of the Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence) testify to Matisse’s success in pursuit of these stated aims; but he was also a lion-tamer of a colorist, and when I consider (for instance) the ‘un-portraitly’ colors of Woman with a Hat (1905) or Self-Portrait in a Striped T-Shirt (1906), and especially the sheer power of the color in The Dance, these are the work of an artist who had something in view other than calm and repose.

In other words, this statement means something deeper, coming as it does from Matisse, than if it had been the remark of, say, Waterhouse.

Then, too, ideally one’s audience is not always tired, worn down, or driven to the limits of endurance. There is certainly art and music which I like a great deal, but which requires of me a certain level of energy for me to engage with it. Which is not the same thing as suggesting that the art of Matisse’s balance and purity is somehow “easy,” for either viewer or artist. Mastery of simplicity is not a thing immediately to be won.

Where my prelude comes into play here is in my recognizing the flexible truth to be found in Matisse’s aims, and in recognizing, too, that this inspiring goal has meant somewhat different things to my own application of the art of composition, at different times.

Nor am I done with it yet; that were presumption, indeed.

You climb down a trapper’s chimney, you learn to count the reindeer. — Santa


J.Z. Herrenberg said...

"Mastery of simplicity is not a thing immediately to be won."

Indeed not. But neither is really meaningful complexity a thing easily attained...

Karl Henning said...