A recent visit to the Matisse Museum in Nice was more rewarding than anticipated, for the reason that there was a great painting “Red Interior with a Blue Table 1947” on loan from Düsseldorf. The museum had paired it with their own interior from the same year - the “Nature morte aux grenades, Vence 1947 (I always smile when I see this in reproduction - it is a jewel of a painting).
It was a rare chance to see these paintings together. The Düsseldorf painting was a bigger, and ultimately better painting. I tried to explain to myself why? Why did I feel this? Could I explain to myself the qualities one had that the other didn’t?
I came to a conclusion that the Düsseldorf painting was a beautiful “question” whereas the Museum work was a beautiful “answer”. There is an amazing spatial coda being played out in this red interior - and one created like the vast majority of Matisse’s works through synthesised observation. The red flood with black zig-zags that describes both interior wall and exterior floor simultaneously is a remarkable piece of painting. The focal play between these spaces is controlled by a seemingly innocuous smudged base of the open window - the angle of which is such that it remains flat - ‘with’ the picture plane - emphasising the panel like quality of the work, yet also describing three-dimensional space ; cutting out from this panel to drop visually the red and black patterned wall behind and below the window frame. Is this duality the true nature and language of the greatest of Matisse’s paintings? Is this what is required to send his painting to the giddiest of heights? This spatial juggling act that balances on the finest of silk threads. The panel floats with colour yet is taught, palpable and ethereal at one and the same time. The space is so utterly real yet so incredibly abstract. Nothing jumps or dislocates the evenness of the visual experience, all is spread out and across the surface with a powerful deftness of touch.
Against these fireworks the Museum painting seemed somewhat leaden - more a statement that summarises Matisse’s stylistic language - a sort of briefer monologue as opposed to a conversation - a ‘codetta’ perhaps. It is still a beautiful control of colour and line, yet it never transcends that the sum of its parts in the way the Düsseldorf work does. I wondered again is Matisse’s art really completely dependent on a fully synthesised understanding of real physical space rather than colour orchestration alone - at least if ‘only’ to guarantee a chance of a “masterpiece” ?( clearly there are ravishing works in all phases of his life yet it is equally clear that some works have so much more going for them than others) Posing these questions in the museum and since has had disconcerting reverberations for my own abstraction as I became more and more worried that I am not getting anything like the spatial or space-making quality of this work - in fact I am more on the Museum painting’s axis - sort out the colour and the surface and it’ll be fine so to speak. I have no intention of working from a motif (however I would add that the studio space is always a covert motif as our eyes absorb this space continually) so how do you do it? How can you get the same degree of challenge or spatial complexity? I feel the answer or ‘an’ answer at least must always lie with the colour and the surface though somehow they have to be ambitious in a newer way. I am reminded of Tennyson here -
“..I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move..”
Matisse’s painting continues to gain in complexity for me. It gleams and reveals chaotic spatial spirals that lead the eye into ever-more untravelled galaxies of colour out of the seemingly banal everyday space of houses, people, fruits, flowers and fabrics. It has a quality I mentioned earlier - “Focal play” which is one that intrigues me and one that sets out a journey into the unknown, yet probably, an achingly familiar destination when - or rather if- one arrives at it. I for one am restless to move on this.
“ ..Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world..”
Looking forward -with trepidation- to a new studio session.