Sunday, October 27, 2013

How over What

From Nov 2012

I went to see the Cone sisters collection at VAG with an excitement to look at some of the famous works of Henri Matisse. The only prior knowledge or opinion I had was that I loved his colours and his 
the loose, free style. I had seen his works in MoMA (NYC) before.

I started with the Yellow pottery and The convalescent woman, looked like he clearly liked to give his works an unfinished flavour and the two works were composition-ally similar and had complementary pairs. The thought was kind of complemented by the text on the didactic panel that read “Compositions primitive and simple as though done by a child” and that the critics called them “Works of fauves (wild beasts)”. 

Looking at his sculptures – The Reclining Nudes and Two Negresses next, it was evident that his works were forms centric and also didactic texts reflected this when it read “he exaggerated and simplified the anatomy of figures”. By this time it was kind of making sense what they meant when they said “For Matisse more than what, it's the how that mattered”.

The next thing I looked at were his landscapes – Festival of flowers and The pierced Rock and it was interesting that the text for these read – again the use of colours and the composition really appealed to me so much, I was wondering if it was because he wasn't so hung up on what he was painting but mostly on how he was painting them?

Then I started looking at the works after being influenced by the Islamic art exhibition – Seated Odalisque, left knee bent, Standing reflected in a mirror and the Interiors of his Apartment. These were so brilliant with all the details so well done and yet with his loose style. The didactic text said “He was so awed by the pattern and contrasting brilliant colours during his ecstatic and enchanted days of Moroccan climate. And he felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy”. This made me think that the subject also mattered to him, it was the “what” that inspired him in this series? 

As I progressed to his later works, I could see that he was back to simplifying the forms and freeing himself of the limits. He was also quite old by this time. But by the time I saw his “Two girls, red and green 
background”, I was convinced that he was master of simplifying the forms and I loved the composition so much. And the colours. The didactic text described the harmony of colours as a harmony analogous to that of a Musial composition.

And finally there was the famous The large reclining nude and the series of photographs showing how he stared it off as an usual figurative of a model posing and the flower vase by her side with chairs around. And how he developed that into the final piece by simplifying it/flattening it out, various times and by now I was convinced that “What” only mattered to him until he had decided on the subject and then it was “How” all the way until he finished it!

I would think that the didactic text helped enormously in appreciating his works in this case. They provided the context and history needed to understand what must have been going through the artist's head. I think the text addressed some of the visual methodologies although not literally, with the Formalism being the most dominant as all his works were heavily forms oriented and Marxism being quite evident in the works influenced by the Moroccan culture.

Iconography and Semiotics also featured in some of the descriptions, again in the context of Islamic culture and the works that featured the Odalisques and others like The Ballet dancer seated on a stool.

Feminism was probably not featured in any didactic text though I think the women as his subjects were quite passive. However the didactic texts did talk about how he respected the Cone sisters. It is also interesting that he was sending photographs to Etta Cone as he developed the Large reclining nude, in order to convince her to buy his work. And also his very touching “Thank you” notes.

First image courtesy: Baltimore Museum of Art via Vancouver Art Gallery via Vancouver Sun blog
Second image courtesy: Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection via

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