Friday, August 12, 2005


Interesting article about Matisse's life in the New York Review of Books.

Hilary Spurling writes about the terrible irony that the one place where Matisse is least revered is in his own home town.

It was a shock to find, on my first visit to his home town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, that nobody had ever heard of him. "Matys? Mathis?" asked the local lawyer, whose firm had once represented Matisse's father from an office that still stands a few hundred yards from the house where the painter grew up. "How are you spelling that? With an h, or with a y?" Gradually I began to meet an older generation, people in their seventies and eighties whose parents and grandparents had talked about the Matisse boy as a kind of village idiot—le sot Matisse—a dropout with a record of successive failures, who ran away to Paris in the end to be a painter. "Madame, have you seen his paintings?" one old lady asked me in 1991. "A child could paint better than that, Madame." At the art school in St. Quentin, where the young Matisse enrolled in secret for drawing lessons without telling his father, the elderly college principal was still so bitterly ashamed of his only celebrated ex-student that he could barely bring himself to pronounce the name.

(Note to future terrorists: If you are going to attack some place in France, could you take this town out first? Thanks awfully. )

Spurling argues that to disassociate the artist's life (especially the life of a painter as raw and emotional as Matisse) from his work is to rob that work of a critical emotional context. Spurling's new biography of Matisse attempts to move beyond this artificial barrier and look more closely at Matisse as a human being.

"The invisible man who emerged from my researches was passionate, generous, and driven. Far from being humorless or heartless, he could be extremely funny, a first-rate mimic and raconteur (Matisse potrayed himself in private all his life in a stream of absurd, scratchy, self-mocking cartoons), as well as a loyal friend, endlessly and unobtrusively kind to those in trouble, especially to fellow painters. Admittedly, he was also almost impossible to live with. The sheer relentless force and intensity of his energy at close quarters made him intolerable at times. "

I'm not sure I agree with this. That is to say, I think it makes sense if you're writing a biography of the man (certainly his emotional life is more than relevant then) but I'm not sure why you would do so in the first place. The point about Matisse is not whether he was humiliated by scandal or made miserable by war, the point about Matisse is his art. Matisse's paintings don't need to be provided with emotional context, they make their own. The raw energy bursting out of his canvasses is a context enough, if you open your heart to it.

I guess I've always been sceptical about the whole genre of artist's biographies. I think they're an interesting form of writing in themselves, but I'm chary of claims that say they enhance or inform your appreciation of the artist's work. I see them as a sort of sophisticated voyeurism. Art, I feel, should be evaluated on its own terms and not in terms of what was happening to the artist at the time. What was happening to the artist may be interesting in itself, but it has nothing to do with his art.


Anonymous said...

not sure if i agree with you on your assertion that all art can be appreciated without understanding the context (emotional, social, psychological) in which it was produced. in fact, i would make that the very definition of art - as something to understand/appreciate which, you need to understand much more than what you see on the canvas. and this is especially true for 20th century art. it is impossible to make any sense of dali paintings like "portugese loaf sodomizing etc. etc." without understanding why that painting is called that, and what lies behind this peculiar eccentricity that associates erotic overtones to mundane objects of everyday consumption (for the record, it appears that as a child, the kitchen was the only part of his house that dali was not allowed to enter). in fact, i would even go so far as to claim that if you did not take the trouble to do this kind of background research, you may actually be doing the artist a disservice, because the idea is to connect with the artist on some deep human level, and you cannot do that without really understanding where the artist is coming from, why he is painting the way he is painting, etc. you may argue that the definition i have provided is too subjective, but it seems to work better for me than something along the lines of (as in the aesthetic theory of transcendence) "anything that produces a holistic sense of going beyond normal life experiences" because here, there is far more room for arguing about what precisely is meant by "going beyond normal life experiences" (think, for example, of the many criticisms levelled at modern american art by tom wolfe in his nice but ultimately dissatisfying book "the painted word"). so what i am saying is that instead of defining art in terms of what effect it has on the senses of the person experiencing it, i would rather define art in terms of some specific, "more" objective, characteristics of the piece of art itself such as what requirements it makes of the experentiate (is that a word?) before it can be "understood". after all, appreciation of art is a conditioned response. also, this definition allows me to draw clearer lines for myself as to what i will and will not call art. for instance, neither e=mc^2 nor sachin tendulkar's strokeplay is art for me. the same goes for something like "the general theory of employment, interest and money". yet all these things are products of some kind of creative process. and i accept that the creative process is very much the result of a particular social, pscyhological, emotional environment. but the output is not art. sorry for the ramble. is this clear?

Heh Heh said...

I agree with you as far as the separation of the art from the artist. Somewhat surprisingly, a lot of artists I have spoken to seem to follow this line of thinking (appreciate it for what it is, and don't care about who created it). But perhaps, in some sense, i agree with anon here. Ignoring the context in which the art was created does place limits on the experience.
Anon: Am not sure if i agree with "appreciation of art after all is a conditioned response". But i suspect that's a debate that is likely to remain unresolved.

chamique said...

I'm sorry to be intruding upon your space like this, but I wanted to clear this up. From Kaashyapeya's blog:

Or are you homosexual and struggling to come out of the closet? It's alright to be gay, you know. Just admit it to yourself instead of masking it as a universal hatred of women.

That's exactly what I said. I do not have anything against homosexuals. I have nothing but respect for those who stand up for the choices they've made. Please let's be clear on that.

Nice to meet you, by the way.

chamique said...

Also, (sorry, I didn't notice you were in the US the first time I commented) homosexuality in the Indian context is really very different than how it is in the United States. Indians tend to sweep things under the carpet and homosexuality is much more common than people like to believe.

In India, it is quite normal for men to have homosexual relationships even after they marry women. (Hence my comment about making one's wife sleep outside while little boys are taken to the bedroom.) The wife will then go on to have children (preferably a son) to fulfil her role as "woman" and the man will continue to live his sexual and social life as he chooses. That is what I was insinuating in my comment.

Again, this example is not across the board in India.
Once class boundaries are cut across, one may flaunt one's homosexuality- as many of the elite and upper class members of society have the privilege of doing.
But in terms of numbers, the elite are very few, and the above example of homosexual men marrying women for the sake of their position in society is more common.

Once again, I apologise for using your comment box to explain myself.

Falstaff said...

Anonymous: I agree to some extent - I'm willing to admit that artistic experience may be enhanced by some knowledge of context, but I certainly don't think it's necessary or essential. So, to use your example, I certainly think it's possible to appreciate a Salvador Dali painting without knowing anything about the man or his times.

What I'm impatient with is the implicit notion that many of these 'scholars' have that there is a 'right' way of looking at the work of art. In essence, I'm arguing against your assertion that art is about connecting with the artist - I feel that art is more about connecting with something deep inside yourself - I'm more likely to contend that the argument you make strives for a false objectivity rather than it being too subjective. Subjectivity is almost a pre-requisite here because there is no such thing as a work that allows us all to "go beyond normal life experiences". There is no NEED to argue about what is meant by 'going beyond normal life experience' - you either feel it or you don't. If the only way you'll related to a Dali painting is if you know what was happening in his personal life when he painted it, then you're little more than a voyeur (not that there's anything wrong with that - but it's not what art is about).

I think it's also useful to make a distinction between an understanding of context in a broad sense (societal values, norms, historical incidents) and the artist's personal life. I can see how the former may inform and enhance your experience and may be valid for better understanding the work. I'm still unsure about the latter though. I guess I feel that really great art is transcendent, at least of the self and possibly of the social norms it is set in - and that's what makes it art. The real test then is to see if the art moves you independent of any knowledge of the artist or the society he / she lived in. If it doesn't, then it is, to me, not so much art as self-expression. And contrary to what pop 'artists' would have you believe - I don't think the two are the same.

So to summarise (New Year Resolution: I must NOT ramble so much) I'm saying that there are two different experiences here - the primary experience of the work in itself and the secondary experience of interpreting the work in the light of external reference. The secondary experience is certainly valid, and viewing things from new perspectives can certainly be a stimulating exercise (and a valid creative opportunity in itself - witness the 'art' of criticism) but it's not (and should not be) essential to the piece itself. It's the primary, and not the secondary experience, that makes something art - though the secondary can add a layer of valuable stimulation to it.

As an example of this, consider Sylvia Plath's poems. The principle point about Plath's poems is that they are, quite simply, brilliant in themselves. Even if you knew nothing about Plath's life you could still marvel at the richness of imagery, that almost masochistic tautness of voice. Her poems would speak to something inside you. Reading the Bell Jar and Letters Home may well allow you to read more into some of those poems, but this is an extraneous and somewhat unnecessary pleasure.

Oh, and I completely agree that all creativity is not art - but again, I feel that supports the argument I'm making above than the one you make. If I accept your argument then my inability to appreciate the brilliance of e=mc2 is simply the lack of adequate research into Einstein's life and times. If I could really get inside Einstein's head - by reading his diaries or his biography, for instance - then I should be able to find in it the same excitement that he did. Why it doesn't work as art is because it doesn't transcend scientific fact - it doesn't speak to anything inside me.

HWSNBF: I think the reason you'll find most artists feel that way is the point about transcendence above. Imagine that you're standing in a river, the water upto your neck and you're holding up this little kitten that is the one thing you want to save whatever the cost. Can you imagine how it would feel if after you'd pretty much drowned yourself to save the kitten, people judged you on how you swam rather than on how beautiful the kitten was. What the artist is trying to do is create something pure and true and perfect out of his own petty existence - that last thing he wants is for this petty existence to be subject to scrutiny. This is not just about privacy, btw, though there's that - it's more that the whole point is that you want the art to speak for your life, not the other way around.

Falstaff said...

chamique: nice to meet you too, and no apologies required. See my reply on Kaashyapeya's blog.

Anonymous said...

Loved your blog, this post & great discussion. I am opting for the value of the whole story, art + artist. Art lives in it's context. What counts is not just the thing there in front of you but how it connects. It may be that it is a radically new use of a medium. Or that it it breaks conserved custom like the PreRaphaelites did. Maybe that the artist was ridiculed for their work is part of that story. The pain would be inherent in that work.

I am thinking of alchemy. There was a time when scientists related the life force in their flasks to their own life force, after all both came from God. Maybe objectivity was needed in a while in science, but it is a bit sad IMO to transfer that to art.

As a psychotherapist I guess I am used to seeing the personal story in art & art in the personal story.

Make it OK again to be autobiographical, to be personal. These things get frowned out with phrases like "indulgent".

I think the kitten is more interesting now that we know it was saved, I'll clap & cheer for the swimmer too!