24 November 2023

Henri Matisse, and the elegant Autumn


Henri Matisse, When? Somewhere? or somehow!

One of my favourite paintings by Henri Matisse! Certainly not one of his groundbreaking pictures and yet it embodies an elegance so deceptively simple and refined that it would easily be overlooked by today's artistic circles which tend to lean more towards a Post-Modernist messaging.

I have no idea when or where it was done but I might guess somewhere in the South due it's warm light. It feels like Autumn, though a clement one unlike those of the North. Driving through any number of small villages around Provence one could easily stumble upon a village exactly like this one.

It possesses that fresh feeling like he knew exactly when and where to stop working on it. This is special talent and one that most people (generally the public) ever appreciate much less notice, but painters love it. But it's also a rare gift and one that few painters are blessed with.

It's as fresh as if painted last week and it unveils the unique brushwork of the artist, his personal DNA, if you like. But at the same time it also reveals a picture's skeletal innards like that of an X-ray showing a picture's overall health. Is everything in place? Do the parts all work? And does everything function together?

All these things are discreetly hidden away and out of sight, and normally, viewers will not notice any of this anymore than a passenger on a A380 knows much of what goes on inside the fuselage. The art of Painting isn't all airy-fairy, as some think, it's the art of craft just like everything else that's made with human hands. And like any craft, it's an aptitude that comes with both love and discipline for the product (which is actually an odd thing to say about a painting, but I just did).

Looking at it in this moment I imagine it was painted quickly, maybe in just one session perhaps. As a viewer I feel a fleeting sense of haste in it as if a magic wand was waved briskly overhead during its execution. 

There is a French expression that comes to mind: "Jeter la poudre dans les yeux" which dates back to an époque when the king and his entourage swept swiftly through small towns without stopping, their many horse-drawn carriages spewed dust into the villager's eyes, blinding and  dazzling them. Today it basically means to fool someone, snow them with glitter like Trump does. 

And this painting is a marvellous example of a space manipulated with colour. Matisse bewilders me like a magician who has surprised his audience by pulling a red rose out of a wife's ear whilst stealing a billfold from the poor husband's back pocket. 

The colour palette is remarkably simple. I wouldn't be surprised if it were composed of just a few colours; Ultramarine Blue, Madder Lake, Lemon Yellow, Prussian Blue (to make the black) and Titanium White. With so little, so much can be created in the right hands and with an artistic sensibility. And these colours gently appear to caress one another so spontaneously that I'm reminded of Delacroix's description of how the future of Painting would henceforth be based around his notion of 'drawing with colour' (and he was right). This is a kind of drawing disguised as colour that dictates the plan of organisation. 

The whole wall of trees on the right side of the painting appears implausibly uneven and yet it works so well. It has been both flattened and simplified allowing my eyes to keep moving around the picture plane with ease. Below it, a misshapen stone wall recedes like a snake and acts as an anchor for the mass of trees overhead.

The farmhouse on the left pulls the viewer's eyes down into the 'rear' of the picture towards the end of the road. It adroitly guides me down  and around the bend to the right, out of sight. Then, this bright Veronese green/blue thing (a shutter, or oeil de boeuf?) seems to pop up and come as a complete surprise as if Matisse sensed my somnambulant state so he had to wake me up in a hurry. 
Above, a 'Genoise' frames the roof of the farmhouse wall  by giving it weight that might otherwise feel flimsy. It's also an integral colour that fastens the sky and trees back down to the road. 

The colour harmony! Ahhhh,,, so discreet and deceptively simple, it's a great lesson into how colours interact on the colour wheel. It's a sumptuously rich understatement and it almost feels edible.  

As an addendum, I throw this in at the last minute because it reminds me so much of the Matisse though done roughly fifty years earlier. It too, was done in the Autumn and it possesses that same sort of gnarly spontaneity, but it's far more developed as a picture. Today, it appears to me just a less fluid when I compare it to the Matisse, but this is not a slight, just a nuanced observation, perhaps due to the painterly space between the two centuries. 

But, it was one of my favourite things at the Met when I lived in New York. It was also a picture of the rural French countryside that taunted me continually for living my urban life there. 

Alfred Sisley The Road from Versailles to Louveciennes circa 1879

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