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Henri Matisse mentioned long ago, "Above all, I do not create a woman, I make a picture" (Morgan, 1996 p70). This was in reference to his painting (1) "Purple Robe and Anemones" (1937) when viewers scoffed him for his unrealistic depictions of women He also stated (date unknown) "I don't paint things, I paint the difference in things"
Both quotes appear to dismiss the representational quality predominantly relevant in Old Masters' paintings. The first one hints at structure in a painting whilst the latter connotes the multiple relationships of elements in a painting. From these two distinct yet similar quotes, I find it telling that Matisse exemplify some of the principles that Clement Greenberg was discussing in his art criticism thesis "Modernist Painting". My essay will delve into a few of these principles with reference to Matisse's idiosyncratic approach to Art and art-making.
Henri (Emile-Benoit) Matisse (1869 - 1954), a French painter, is generally hailed as a 'Master of Color' and an important personage of 20th century Art. This dynamic artist and art-thinker was vicarious in his pursuit of expression and unrelenting in pulling or pushing the boundaries of art-making in his time. He is a student of Art who boldly crafted his own 'brand' of art with pure intent of reflecting his vision.
Clement Greenberg (1909 - 1994), was an influential American Art critic, who defined the parameters of criticizing Art and considered abstract expressionist art as 'high art'. This literally loud art critic had set the tone to which other art critics would adopt or disenchant with. In the abovementioned thesis, Greenberg was deeply concerned with justifying the logical expansion of Modernist art; especially its paintings.
Hence, how can Greenberg's explicit ideologies in his thesis partners Matisse's fervent sense of painterly self? Can they go hand-in-hand? To a great extent, I would say yes they do. Here, I would be highlighting four main areas that I found essential to understanding both Matisse and Greenberg in a synthesis.
Firstly, Greenberg identified Modernism in its essence as the intensification of a self-critical tendency; "in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself - not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence" (Frascina and Harrison, p5). This is true for Matisse as revealed in Selz (1990, p7) that he "refused to be tied down by theories, even his own, and to limit himself to one approach of painting." Matisse worked back to back from his old and new works until he distilled a particular artistic 'blend' of his own. It is interesting to note that Apollinaire (a French poet and playwright) had prophesized "Reason is the mark of Matisse's art" (Selz p89).
Greenberg informs us that "Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized" (Frascina and Harrison, p5) - using art to criticize art. Even to the point of his death, Matisse had self-analyzed and changed his artistic styles for better or worse many times over, yet in an almost natural fashion; from (2) "Luxe, calme et volupte" (1904) to (3) "Madame Matisse (The Green Line)" (1905) to (4) "Odalisque with Red Culottes" (1921) to (5) "Rumanian Blouse" (1940) and (6) "Blue Nude IV" (1952). The last is a paper cut-out where he was termed to be "drawing with scissors" (Selz, p76).
Matisse himself stated that "I feel very strongly the bond between my old works and my recent ones. But I do not think the way I thought yesterday. My fundamental thoughts have not changed but evolved and my modes of expression have followed my thoughts. I do not repudiate any of my paintings, but I would not paint one of them the same way had I to do it again. My destination is always the same but I work out a different route to get there." (Morgan, 1996 p89).
Secondly, Modernist painting is required to guarantee its quality, autonomy and self-definition thus justifying its self-existence by depicting itself as 'pure'. 'Purity' in painting is achieved through the re-assertion of factors previously discarded by Old Masters - the flat surface, the canvas and the paints. Using art to beckon attention to art, Matisse during his Fauve period explored his 'decorative' version of abstraction and high definition vision of the world through seemingly vigorous strokes, luscious usage of complementary colors, flat, broad tones, no shadow, little relief and wide, bold outlines as like in (7) "Woman with Hat (Madame Matisse)" (1905).
As mentioned in the beginning, Matisse exclaimed that he is making 'a picture', not a woman per se and is "painting the difference in things". The illusionary depth of paintings and representative nature of things are not vital to Matisse as he is looking for something "other than real space" (Morgan, p57). He dreamt of art that is balanced, pure and serene (Selz, p89) and he created it through his medium of choice, color.
"Color is to his paintings what music is to opera". Color, in Matisse's case, relational color, is the means he used to convey "a passionate love of life through color, carrying the viewer beyond himself and the world around him". He created a color world to soothe and calm the minds of "every intellectual worker". (Selz, p89-90)
Thus his take on art, being so radically different from Old Master's work, made itself exclusive and peculiar to itself. In fact, he even disclosed that he had been "no more than a medium" himself (Morgan, p90) through his fanatic immersion in expressing himself.
For the third area, Greenberg proposed "One is made aware of the flatness of their pictures before, instead of after, being made aware of what the flatness contains" (Frascina and Harrison, p6). Flatness is itself unique to pictorial art, "not to be obtained from any other kind of activity" (Frascina and Harrison, p5). Matisse mentioned likewise before "A work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject matter" (Morgan, p80). This can be seen in (7) "Lady in Blue" (1937) where Matisse reversed the relationship between background and foreground, raised and pushed their importance and denounced their individual characteristics; "their only justification being that they are part of the overall harmony and rhythm of the picture" (Selz, p76).
The viewer is not supposed to "walk into" the painting but merely observe it through the eye alone, resisting any sculptural effects that could render the abstraction or 'expression' of the painting to be unauthenticated. Matisse plainly confessed, "What I am after, above all, is expression" (Morgan, p82).
It would be more proper to view Matisse's works like a visual onslaught, not a storytelling; since he in his terms, he has captured "the spirit of the picture" (Morgan, p19). There should be a focus on formal elements such as line, shape, color and texture. It should be an experience that just washes over the viewer - making it sublime and sumptuous (8) "Odalisque in Red Trousers" (1924-25). This goes also in line with Greenberg's claim in relation to Science that "visual art should confine itself exclusively to what is given in visual experience" (Frascina and Harrison, p8).
Lastly, Greenberg mentioned that the "immediate aims of Modernist artists remain individual before anything else, and the truth and success of their work is individual before anything else" (Frascina and Harrison, p9). This is true of Matisse for he did not conform to fixed ideas about art and pursued his own art philosophy. Matisse stated "The truly original artist invents his own signsâ€¦the importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the language of art" (Morgan, p17).
Matisse's and other artists' individualistic achievements over a span of time seemed to be the conduit for something bigger in Art through self-criticism; supposedly like the Chaos theory, where global dynamics are attuned to prior conditions. Greenberg supposed that artists were not "consciously aware of this tendency" (of self-criticism) nor could they "work successfully in conscious awareness of it". (Franscina and Harrison, p9)
Here, I would like to conclude that as argued by Greenberg and manifested by Matisse, Modernist art, especially Modernist painting, did develop logically from previous art, not stifling its forward motions nor uprooting itself from traditions. "Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art". Progression thus is assured. (Franscina and Harrison, p9)
As simply denoted by Henri Matisse, "When I make my drawingsâ€¦the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extent, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness. I mean that there is nothing foreseen about my path: I am led. I do not lead.
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