Thursday, January 17, 2013


Henri Matisse. The Large Blue Dress. 92.7 x 73.6 cm. O/c. 1937
One of the highlights of our recent trip to NYC was Henri Matisse's exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum, an exhibition particularly interesting to a painter because of its focus on the process, the search (rather than just the result). As it seems, Matisse was quite keen on having a record of this search, first by letting earlier stages alone and starting afresh on new canvases (to the delight, one must assume, of his collectors), and later by hiring photographers to document intermediate stages (quite similar to what many of us do now as a matter of daily routine)

Although the exhibition spans many decades, the general direction of his search remains constant: from a more realistic drawing towards simplicity of shapes and lines; from quite muted, washed down colors towards brightness and intensity. In sum, towards being child-like. It was really striking, at times, to see how long and hard his each new path towards the "child-like" simplicity and brightness remained, always starting from nearly the same point which one can, for lack of a better word, call "reality". 

I've chosen this work to illustrate this post because its (usually hidden) process was most surprising for me. I am using an image from Wikipaintings here, because, if my memory serves, it represents the colors of the original more accurately than the images on the Met website (especially the blue from the title), but here is the story of this painting and its documentation from the exhibition website. Maybe the large blue dress, made by Matisse's friend and model, Lydia Delectorskaya, herself, specifically for this painting, and also exhibited, side by side with the painting, adds to the effect. An intensely bright silk dress, with simple straightforward lines and in Matisse's favorite shade of blue, as though made with the intention to make the process shorter, its starting point somewhat closer to the desired result. But the path of Matisse's search for the final painting, as the photographic evidence shows, was still quite windy and long. 

To tell the truth, the question remains with me, is it really essential to begin anew every time? Was it necessary to study this real woman, in all richness of realistic detail, to arrive at this stylized image, its pure lines and flat bright color areas? Did he know his final destination, or at least its rough outlines, from the very beginning, or was he hoping, every time, to arrive somewhere else?    
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