Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In Studio with Masters: Matisse and de Heem

Henri Matisse.  Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem's 'La Desserte'. Oil on canvas. 71 1/4" x 7' 3" (180.9 x 220.8 cm). 1915
Image courtesy of Wikipaintings

Matisse painted this still life after de Heem's "A table of desserts" (1640), a painting he had copied much earlier as a student. According to a commentary on MOMA website, his idea was to remake the painting based on "the methods of modern construction". This kind of work seems, therefore, ripe with opportunities to learn more about how he understood these "methods of modern construction" of paintings. What stays unchanged, and what follows the time's spirit?

Jan Davidsz. de Heem. A Table of Desserts. Oil on canvas.
149 x 203 cm (58.7" x 79.9"). 1640.
The discussion on MOMA website (linked to above) leaves me deeply unsatisfied, because it sounds as though its participants never looked at the original (or even as though Matisse painted rather "after Picasso", adding some of his own inventions to the cubism-like grid). If we do look at the original, however, we see that Matisse followed very closely both the still life arrangement and the overall geometry of the composition (more on this later, though). So, all the "objective" details, and their arrangement with respect to one another, are rather de Heem's invention.

Moreover, the tight geometric grid, composed of a variety of strong verticals and horizontals,  is also right there, in the original. It might not be as obvious as in Matisse's version, because its abstract nature is concealed by all sorts of "representational" justifications (like edges of furniture), yet it's arguably even tighter. The same is true of the strong constructional diagonals, which are less straightforward, yet not less strong, in the original. This laying the underlying abstract structure of a painting bare to the viewer's eye is, quite obviously, a sign of modernity. I have come to believe, in fact, that one obvious "objective" change in the arrangement, the lute in the left bottom corner turning its strings towards the viewer, is partly motivated by the desire to underscore this contrast, as though the artist says: here is my instrument, here is how it works.  

But just revealing the underlying geometric grid of an almost three centuries old still life obviously couldn't be all Matisse was after here. The really interesting question is how he changes the abstract structure of the painting, and, most importantly, why. First, and most obviously, he changes the format of the picture: the original format was almost precisely 3-to-4, while Matisse chooses a slightly larger canvas with more square-like (9-to-11) proportions. Moreover, he moves the table top even higher in the overall composition than this change in format would seemingly require.

On the right here, I am trying to show how these two versions differ: Matisse's version (half-transparent) is on top of the black-and-white version of the original, with the central still life objects aligned.

One change that is immediately visible here concerns the location, and thus the overall role in the composition, of two large constructional triangles of the original. If you look closely at de Heem's painting above, you will see these two nearly symmetrical triangles with top corners aligned exactly with the top edge of the picture. One is easier to see because it's supported by "objective" edges and value contrast (i.e. the triangle is lighter than the background). The other one is supported by the folds of the background fabrique on the left, and, more importantly, it fully encloses the desserts themselves (the largest tilted fruit vase touches the edge of this triangle, but remains within it).

Both triangles are there in Matisse's version as well, but the change in format and in vertical alignment means that their tops are now cut off by the top edge of the painting. Put it the other way round, both triangles are not enclosed within the picture plane, but continue outside its frame. This, I believe, is one of the key design changes introduced by Matisse, and I am sure it is directly rooted in the "modern principles of construction".

I will return to this topic next week, in the next +In Studio with Masters post, but I also invite you to consider the intriguing questions raised by this painting. The discussion is now open... :)  

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