Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Studio with Masters: Matisse vs. de Heem (Part 3)

Two weeks ago, I began an analysis of Matisse's still life after de Heem, in an attempt to clarify for myself the essence of re-design undertaken by Matisse. Here are these two paintings again, in their chronological order:

Jan Davidsz. de Heem. A Table of Desserts. Oil on canvas. 149 x 203 cm (58.7" x 79.9"). 1640.

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
A week later, I took a step back in time to tell you about de Heem, and his life and work split between two historical epochs (albeit co-existing in time), as an austere painter of the Dutch Golden age and as an exuberant painter of the Flemish Baroque. Come to think about it, this pair of painting thus represents a contrast between three art-historical layers, not two, as it might seem at first glance. 

And yet, in the painting Matisse chose to study (and "re-compose" as it were), de Heem seems to seek a synthesis between the two traditions he belonged to: the fruit, the plate, the silver (and their treatment) come from his Flemish Baroque personality, while the lute and the muted earth colors of the background are obviously from his Dutch Golden Age side. Matisse, by the way, pushes the color harmony "back" to the Baroque palette: earth colors are hardly among his favorites.

What I would like to examine today, though, is not the color per se, but the not quite obvious contrast between simplicity and complexity that emerges when we compare these paintings. There is an obvious sense in which Matisse simplifies de Heem's still life: he reveals de Heem's geometric grid and flattens all the objects represented (getting rid of all the variations in color and value within them). This simplification is most obvious if we focus on details, like I have done below: cropping the central detail (the focal area for de Heem) out of both paintings: 

Yet if we look at the compositions as a whole, quite a different contrast emerges: de Heem's richness of still-life detail is set against a very simple and straightforward overall value design. To make it clearer, I've made a slightly posterized black-and-white version of his painting, which shows how all the complexities are concentrated in the focal mid-value area, against a very simple overall three-value composition: the dark "frame" enclosing the set-up from above, a broad mid-value diagonal area (bottom left to top right), within which all the things are located, and the white table cloth below in the middle:

A similar modification of Matisse's version shows something completely different:

Basically, there are no large value areas: his darkest darks and his whitest whites are all over the place; in other words, complexity has not disappeared from the painting: rather, it has burst out from the focal area into the picture plane as a whole, and there is no focal area anymore, no place for the viewer's eye to rest.

I will return to this comparison next week...  

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