Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In search of the essence of painting (Matisse and de Heem)

Several weeks ago, I began a little study of Matisse's still life after Jan de Heem's "Table of desserts", which has turned into something much longer and deeper than I expected, and even involved my own painting studies. Here are these paintings again, side by side. If you are interested in larger images, click here.

To conclude this adventure, which I have shared with you in six blog posts so far, I want to summarize what I have understood and learned as a result. 

Here are the major steps of my journey: 
    • What are Matisse's "modern principle of construction", and 
    • How and, more importantly, why has he changed the abstract structure of the painting?
It is obvious from the first sight that Matisse reveals the internal geometric structure of the painting, hidden in de Heem's original; and also that he has moved two major triangles of de Heem's composition upwards, so that their apexes are no longer located within the picture plane, but outside, above its upper edge. It also seems that turning the lute towards the viewer, showing its strings, is part of the same overall change Matisse is after. However, I don't really know at that point what this change is all about: the explicit geometric grid can be preliminarily understood as a sign of modernity, but the reason for moving the triangles remains a mystery to me.   
  • The study leads me to learn more about de Heem's life and work, and discover the conspicuously special place this particular still life has in this context: as a "bridge", an apparent attempt of synthesis between two quite distinct traditions he belonged to, the Dutch Golden Age and the Flemish Barocco (and possibly, two lives he lived). Follow the link above if you want to look at some of his other works and see for yourself.
  • Returning to the comparison between de Heem and Matisse, I focus on the locus of simplicity vs. complexity within two compositions: de Heem foregrounds the complexity of detail and form within the still life set-up against the backdrop of simple and straightforward overall design of value areas; Matisse simplifies the things being painted, moving the complexity "outwards", into the overall design of the picture plane. One result is that de Heem's composition is endocentric and somewhat downward-oriented, "closed" within the picture plane with a clear area of focal interest in the lower part, whereas Matisse's construction is exocentric, moving outwards from the center in all directions and outside the picture plane, with no clear foci of interest within.   
  • Armed with the understanding I have gained so far, I engage in a "practical" analysis of this remarkable interaction between two masters: I took two (roughly) impressionistic, and fairly similar to one another, still lifes of my own, and attempted to push one of them towards de Heem's principles of composition, and the other one, towards Matisse's. The utmost relevance of the overall value design becomes even clearer in the process; I understand better the formal essence of Matisse's modifications, but not its inner significance (yet). Here are the results of this work again, with original studies in the top row, and the new versions, in the bottom row:

  • And here comes the breakthrough: the work on my own still lifes leads me to the discovery of a "hidden" substance of de Heem's painting, represented by the heap of books behind the drapery, near the apex of the right-hand major triangle. This discovery sheds new light on the synthetic, intermediate position of this work in de Heem's ouvre; as though an expression of an uneasy, hidden compromise. It also reveals an additional change made by Matisse: he downplayed the books on the right, but decidedly opened up the landscape behind the window, near the top of the left-hand triangle, barely visible in de Heem's original. 
  • In the last post of the series, where I show the final images of my own still lifes and lament neglecting in my analysis (initially, at least) the fundamental, unbreakable link between meaning and form in painting, between a paintings' inner harmony and outer construction
But now, at least, the link has revealed itself with utmost clarity: just think of these still lifes in terms of the oppositions between open(ed) vs. close(d), reveal vs. hide, outwards vs. inwards, and their formal structures and their inner significance come into the focus of awareness, and, what's more essential in the domain of painting, become indistinguishable. 

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