Monday, June 10, 2013

In Studio with Masters: invisible edges of life

The second month of working on Matisse & de Heem interaction (thinking, writing, painting), and it's only during today's painting session that I've noticed a most important thing about de Heem's still life. Now that I see it, I am having a hard time understanding how I could have missed it before, but that's the truth: only an attempt to "push" a still life of my own towards de Heem's approach to composition that has brought me to see this meaning, "hidden" in plain view. 


I noticed right away the two major, nearly symmetrical, triangles that organize de Heem's composition (a structure emphasized in Matisse's "re-construction"), and the simple value design, focusing the viewer's attention on the table. I even noticed that this still life represents, visually, conceptually, and structurally, some sort of synthesis, or compromise, between de Heem's two personalities, the Dutch Golden Age one and the Flemish barocco one: especially the lute in the bottom left corner, downplayed, nearly hidden within a darker color area. What I had failed to see before today is the point of this whole structure.

The two triangles are representationally supported by the drapery which is supposed to form the background for the table of desserts, and this drapery nearly covers two things: a window on the left, hidden almost completely within the left-hand triangle, and a strange, building-like cabinet on the right, with some sort of circular decoration, within the right-hand triangle. The latter is quite visible, and painted with a considerable attention to detail, but, in a sense, escapes the viewer's attention because of the overall value design: the viewer's eye goes down, attracted by the whitest white of the cloth and the interplay of contrasting values within the fruit and silver on the table.  


Still, the geometrical composition of the painting points to the apexes of major triangles; the right-hand one disappears in the darkness, but just under the left-hand apex we see, if we pay some attention, what sits on the top of the cabinet (and only because of this, we can recognize it as a cabinet, not a building): a heap of books, a globe-like model, and a roll of paper (or something), all half-covered by the drapery. 

It's as though the painter allows an attentive viewer to see, up there, what it is that he has put away, and covered by the drapery, in order to set up his Flemish Barocco still life, all these fruits, silver goblets, and other earthly delights: moved to the edges of the painting, "hidden" by muted earth tones and the simplicity of value structure, is the stuff of his youthful Leiden work: his lute, and books, and manuscripts. These are the things, I hear him say, that I have -- if not given up, then, at the very least, moved to the nearly invisible edges of my life, in order to paint this incalculable multitude of brightly colored florals and richly laid tables, which have made me so successful in Antwerp.       


I doubt the original buyer of this painting could see this message; in those pre-globalization times, few people could have known both  "sides"of de Heem's work. But Matisse certainly could; remarkably, though, as you can see in this detail of his painting, he definitely downplayed the books: one would have never been able recognize them here without looking at de Heem's original first.     


Instead, Matisse "opened up" the drapery on the left-hand side of the painting and emphasized the window, and the landscape, which are barely visible in de Heem's original (but they are there nonetheless). This creates a distinctly audible conversation across ages and cultures: here are your desserts, delight for your body; here are your books and your lute, delights for your mind and soul; and out there, outside your studio, are the sky, and trees, and the whole wide world. What do you choose to focus on? 
  
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