“It is not a matter of indifference that a great painter should have worked in some particular place; and above all this is true of Matisse. . . . Matisse’s windows open on to Nice. In his pictures, I mean. Those marvelous open windows, behind which the sky is as blue as Matisse’s eyes behind his spectacles. Here is a dialogue between mirrors. Nice looks at her painter and is imaged in his eyes.”[i]
These are the words of the poet and long time friend of Henri Matisse, Louis Aragon. Matisse and Aragon spoke with each other often over their lifetimes and especially during the time period that Aragon spent constructing his novel on this artist.
Over the years I have read and searched the photographs in this two volume Aragon book, Matisse: A Novel. It includes so many paintings and drawings, as well as much of the correspondence between the poet and painter. While going through these images, especially the ones completed in the city of Nice, I remembered a collection of work by Alice Friman from here in Indianapolis.
I have known of Alice Friman and her work for many years. I asked her about her poem “Matisse’s Windows” and what followed was a new conversation between this poet and painter, related to the paintings of Henri Matisse. She had been telling me about a certain set of them that she had seen several years ago included in the “Matisse Retrospective” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I still had my copy of the catalogue from that exhibition, so I knew exactly what she had been talking about.
“I don’t know really what attracts me to certain paintings. I only know it happens. You are an artist so of course you would think of ‘light’ or ‘color’ but I would say I’m looking at subject matter, and the feeling I get from what’s going on in there inside that frame…a sort of poem–loneliness, sadness, anger, mystery. Does that make any sense? The painter isn’t, can’t be divorced from his/her subject matter, surely. Matisse’s feelings are all over his paintings. Yes?”[ii]
Matisse’s Windows “Fishing trawlers two hundred yards out slosh next to roses in the wallpaper where a smudge equals the spray and slap of flounder as if there were no wall, no dividing brick between that woman playing solitaire at her table and boats and bathers in their white caps and honeymoons.”
“At night, what fits the hand—cards, pear, or china cat—abandoned. It’s the window your eyes come back to where a garden rises blue Jurassic, and trees, blue as veins yanked out by the souls at Acheron, fidget for you beyond the glass.”
“Only in Nice did he pull the drapes, drape the parrot cage. Here at last, the dream of his middle age. Let Pablo get lost in a jungle of geometry. Here is nothing but circles: breasts and turbans and kohl-lined eyes, lounging in an overstuffed room so hot you could kiss the moisture off an upper lip. A male wish. An eleventh hour wound so bright it reels to look. No night, no day. No door. Just the woman, waiting. Her eyes looking out, never wanting to leave. Her only window— the man standing in front of her with a brush.”[iii]
[i] Aragon, Louis; Henri Matisse a novel; A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; New York, New York; 1971; vol. 1, p. 119.
[ii] Friman, Alice; (From a statement in an e-mail to this author); 9 June 2021, 12:03 PM.
[iii] Friman, Alice; Zoo; The University of Arkansas Press; Fayetteville, Arkansas; 1999; p. 69.
It is a monstrous painting. Huge when first encountered in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, approximately seven feet high and eight feet across, impossible to be taken in all at once. Cezanne worked on this subject through many years and versions, always searching for the solution he had imagined.
We can see from several smaller studies how Cezanne’s ideas developed and grew over time. Two or three figures in one, three to five figures in another, numerous combinations and variations. This work was really important to Cezanne, but it was even more important to artists who followed him. Significantly amongst those in later generations were both Henry Moore and Henri Matisse. Each of them had actually owned smaller versions of Cezanne’s “Bathers.”
“I now own a small Cezanne Bathers painting, and in talking about it to friends, I have often said, ‘look what a romantic idea Cezanne had of women,’ and, ‘how fully he realised (sic) the three-dimensional world.’ I felt that I could easily make sculptures of his figures.”
“Stephen Spender in a letter to me said, ‘your idea of showing that you could make sculptures of the Cezanne figures is fascinating. Why don’t you do it?’ Soon after his letter, I felt like proving it, and modeled each of the three figures in plasticine, taking about an hour in all. My idea was to show their existence completely in space, and perhaps to photograph them or make drawings, as it were, from behind the picture, showing them from all sides and demonstrating that they had been conceived by Cezanne in full three dimensions.”
“I enjoyed the whole of this experience. I had thought I knew our ‘Bathers’ picture completely, having lived with it for twenty years. But this exercise—modelling the figures and drawing them from different views—has taught me more than any amount of just looking at the picture.”
“This example shows that working from the object—modelling or drawing it—makes you look much more intensely than ever you do if you just look at something for pleasure.”[i]
There is a popularly held misconception that artists are bad writers, although to this day we are constantly required to submit an “artist’s statement” for any and every thing we do. However, from the number of letters written back and forth amongst artists, from entries written in their notebooks and journals, and explanations that many curators require from the artists they are celebrating, it is clear that visual artists are also very articulate with regards to the written word.
Here are two examples, from Henry Moore above and Henri Matisse below, reflecting their personal thoughts and observations on several versions of Paul Cezanne’s “Bathers.” They write clearly and straightforwardly regarding these paintings, all the while rediscovering how important Cezanne’s work actually was.
Henry Moore has worked with the pure plastic sense of both painting and sculpture and the process of articulating form in space. This is evident in all of his later work, and his many figurative pieces.
Henri Matisse is drawing from the Cezanne and searching for a more complete realization of a composition as seen over several years. Amongst several examples this would lead to his great “Bathers by a River” of 1917 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1899 Henri Matisse purchased “Three Bathers” by Cezanne from the Parisian art dealer Vollard. He kept it in his possession until 1936 when he donated it to the Petit Palais in Paris. On 10 November 1936 he wrote this letter to Raymond Escholier, the director of the museum:
“Allow me to tell you that this picture is of the first importance in the work of Cezanne because it is a very dense, very complete realization of a composition that he carefully considered in several canvases which, though now in important collections, are only the studies that culminated in this work.”
“In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance; for this reason, allow me to request that it be placed so that it may be seen to its best advantage. For this it needs both light and adequate space. It is rich in color and surface, and seen at a distance it is possible to appreciate the sweep of its lines and the exceptional sobriety of its relationships.”
“I know that I do not have to tell you this, but nevertheless I think it is my duty to do so; please accept these remarks as the excusable testimony of my admiration for this work which has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it. Allow me to thank you for the care that you will give it, for I hand it over to you with complete confidence. . . .”[ii]
[i] Wilkinson, Alan, ed; Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; 2002; pp. 307-309.
[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles and London; 1995; p. 124.
“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you: fly between the two! Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold. Keep to the center of their wheel. Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword. Take me as your guide and follow!”
“But Icarus grows excited. He forgets the advice. Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea. Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world? Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea. He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair. He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in. ‘O Sun! Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire. Once more he kicks on the wind! Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind! Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]
We know of course, how this is going to end: wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below. Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.
The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course. It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets: from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.
Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag. Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote. Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf. I read through the entire collection several times that semester.
I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time. He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance. Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection. His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.
II LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS
“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991. (p. 122).
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.
“Today he is hardly likely to find himself unless he is a non-conformist and a rebel. To say this is neither dangerous nor new. It is what society really expects of its artists. For today the artist has, whether he likes it or not, inherited the combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist, and bonze.”[i]
This is what Thomas Merton had to say about contemporary artists and writers. He had multiple points of view regarding this position: as a poet himself, as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Lexington, Kentucky, as a student of calligraphy and as a colleague and friend to others in the field, including Ad Reinhart, John Cage, D. T. Suzuki and Jacques Maritain.
In the beginning years of the 20th century Henri Matisse began thinking and writing about the importance of signs. He saw this especially in the pen and ink drawings of Vincent van Gogh, which were an early influence on him, as well as in certain examples of calligraphy from Oriental art.
In these same years the poet Ezra Pound was sent a manuscript that had been written by the scholar Ernest Fenollosa who had been studying the origins of the Japanese and Chinese alphabets, whose characters had originally been drawings!
“Chinese poetry has the unique advantage of combining both elements. It speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds.”[ii]
Ezra Pound called this the ‘ideogramic method’ and used what he had learned from Fenollosa to define and clarify the quality known as ‘economy of means’ that is so important to both painters and poets. This also led directly to the invention of ‘Imagist Poetry’ that is characterized by clarity and directness.
In letters and conversations with Louis Aragon throughout his lifetime Henri Matisse often explained that: “The sign is determined at the moment I use it and for the object of which it must form a part. For this reason I cannot determine in advance signs which never change and which would be like writing: that would paralyze the freedom of my invention.”[iv]
Aragon helped to ‘translate’ many of Matisse’s statements, paintings and drawings, into literature through his essay ‘Matisse en France’ from 1942-43 and the two volume ‘Matisse: A Novel’ from 1972.
Similar concerns can be seen in the works of Henri Michaux working in Paris and Thomas Merton working in Lexington, Kentucky. They were both interested in painting and poetry, through which they each investigated the use of signs.
“To abstract means to free oneself, to come disentangled.”
“The hand should be empty, should in no way hinder what’s flowing into it.”
“Only the ‘exact placement,’ the ‘just proportion’ matter.”[v]
More recently, in an interview with Janie C. Lee at the Whitney Museum of American Art on 21 May 1998, Brice Marden described some of his work in the “St. Bart’s 1985-86 Series” in this way: “The whole history of the life is right there on the surface. These drawings were all started as individual sheets in a book. Then I took the book apart and started putting them together in different sequences. Some I reworked, putting two sheets on
each page . . . . Top to bottom and across to the left. I was following the Chinese calligraphic method. It was easier for me because I’m left handed, so if I work from right to left, I don’t run the chance of smudging the ink or some marking. These were very early calligraphy-based drawings.”[vi]
The effects of Matisse’s experiments along with Fenollosa’s observations have been wide ranging: from the paintings of Henri Michaux to the calligraphies of Thomas Merton, to Brice Marden’s recent drawings and even to a few of my own students over the years, especially the work of Rene Gonzalez.
“Yes, I remember these drawings very well…they were an automatic drawing series. I had been studying a lot of Motherwell at that time and watched a documentary on his Reconciliation Elegy work. In it, he described a process where he would sit down with a stack of paper and ink and a brush and just knock out gestures with no edits or reworks. He could then look at 50 to 100 drawings on the floor and begin to select the ones he wanted to investigate further. The series of drawings I did went through a similar process and only a few were then selected as the actual compositions to my paintings. I believe they were either 8 1/2 x 11 or smaller but I do not remember.”[vii]
“The freedom of the artist is to be sought precisely in the choice of his work and not in the choice of the role as ‘artist’ which society asks him to play.”[viii]
[i] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton; New Seeds Publishing; Boston & London; 2006; p. 100.
[ii] Fenollosa, Ernest and Ezra Pound, ed.; The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1936; p. 9.
[iii] This example has been published in both Fenollosa (p. 8) and Michaux (p. 43). It shows three characters, all containing legs. To the right the ideogram for ‘horse’ with four legs underneath. In the center is an ‘eye’ being carried by two legs. And on the left the image of a man. As both authors explain, these images taken together produce the line: “man sees horse.”
[iv] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 576.
[v] Michaud, Henri; translated by Gustaf Sobin; Henri Michaux: Ideograms in China; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1975; (unpaginated).
[vi] Lee, Janie C.; Brice Marden Drawings; The Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1998; p. 19.
[vii] From E-MAIL communications between the artist and this writer on 14 January and 27 January 2017.
[viii] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton; p. 100.
[ix] This last example is taken from Fenollosa (p. 40). It shows a ‘mouth’ on the lower right with words and tongue coming out of it. On the left is the figure of a ‘man.’ Taken together, they form the sign: “a man standing beside his word, truth.”
To a hair’s breadth
Antonin Artaud, 1947[i]
In conversations with many of his friends over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that: “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language….”[ii]
It truly was a new world of signs and images that Matisse was creating. Even as he was recovering from several surgeries late in life and confined to his bed or wheelchair, he kept working. The philosopher Henri Focillon described this as a carving out of space or as the work of art creating its own space in the life of forms. The Beat Generation poet Ed Sanders has also described this as ‘those scissors flashing in the world of forms’ or as a ‘cutting’ form.
As Artoud described this process it is a project dealing with arrangements to “a hair’s breadth.” Later it would be suggested by Sanders that he wants it adjusted “This way and that, Minutitudinous!”
Or as Matisse himself has noted “The artist’s role is not to translate an observation, but to express the impact an object makes on his own nature: the shock, the initial reaction.”[iii]
“A work of art is situated in space. But it will not do to say it simply exists in space: a work of art treats space according to its own needs, defines space and even creates such space as may be necessary to it. The space of life is a known quantity to which life readily submits; the space of art is a plastic and changing material.”[iv]
THE CUTTING PROW: FOR HENRI MATISSE
“The genius was 81
Fearful of blindness
Caught in a wheelchair
Staring at death
But the Angel of mercy
Gave him a year
To scissor some shapes
To soothe the scythe
And shriek! shriek!
The peace of
There was something besides
Of cutting a beautiful shape—-
Each thing had a ‘sign’
Each thing had a ‘symbol’
Each thing had a cutting form
to scissor seize.
‘One must study an object a long time,’
the genius said,
‘to know what its sign is.’
The scissors were his scepter
Was as the prow of a barque
To sail him away.
There’s a photograph
which shows him sitting in his wheelchair
bare foot touching the floor
drawing the crisscross steel
a shape in the gouache
His helper sits near him
Till he hands her the form
To pin to the wall
He points with a stick
How he wants it adjusted
This way and that,
The last blue iris blooms at
The top of its stalk
Ah, keep those scissors flashing in the
World of Forms, Henri Matisse
The cutting of the scissors
Was the prow of a boat
To take him away
The last blue iris
Blooms at the top
On a warm spring day
Ah, keep those scissors flashing
In the World of Forms, Henri Matisse
Sitting in a wheelchair
Bare feet touching the floor
Angel of Mercy
Pushed him over Next to Plato’s door
On this date in history, 31 December 1869, Henri Emile Benoit Matisse was born. Although he studied for and passed the law examination in 1888, it was following an attack of appendicitis in 1889 that is mother gave him a set of paints during his recovery. By 1891 he had decided to abandon his law career and to study painting. In Paris he first began studies with Adolphe Bouguereau, but left the Academie Julian in frustration and ended up in the class of Gustave Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Moreau’s studio encouraged expression and filled the needs of many young artists, including Albert Marquet, Georges Roualt, Henri Manquin, Jules Flandrin, and Charles Camoin. It is here that Matisse began a life long process of experimentation and invention. By 1905 he and his compatriots Maurice Vlaminck and Andre Derain were accused of being ‘wild beasts’ and during the teens his experimentation was debated on whether it was too cubist, or not cubist enough. “The French Window” and the “View of Notre Dame” both from 1914 proved to be pushes into abstraction and invention completely different from what anyone else was doing at that time and for years to come.
Later during the era between World War I and World War II, Matisse would explore pattern space and abstraction through the use of textiles and architecture, and he would employ drawing and painting in this search for certain signs, which were abstracted from the things surrounding him in the studio.
In 1941 an illness and cancer surgery resulted in damaged abdominal muscles confining him to either his bed or wheel chair. When others would have been happy to just repeat and imitate themselves, he invented one last means of working: paper cut-outs that literally allowed him to carve with scissors and paper in space. The series of “Acrobats” and “Blue Nudes” were the ultimate results of these experiments.
The Blue Woman
“She dipped her hand in the sea.
It turned blue.
That pleased her.
She fell full-length into the sea.
She turned blue.
Blue in voice and silence.
The blue woman,
Many admired her
No-one loved her.”
Finally, in a collection of writings titled “Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century” the poet Ed Sanders paid tribute to Matisse and his paper cut-outs. Sanders wrote:
“He couldn’t paint, he couldn’t sculpt. He was confined to a wheelchair, and gripped with timor mortis. From his bed at night he’d draw on the ceiling with a long stick with crayon attached. Yet somehow he adjusted his creativity, finding a new mix of the muses, so that from the spring of 1952 through the spring of ’53, in his final creative months, Henri Matisse was able to produce some of the finest art of the century—works such as The Swimming Pool, Large Decoration with Masks, The Negress, Memory of Oceania, Women and Monkeys, and the smaller Blue Nude series. He thought he could scissor the essence of a thing, it’s ‘sign’ as he termed it, as if he had vision in Plato’s world of Forms.”[ii]
[i] Berggruen, Olivier, and Max Hollein; Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors; Prestel; Munich, Berlin, London and New York; 2006; p. 151.
[ii] Sanders, Ed; “Introduction to The Cutting Prow;” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century; Coffee House Press; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2009; p. 202.
At the Salon of 1907 in Paris, the critic Louis Vauxcelles described the “Blue Nude” as: “A nude woman, ugly, spread out on opaque blue grass under some palm trees.”[i]
In 1913 in New York and Chicago the Armory Show was a catalyst for derision of both European and modern art by the general American population. It was of course the first exposure of works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and even Ingres to the American public. This exhibition also included selected contemporary American artists, including several who were associated with Alfred Stieglitz and his gallery.
Henri Matisse’s early painting, “Blue Nude, a Souvenir of Biskra” from 1907 was one of the pieces to cause a public stir. At the close of the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913, the students rioted and burned both the painting and Matisse in effigy on the steps of the museum.
The painting had been purchased by Leo Stein in Paris at the 1907 Salon. Later it was purchased by the American collector John Quinn, whose estate in turn sold it to Etta and Claribel Cone of Baltimore, where it remains in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Blue Nude was also featured in an exhibition at Stieglitz’s gallery in 1921, where it was seen by the American poet William Carlos Williams. His prose poem, inspired by this painting, may be one of the first positive pieces of writing regarding the “Blue Nude.”
“A Matisse in New York”
“On the french grass, in that room on Fifth Ave., lay that woman who had never seen my own poor land.”
“So he painted her. The sun had entered his head in the color of sprays of flaming palm leaves. They had been walking for an hour or so after leaving the train. They were hot. She had chosen the place to rest and he had painted her resting, with interest in the place she had chosen.”
“It was the first of summer. Bare as was his mind of interest in anything save the fullness of his knowledge, into which her simple body entered as into the eye of the sun himself, so he painted her.”
“No man in my country has seen a woman naked and painted her as if he knew anything except that she was naked. No woman in my country is naked except at night.”
“In the french sun, on the french grass in a room on Fifth Ave., a french girl lies and smiles at the sun without seeing us.”[ii]
More recently, in 1993 the English writer A. S. Byatt has taken a similar approach to this subject in The Matisse Stories, a series of short stories each inspired by one of Matisse’s paintings. This time, it is the “Large Reclining Nude” also known as the “Pink Nude” purchased in 1936 directly from the artist by Etta Cone and donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art through the Cone Sisters’ bequest in 1950.
Dr. Claribel Cone’s will stated that the Baltimore Museum of Art should receive the bequest of their collection provided that “…the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore became improved.”[iii]
“She had walked in one day because she had seen the Rosy Nude through the plate glass. That was odd, she thought, to have that lavish and complex creature stretched voluptuously above the coat rack, where one might have expected the stare, silver and supercilious or jetty and frenzied, of the model girl. They were all girls now, not women. The rosy nude was pure flat colour, but suggested mass. She had huge haunches and a monumental knee, lazily propped high. She had round breasts, contemplations of the circle, reflections on flesh and its fall. . . . She had asked cautiously for a cut and blow-dry.”[iv]
In conversations with his friends and fellow artists over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that: “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language…”[v]
[i] Flam, Jack; Matisse in the Cone Collection: The Poetics of Vision; The Baltimore Museum of Art; Baltimore, Maryland; 2001; pp. 41-42.
[ii] Tashjian, Dickran; William Carlos Williams and the American Scene 1920-1940; Whitney Museum of American; New York, New York; 1978; 29-31.