THE FLIGHT OF ICARUS!

matisse
Henri Matisse
“The Fall of Icarus”
1943
Gouache on paper cut out, collaged on canvas
35 x 26.5 cm
Private Collection

“‘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
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning”[ii]

matisse2
Pieter Bruegel
“La chute d’Icare”
Oil on panel
1562-1563
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

 


[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.

THE CHINESE WRITTEN CHARACTER AS A MEDIUM FOR POETRY

“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.

chinese
Thomas Merton
“Untitled” (Sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist)
c. 1963
Brush and India ink on paper
10 1/4” x 7 1/2”
The Thomas Merton Center,
Bellarmine University,
Louisville, Kentucky

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.

chinese2
Henri Matisse
“Standing Nude, Arms Covering her Face”
1901-1903
Ink on paper
10 3/8” x 8”
Gift of Edward Steichen
Museum of Modern Art, New York

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]

chinese3[iii]

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]

chinese4
Henri Matisse
“Acrobat”
1952
Brush and ink on paper
41 3/8” x 29 1/2”
Private Collection

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]

chinese5
Henri Michaux
“Untitled (Mouvements)”
c. 1950-51
India ink on paper
12 5/8” x 9 1/2”
Private collection

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

chinese6
Brice Marden
“St. Bart’s 1985-86 N.Y. 3”
1985-1986
Ink and gouache on paper
7 5/16” x 7 7/8”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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.

chinese7
Rene Gonzales
“The Civil War Cannon”
Pen & ink on paper
8 1/2” x 11”
1997
Courtesy of the artist

“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]

chinese8
Rene Gonzales
“An M-16”
Pen & ink on paper
8 1/2” x 11”
1997
Courtesy of the artist

“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]

chinese9[ix]


[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.”

THE CUTTING PROW

“Everything must
Be arranged
To a hair’s breadth
In thunderclap
Order.”
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!
Became
swawk! swawk!
The peace of
Scissors.

prow1
Helene Adant
“Matisse at work in his studio in Nice”
B&W Photograph
1952
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

There was something besides
The inexpressible

Thrill

Of cutting a beautiful shape—-
For

Each thing had a ‘sign’
Each thing had a ‘symbol’
Each thing had a cutting form

-swawk swawkk___
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
The cutting
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

prow2
Helene Adant
“Paule Martin and Matisse in the Hotel Regina, Nice”
B&W Photograph
1952
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

He points with a stick
How he wants it adjusted
This way and that,
Minutitudinous

The last blue iris blooms at
The top of its stalk
Scissors/scepter
Cutting prow

(sung)

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

prow3
Helene Adant
“Matisse in Vence with scissors and gouache cut-outs”
1947-1948
B&W Photograph
Cameraphoto, Venice

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

Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow

ahh
swawk swawk

ahh swawk swawk

ahh swawk swawk.”[v]


[i] Artaud, Antonin, (Clayton Eshleman, translator); To Have Done with the Judgement of God; Black Sparrow Press; Los Angeles; 1975. p. 1.

[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, London; 1995; p. 150.

[iii] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 355.

[iv] Focillon, Henri; The Life of Forms in Art; Zone Books; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.

[v] Sanders, Ed; “The Cutting Prow,” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century; Coffee House Press; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2009; pp. 151-153.

THE BLUE NUDE!

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.

blue1
Henri Matisse
“Blue Nude III”
1952
Guache, paper collage
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee National d’Art Moderne,
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

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.”

Yannis Ritsos, 1966[i]

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.

THE MATISSE STORIES

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.

matisse-1
Henri Matisse
“Blue Nude, Souvenir of Biskra”
1907
36 1/4″ x 55 1/4″
Oil on canvas Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland

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]

matisse-2
Henri Matisse
“Large Reclining Nude”
1935
26 1/8″ x 36 3/4″
Oil on canvas
Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland

“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.

[iii] Flam; Matisse in the Cone Collection; p. 7.

[iv] Byatt, A. S.; The Matisse Stories; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1996; p. 3.

[v] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, London; 1995; p. 150.