In Search of True Painting

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, has just opened a new exhibit of Henri Matisse’s paintings. Titled “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” the show will be open through March 17.

Matisse is known for his sensual subjects and bold use of color. In response to his works at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, one critic called him a “wild beast.” But the overwhelming message from this new show is that Matisse was systematic, repeatedly returning to the same subjects and representing them in different ways each time. In a review of the show, Mary Tompkins Lewis wrote in the Wall Street Journal * that “the seeming spontaneity central to Matisse’s art was carefully wrought from a lifelong habit of working in pairs and in clusters of closely related images…to explore his options, to gauge his progress.” Lewis continues to say the show’s images “argue definitively for the primacy of serial production in his art…an intensely analytical practice…cautious deliberations.”

Words like these are the complete opposite of our mythical view of Impressionist painters–who supposedly painted in a burst of inspiration in an attempt to represent a fleeting visual “impression” that was untainted by conscious reflection. The same mythical view affects our perceptions of so many painters–see my post from two weeks ago on the American painter Jackson Pollock, who is now known to have used a time-consuming and deliberate process to generate paintings that only appear to be improvised.

The show reveals that Matisse worked on some of his paintings for as long as ten years, and calls them “endlessly reworked canvases”. The show has a couple of rooms devoted to the later period of Matisse’s career, when he hired photographers to come into his studio and document the successive stages that led to each work. In other words, he was proud of “the methodical calculations” that led to the final work.

It’s stories like these that caused me to title my next book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity…because the creative path is always a long and winding road. (To be published in late March, 2013…subscribe to my blog to learn more!)

*Mary Tompkins Lewis (2012). The Relentless Reviser. The Wall Street Journal Tuesday December 18, 2012, p. D5.

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