Saturday, April 16, 2011

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

Henri Matisse, Dishes and Fruit, 1901
Henri Matisse was born in 1869, the year the Cutty Sark was launched. The year he died, 1954, the first hydrogen bomb exploded at Bikini Atoll. Not only did he live on, literally, from one world into another; he lived through some of the most traumatic political events in recorded history, the worst wars, the greatest slaughters, the most demented rivalries of ideology, without, it seems, turning a hair. Matisse never made a didactic painting or signed a manifesto, and there is scarcely one reference to a political event—let alone an expression of political opinion—to be found anywhere in his writings. Perhaps Matisse did suffer from fear and loathing like the rest of us, but there is no trace of them in his work. His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse's work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected. His paintings are the equivalent to that ideal place, scaled away from the assaults and erosions of history, that Baudelaire imagined in his poem L'Invitation au Voyage:
Furniture gleaming with the sheen of years would grace our bedroom; the rarest flowers, mingling their odours with vague whiffs of amber, the painted ceilings, the fathomless mirrors, the splendour of the East... all of that would speak, in secret, to our souls, in its gentle language. There, everything is order and beauty, luxury, calm and pleasure.

— Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New

Matisse was an artist Epicurus would have admired. Matisse is an artist we all should admire.

For while there is merit in engaging with the troubles and passions of one's times, that is not the only path of merit, whether in art, intellect, or emotion. There is much to be said for the calm, measured investigation of what is immutable and unvarying in the nature of things, if only because these are father and mother, in part, to our ephemera. It is not too much to say there may be lessons to be learned in how to conduct oneself from the way sunlight paints shadows on a tablecloth.

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Besides, Matisse could paint circles around Picasso six ways from Sunday.

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