Saturday, January 3, 2009

Matisse: What is art?

Matisse - Vase of Sunflowers - The Hermitage Museum

What is art? Now there’s a question worth chewing on! Personally, I think that art is what happens when a painting etc reaches beyond its frame to live in your memory. If you don’t remember it – it ain’t art! No matter who created it. Art invites the viewer to join with it in creating their own punch line for the story. In other words, not all paintings are art, they may simply be paintings...and the viewer gets to decide which is which.

I choose this particular painting today because I keep revisiting it in my mind’s eye. It’s certainly not one of Matisse’s most famous paintings – so what is it that is entrancing, mysterious, and enticing to me? In searching for the answer to this question I seek to clarify ‘what is art’. As an artist, it seems like an important question to grapple with. After all, I wouldn’t go to a dentist who didn’t understand teeth, and, perhaps most important of all, be able to talk with me about them!

So, what gives this painting its power? For starters, I love the perfectly balanced transitions within the piece – from top to bottom and side to side. Matisse has modulated the background from light to dark, his brushwork moves from active to passive, his colors move from warm to cool. It seems to be filled with color but is very restrained in the range of hues he’s selected – it has a wonderful light-filled glow and that always captivates me.

I see this painting as a precursor for his later works where the environment is of equal importance with the ‘subject’. There is just a small a hint of the patterning that will be such a strong element in his later work. His brushwork has suffused the room surrounding those flowers with ‘personality’ and is as lovingly painted and as alive as are the flowers themselves! It is more than a portrait of sunflowers, it is a portrait of a moment – and that moment is something that I can share with Matisse. It is ‘ours’ – no longer only his, not only mine…and that combination is what makes it art.

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter On Painting

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