Conversations with Dr. Yve-Alain Bois, renowned art historian and Harvard professor and Rick Brettell, independent curator and professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. (PART ONE)
Left: The Dream, Henri Matisse, 1940.
Right: Woman with Yellow Hair, Pablo Picasso, 1931.
KERA: It’s been said that Matisse and Picasso were “modern” artists, artists who worked in the modernist tradition as opposed to the classical or nineteenth century academic tradition.
Perhaps we should start by asking, “What does ‘modernism’ mean?”
Rick Brettell: Modernism is an urban, capitalist art movement that starts in France in the middle of the nineteenth century. Artists are finding ways to get outside the Academy, working with independent dealers, getting to know smart collectors, doing things on their own, and also working with others. Artists rent their own spaces, print their own catalogues, do deals with dealers, determine the context in which their works of art are presented to an urban public.
The notion, the real notion of modernism is that it’s non-hierarchical, non-master/student. You don’t learn to do things in a certain way and then go do them. You don’t suddenly make your great thing and then replicate it for the rest of your life… You learn to make art from others, from making it yourself, and interacting as an equal with others.
It’s a life-long process of struggle, of self-definition both between you and your canvases, or you and your plates, or you and your pieces of paper, but also between you and other strong people who you respect.
Yve-Alain Bois: Of course, every artist responds to other artists and also to their particular situation. No artist works in a vacuum. Both Picasso and Matisse inherited from the masters of Post-Impressionism—Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Seurat— a legacy characterized by a strong emphasis on the constructive nature of everything: color, brush stroke and so forth.
Picasso was an extraordinary draftsman, basically imitating all kinds of traditional painting by the age of 14. He had an incredible facility, and it took him a while to realize that he had a kind of historical mission, so to speak. And that happened, I think, around 1906, around the time he got acquainted with the work of Matisse.
That very quickly developed into what would become a big splash in the history of art, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. You don’t have to reproduce the object, you can totally reconstruct it. You don’t have to be homogenous in terms of style—you can use different stylistic features within a painting in a strange, discontinuous way.
It’s the recognition that painting is a language based on arbitrary elements that you can combine at will to create whatever you want. That’s what I think is Modernist for Picasso: the notion that painting is a language.
For Matisse, I think it was more directly in terms of color. The idea that you can create in the mind of a beholder a visual impression, a mood or feeling, by combining colors that have nothing to do with the object you are representing. That was his great early invention, and once again, it emphasized the arbitrariness of the code of painting.
KERA: How did Picasso and Matisse view themselves in relationship to the tradition they had inherited?
Rick Brettell: When Matisse decided to become an artist, you had to learn to be an artist in terms of a tradition that was hundreds of years old for the making of portable easel pictures, and thousands of years old for the making of beautiful objects. And the artist was taught to learn that whole tradition before being able to make an important contribution to it.
Matisse went through an extremely layered and complicated system of instruction which Picasso did only a little bit. Matisse saw himself as an heir to the great tradition of French painting. Picasso would have laughed at being included in that kind of tradition. It’s one of the differences between the two of them. Matisse actually had to break free from that, much more fully than Picasso did.
Yve-Alain Bois: Both Matisse and Picasso thought that academic art was basically dead. But they wanted to rescue the great tradition. They saw it as their duty…they felt that on their shoulders rested the future of a tradition. That’s the way they saw it.
They wanted to rejuvenate it by transforming it. And they knew that was their task. They saw it unconsciously. They never completely formulated it like that, but I deeply believe that was the way they envisioned their own role in the history of art. If they were not going to rescue the tradition, that tradition was going to die. they were not going to the tradition, the tradition was going to die.
I mean, you had mass media, photography, the cinema, Marcel Duchamp’s attack with his ready-mades. Why would painting still be necessary in the age of the magazine? The smell of turpentine was suffering quite a series of hard blows, and they knew that they had to defend painting by transforming it.
KERA: Matisse once wrote, “What I dream of is an art of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter… a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.”
At the time he wrote this, Matisse was criticized by people who found this kind of statement hopelessly reactionary. What do you make of it?
Rick Brettell: It’s not that Matisse’s paintings actually were like armchairs, but the fact that he wanted them initially to be attractive and easy— full of, you know, naked ladies and printed fabrics and soft things, and fresh pineapples and wonderful fruits — things that bring you into the work of art. And then you realize how profoundly strange this, at least superficially “easy,” work of art is.
It’s an idea of art in which, if you make a work of art that is at least initially and superficially comfortable, then that work of art can more easily enter into the psyche of the modern person. Because the modern person has, as we all know, very little time, has a lot of competing interests pulling at them at every moment, and often wants more than anything else to escape. And if the work of art can provide the occasion for that escape, then no matter how tough or profound that work of art might eventually be, it will be more successful, as opposed to the work of art that simply shocks and turns the viewer away. And that’s the beauty of Matisse’s idea.
Yve-Alain Bois: Picasso often mocked Matisse for making that statement, but Picasso knew what Matisse meant, and he knew that Matisse didn’t mean that art should be “easy.”
KERA: Yves-Alain, you’ve pointed out that it’s hard for a viewer’s eye to rest for very long anywhere in a Matisse composition. Why do you think he adopted that artistic strategy?
Yve-Alain Bois: Matisse once told some journalists that when he was painting a still life of oysters, he had to have new oysters opened every two or three hours. Why? Because he needed to have that special smell, that wetness…
Matisse’s goal was not to represent the thing, but to represent the effect of the thing on him when he was painting it, and to create the same effect on the beholder. In order to do that, Matisse had to attack the senses in all kinds of ways. He wanted to achieve a diffusion of the beholder’s senses, a diffusion of the gaze.
KERA: So how did he achieve that?
Yve-Alain Bois: In different, sometimes contradictory ways. His lines, for instance. Your eye tends to follow multiple lines. With a lot of curves, your eye doesn’t know which way to go. If you present the eye with too much visual stimulation, it simply can’t concentrate.
Matisse didn’t only use the technique of profusion. He used its opposite: bareness. One of his methods of dispersing the gaze of the beholder is to place key parts of the canvas at the extremities of the painting and nothing at the center. Your eye wanders without having a place to rest. What was important for him was to prevent your eye from resting in the center.
Also, very early on, Matisse became skilled at creating effects with color, with contrasting colors so that your eyes simply cannot rest.
Rick Brettell: Almost anybody who knows about color and its own languages, the emotional and visual languages of color, would give the edge to Matisse, because Matisse makes color do things beyond description.
Yve-Alain Bois: Matisse painted very often using black, but not at all as a color of darkness… black was like any other color for Matisse, something to be used in a play of highlighted contrasts….For Matisse, color never had any symbolic sense. You could never say, you know, “white is purity, black is death, red is blood.” Absolutely not.
KERA: How do you think Matisse felt about his work?
Rick Brettell: Both Matisse and Picasso painted very fluidly and with ease, but Matisse tended to be more often dissatisfied with his part—
Yve-Alain Bois: He was very, very anxious…he always felt that no matter what, he had to take a lot of risks in his art, and he did. He really conceived of the art of painting and of sculpting as a kind of struggle.
At the end of his life, Matisse would paint something and then he would be dissatisfied at the end of the working day, so he would erase everything and he would repaint it, and then he would erase again. Sometimes he would paint and erase the same painting 30 times, until he would get it almost automatically – until his hands could paint without having to think, and then that’s when he thought the painting was perfect, fresh.
He liked the notion, the metaphor of the painter as an acrobat. And Matisse thought – I don’t know if this is true – that high-wire acrobats fall if they think about it, if they think about what they are doing. That the only way they can really do what they do is because they’re so well trained they don’t have to think about it.
He worked enormously hard to achieve a kind of looseness. It was hard for him to be relaxed. And when he finally did, at the end of his life, it was extraordinary. So, taking risks was something that he understood as almost a kind of ethos— that was what an artist did, if one was going to be a great artist.
KERA: Let’s talk about one of Picasso’s most famous paintings: Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.
Yve-Alain Bois: Around 1906, Picasso discovered Matisse at a moment in time when Matisse was showing his painting The Joy of Life. When Picasso saw that particular painting, he was shocked, because what Picasso was doing at that time was much more academic. And Picasso said to himself, you know, ‘Oh, my God, I have to respond to that guy, I can’t let it go.’ And so what developed very quickly in his mind was the now-famous painting: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Rick Brettell: Instead of having nymphs frolicking in a landscape and being indifferent to the spectator, in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon they look at you. They are very, very scary women who look you in the eye, and it puts the beholder on the spot. So there is an element of power, the sheer power of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is still very effective today. I never see this painting without marveling that some guy was doing that in his own studio, all by himself, absolutely certain that all his friends would laugh at it.
Yve-Alain Bois: In this painting, as I’ve said before, we realize that you don’t need to have one homogenous style within a painting; there is a recognition that painting is a language.
Picasso’s interest is in transforming something into something else. That is, anything can be the sign for something else. There is no one-to-one meaning. Anything can become a sign for a bull’s head: the combination of a bicycle seat and handlebar, for example. Anything can become transformed, and there’s a fundamental belief in the transformational character of art that is characteristic of all of his production.
KERA: Does Picasso use line and color differently from the ways in which Matisse uses them?
Rick Brettell: Picasso has this unbelievable natural ability with line and with draftsmanship, He is able to seduce you with that, as opposed to Matisse, who uses imagery to seduce you.
And Matisse makes beautiful images odd and scrubbed and ugly, and therefore there’s this wonderful tension. Whereas Picasso will take something like a sexual adventure, or a skull in front of a mirror, or something that isn’t in itself an attractive subject, and because of his sheer abilities with line, and the ease with which he makes images, he seduces you.
And Picasso was never that interested in color. He’s not a great colorist. I mean, there are beautiful colors in paintings by Picasso, but they don’t make a contribution to color painting as such in the way that Matisse did. Picasso uses color for accent and for flavor. It’s important to the work of art, but it’s not essential to the work of art in Picasso. And it’s essential to the work of art in Matisse.
KERA: How do you think Picasso felt about his work?
Rick Brettell: Picasso always recognized that his main problem was that he was too talented, it was too easy. That’s why Picasso himself, in the end, disliked the so-called Rose period or Blue Period —because it was too sentimental and, you know, too easy to make and too easy to like.
Yve-Alain Bois: Picasso spoke several times about the fact that he had painted so many bad paintings. And he said it didn’t matter…He didn’t feel compelled to destroy them. He did destroy a couple of real turkeys, but in the end, you know, he didn’t edit that much.
Rick Brettell: With Picasso, you don’t see fifty drawings, forty-nine of which are eventually torn up. You see forty-nine different drawings. Each one is a theme in variation.
Yve-Alain Bois: When Picasso made a series of paintings, he always said that the painting he preferred was the one before the last, where things were not quite perfect yet, when he knew there was still something to do.
Matisse & Picasso is a high-definition television documentary produced in 2000 by KERA Public Media.