Learning to Look at ‘Portrait of Madam Matisse (The Green Line)’

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I open the door to the permanent exhibition “French Art 1900-1930” at Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), which includes art from the Paris scene at the turn of the century. I am here to visit the “Portrait of Madam Matisse (The Green Line)” (Fig.1). A walk throughout the galleries reflects the intense activity seen in the city, when artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Braque experimented with diverse possibilities of expression in painting. According to SMK 2017a, Paris was the home to a stimulating, international environment, composed by different groupings that knew and challenged each other.

From reading Essers (2016:7-18), I know that one of these groups was represented by Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, whom met around 1900. Prior to this, Matisse had been a student at the École des Beaux-Arts as a pupil of the symbolist painter Gustav Moreau, known for his emphasis on personal expression. Matisse abandoned the École in 1898, following a trip to Brittany where he discovers Impressionism and initiates his quest for pure colour. Matisse was familiar with the work of Turner, visiting his paintings in London in 1898, and to the work of Vincent Van Gogh, Rodin, Cezanne and Gaugin, exposed at the avant-garde gallery of Ambroise Vollard in 1899. After a period of struggle, Matisse starts looking for collectors and opportunities to exhibit. In 1903 he participates at a show at Salon d’Automne and holds his first solo exhibition at Vollard’s gallery the year after. In 1904 he also visits Signac in St. Tropez, where he learns more about the use of colour to achieve optical effects. “Places des Lices – Saint Tropez” (Fig.2), available at SMK, is an example from this period.

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In 1905 Derain and Matisse travel to Collioure, where they spend the summer making ground-breaking aesthetical discoveries (Benjamin 2005:25). It was a prolific visit: forty aquarelles, hundred drawings and fifteen canvasses were produced (Schwabsky 2005:49). One of these works is part of SMK’s collection: “Landscape near Collioure – Study for The Joy of Life” (Fig.3). Like in many other of the Collioure landscapes, there is no request for producing the even surfaces known from Signac, and heavy brushstrokes fill the canvasses. Colour is certainly the major element. There is no wish to represent visual reality – instead, bright hues are juxtaposed to create strong clashes.

KMSr79

I learn from Schwabsky (2005:49) that when Matisse returns from Collioure, he transfers what he has learnt from painting landscapes to the human figure. The result is “Woman with a Hat” (Fig.4). This artwork, along with many of the Collioure’s paintings, was part of an exhibition at Salon d’Automne in 1905, and was received with critique. The contrast to traditional art was so striking, that critic Louis Vauxcelles called Matisse, Derain and other related artists as “Les Fauves” or “wild beasts” – hence the term “Fauvism” used to describe this art movement (Essers 2016:14). I am sympathetic to this first reaction from the critics. For years I have walked past the portrait of Madam Matisse without comprehending it, and rather shocked by the red/green palette.

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So here I am today, equipped with background reading and Mary Acton’s’ “questions to ask in front of a painting” (2009:233), trying to see the painting with new eyes. I start by thinking about my position in relation to the picture and the painting’s size. I am standing in a position I assume was expected by Matisse. He most likely painted the portrait as an item to be exhibited in a hall, and the figure’s eyes look past my left shoulder. This painting had become “larger than life” for me after seeing it everyday for the past months in Acton’s textbook cover – but at 40,5 * 32,5 cm it is actually quite small. I agree with SMK 2017b in that it is the expressiveness of the colours which makes the portrait expand into the room, and acknowledge an emotional response of disconcert, which is uncoupled from the scale of the painting. I proceed to look at how the painting is hung. I learn from SMK 2017c that the very ornamented, gilded frame was carefully restored around 2011 (Fig.5) as it was cracked and some parts had even broken off. I had never thought of the impact of the frame in my aesthetic experience, but it is clearly an important factor.

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I continue with composition. I try to abstract from the bright colours by taking a black and white photo. Removing which is really the essence of the work seems counterintuitive, but this technique allows me to see new elements. I see a symmetrical composition – a human face and upper the torso in the foreground and a background separated into three main regions. I follow an imaginary straight line going from the top of the hair bun, down to the line that separates the face in half, all the way to the chin. There are two shoulder lines going upwards, diagonally. If one follows the three lines, one could imagine them intersecting around the mouth, in the shape of an inverted Y.

I then observe the asymmetry existing within the placement of the shoulder lines and the ears. The placement of these on the left is higher than in the right, which helps depict the figure at an angle, with the face turning toward us. There is also asymmetry found in the V-neck, which points sharply towards the lower right corner, enhancing the three-dimensionality of the picture (more on this below). I also observe asymmetry in the shape of the eyebrows, the left one being more arched than the right, and in the shape of the hair, which is more flat in the left than in the right. There are also quite a lot of curves found in the hair, eyebrows, mouth, ears. In conclusion, even if the composition at first sight seems quite symmetrical, I can now see that much has been done to add movement, change and energy to the picture. I also reflect on what makes us unique, human and beautiful is precisely the asymmetry in our body.

I return to the painting on the wall. There is a striking asymmetry in the colours. On the left, warm, On the right, cool. First, the foreground: A twist to the classical way to depict a portrait in half-light, half-shade. The right side of the face and neck, set in a flesh-tone, the left in an unnatural yellowish-green colour. The hair in a blue-violet shade, with hints of red and black. The dress in different tones of red, juxtaposed to the complementary green neckline, which is decorated with red/green spots. Then, the bright green stripe that runs from the forehead, all the way down to the neckline – uniting both sides and marking the division between complementary areas of colour. I move to the the background. The left in pale purple (in different tones) and saturated red-orange. The right in tones of blue green. There is also an asymmetry in the brushstrokes, particularly in the face and the neck. The left side of the is painted more smoothly than the right, which seems at bit blurred. The direction of brushstrokes also pays attention to the form of the figure.

This brings me to the topic of three-dimensionality. It is actually Acton’s (2009:74-76) analysis of how Matisse creates from with colour that inspired this visit in the first place: I am truly invited to feel the form of the head. I see indications of depth all around and the painting looses its “flatness”: The aforementioned asymmetry in the shoulder line produces a shift, which along with the choice of colours gives the effect of the left side pushing towards us while the right recedes. The dull green shadow below the chin and under the eyes, the darker tone of blue-green above the right shoulder, purple outlining the green line. In conclusion, I can see that juxtaposition of colours held together in areas (and not only in each brushstroke as in Signac) is what gives an optical effect of depth.

I proceed to think about the subject. This is a portrait of Madam Matisse, but somehow the picture does not seem to be not “about her”. I agree with Schwabsky (2005) in that Matisse captures her essence: I can clearly recognize her from a picture (Fig.6) and sense her strong personality. However, it seems that the picture is more about Matisse himself. His experience of Madam Matisse, his emotions, his experiments. This wets my interest for further study of Expressionism, which is often displayed at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. I leave the gallery and sit in the museum’s garden to reflect. Reading about the exhibition, Matisse, Fauvism and the painting itself gave me significant tools to better understand the portrait. But it was not until I took ample time to experience the painting “live” and within this magnificent context that an aesthetic experience could truly unfold. I look forward to returning to SMK, with my new way to look at its pictures.

Amalie Matisse

Figures

Figure 1: Matisse, H. (1905). Portrait of Madam Matisse (The Green Stripe) [Painting found in Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://collection.smk.dk/#/en/detail/KMSr171

Figure 2: Matisse, H. (1904). Place des Lices – Saint Tropez [Painting found in Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://collection.smk.dk/#/en/detail/KMSr75

Figure 3: Matisse, H. (1905). Landscape near Collioure. Study for “The Joy of Life” [Painting found in Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://collection.smk.dk/#/en/detail/KMSr79

Figure 4: Matisse, H. (1905). Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat) [Painting found in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/91.161

Figure 5: Frame Restoration: Portrait of Madam Matisse (The Green Stripe) [Painting found in Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://www.smk.dk/typo3temp/pics/db1a4e422a.jpg

Figure 6: Photo of Amélie Matisse. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://uploads.neatorama.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/220madamematisse.jpg

References

Acton, M. (2009). Learning to look at paintings. London New York: Routledge.

Benjamin, R. (2005). Landskab ved Collioure: Studie til Livsglæde. In R. Benjamin and S. Bjerkhof (Eds.) Matisse: Mesterværker på Statens Museum for Kunst (pp.25-45). Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst.

Essers, V. (2016). Henri Matisse, 1869-1954: master of colour (pp.7-18). Basic Art Series 2.0. Köln: Benedikt Taschen.

Schwabsky, B. (2005) “Den Inderste Essens” In R. Benjamin and S. Bjerkhof (Eds.) Matisse: Mesterværker på Statens Museum for Kunst (pp.46-65). Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst.

SMK (2017a). (Producer). SMK Highlights 399 – Introduction: French Art 1900-1930 [Audioguide]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://highlights.smk.dk/399?route=122

SMK (2017b). (Producer). SMK Highlights 404 – Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line [Audioguide]. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://highlights.smk.dk/404?route=122

SMK (2017c). Matisse, the Frame in Focus. Retrieved March 24 2017 from http://www.smk.dk/en/explore-the-art/visit-the-conservator/stories-from-the-conservators/matisse-the-frame-in-focus/

Oxford – here we go

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Last year (2016) was a year of Process. Process. Process. With few, clear and highlighted achievements and lessons learned. Perhaps the one thing I learnt, for sure, was that if I have an ambition of recognising myself in the mirror after a day, a week, or a year of rentless struggle – I need, want and have to study. So today I started, against all odds, to study a course at Oxford (Learning to Look at the Visual Arts). I look forward to posting what I am learning in here. See you around!

Holiday is over

As I have told to whoever cares to listen, I want to keep intellectually active – notwithstanding the massive amount of mops that life throws at me at times. I do most of my training on-line, as I wait for my home-schedule to settle. Before leaving on holiday, I was in the middle of a MOOC called “Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors” by Susan Sauvé Meyer (Coursera, University of Pennsylvania). I went as far as enrolling in two more courses – you know, in case I got bored. I took my computer, earphones, notebook, highlighters, etc. all the way to Mexico. The plan was to study in the early mornings, when the kids where still asleep. Yeah right. I didn’t open Coursera ONCE in eight weeks. I did so today, and could marginally  understand what was going on. By experience, I know that the only way of getting back in shape is taking a deep breath, sit down, and endure the few (and painful) weeks where the neurons are awakening from their hibernation.  It is not that I didn’t read this summer – I read eight books, some of them as thick as bricks – but in no point I felt out of depth. It’s the heavy lifting, the long stretch, what I missed. So  – Ancient Ethics, here I come again.  

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Book Review: “All I can handle…” by Kim Stagliano

All I Can Handle: I'm No Mother Teresa: A Life Raising Three Daughters with AutismAll I Can Handle: I’m No Mother Teresa: A Life Raising Three Daughters with Autism by Kim Stagliano
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There is a Chinese Proverb that reads “A book is like a garden, carried in the pocket”. In the case of Kim Stagliano’s book, I felt I was carrying a deadly jungle in my pocket, full with venemous snakes and quick sand. Very seldom have I felt so uncomfortable reading a book. Mostly due the lack of respect for the views of proponents of neurodiversity (such as myself), but also due to the presentation of controversial views and strategies which lack of solid scientific foundation, and which are prone to confuse and alarm not only parents of newly-diagnosed children, but also the public in general. I did finish the journey, though, and read until the very last page. I feel very well equipped for these readings these days, being vested which knowledge which I have obtained over the years from people living with Autism, experts, professionals, parents and advocates (in no particular order: Temple Grandin, Tony Attwood, Ole Sylvester, Kirsten Callesen, Christina Sommer, Susanne Holst Ravn, Heidi Thamestrup, Bettina Bové, Anne Skov Jensen, Louise Egelund Jensen, Kathrine Felland Gunnløgsson, and many more!). But most importantly, I am equipped with the experience of being an Autism Mom for 9 years (and counting), which allows me to be more discerning with respect to strategies, treatments and the like. It has to be said – I am truly happy that I didn’t read this book in my early days. And even more happy to see how far my family has come in terms of forming a serious, trusted and reliable network. I leave this particular jungle behind now by sending warm thoughts towards the author. I can’t help but think about what book she could have written if she had had the network, help and support I have. Perhaps not an account of an Italian garden in April, but it is my guess that at least there would have been a jungle with more bridges. (Post-edit: and with this I mean, it would perhaps be a book where we – the author and I – could engage in common enquiry, instead of having a feeling of “knowing” – and “my knowledge is better than yours”, which is what feeds the autism wars. May this be the lesson for me – to never become so sure of what I know as to deny to consider and respect other views).

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Book Review: “Making Peace with Autism” by Susan Senator

Making Peace with Autism: One Family's Story of Struggle, Discovery, and Unexpected GiftsMaking Peace with Autism: One Family’s Story of Struggle, Discovery, and Unexpected Gifts by Susan Senator
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Making peace with autism was an important read for me. As an Autism mom I felt a strong connection with the author, and her journey. From denial to acceptance. The uncompromising, fierce wish for making our family work and giving our children the best possible foundation for a happy adulthood. It helps that her writing is passionate, strong, yet sober – considering what is at stake. What a good pen! I am thoroughly impressed, and can see that her blog has the same intensity – highly recommended. With regards to content, I found myself disagreeing with some of the strategies the author employed. But as the author reveals what she learnt from the different approaches, and how she had changed her mind and developed a deeper understanding of her son, herself, her husband…of life itself – I discovered that we shared much more than I thought. We are muddling thru. We are trying. And as long as we are trying, we are moving. We are keeping our spirits from stagnating. We are empowering ourselves, and giving our life meaning. If I should mention a thing I missed, is how her fight affected the author not as a mother, but as professional, as a friend, as a sister, as a neighbour. Perhaps its the correct strategy to focus on family life – however in my current circumstances I could have enjoyed some reflections on identity issues. Not that the author doesn’t touch upon them – but perhaps its a case of more wanting more. All in all, a book that I could relate to, which moved me, which I learnt to respect, and one that I will be reading again.

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Quote

“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. ”

Max Porter (2015), Grief is the Thing with Feathers*

*fresh new book on my night table.

Photo from commons.wikimedia.org

 

Book Review: “How to be alone” by Sara Maitland

How to Be AloneHow to Be Alone by Sara Maitland
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is part of  The Toolkit for Life series from the School of Life. Lightweight self-help books, which can be read in the metro where concentration is scarce. In that sense, the books under this series should not be compared to major works of literature, but are to be taken as appetizers to broader themes. A large magazine article, of sorts. In this particular book, I noticed that the author had a strong need to justify her decision of being alone – perhaps the author’s cultural context is different than mine? In any case, I found much of her advice for being alone appropriate for people that perhaps are not so trained in the matter. I have enjoyed “going solo” as long as I can remember, and can recognize the author’s narration of having intense experiences in nature. I also get high contemplating art on my own and listening to concerts without company. It is nice to be validated, but depth was lacking. Perhaps the most important contribution of this book – for me – was to induce the dream of going on a holiday on my own this fall and to motivate me to add two books to the to-read shelf (“The stations of solitude” by Alice Koller (1991) and “Walden” by Henry Thoreau (1854). More relevant references can be found in the book’s Homework section.

“Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska

“Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska

A new person in my life – handpicked this poem when I confessed that poetry remained inaccesible for me. I think she might just have opened the door. Simona, thank you for lending me a key. This poem moved me to tears. Hearing it – rather than just reading it –  was a significant experience.

Possibilities

I prefer movies.

I prefer cats.

I prefer the oaks along the Warta.

I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.

I prefer myself liking people

to myself loving mankind.

I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.

I prefer the color green.

I prefer not to maintain

that reason is to blame for everything.

I prefer exceptions.

I prefer to leave early.

I prefer talking to doctors about something else.

I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems

to the absurdity of not writing poems.

I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries

that can be celebrated every day.

I prefer moralists

who promise me nothing.

I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.

I prefer the earth in civvies.

I prefer conquered to conquering countries.

I prefer having some reservations.

I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.

I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.

I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.

I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.

I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.

I prefer desk drawers.

I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here

to many things I’ve also left unsaid.

I prefer zeroes on the loose

to those lined up behind a cipher.

I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

I prefer to knock on wood.

I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility

that existence has its own reason for being.

 

“Picasso’s Guernica Revisited” by T.J. Clark

Today’s mission : View the London Review of Books Winter Lecture titled “Picasso’s Guernica Revisited” (2011), by art historian T.J. Clark.

Why? Because viewing Picasso’s Guernica has been my most meaningful art experience, and I want to get closer to understanding why this is so.

And so? Magnificent ♥♥♥♥♥

From the lecture I gathered that the scale of the painting plays a big part in making me feel immersed, almost obliterated when I stand in front of it. I also increased my understanding of why I don’t feel much for Guernica in small reproductions (not even in big reproductions) and why I have unconsciously negated to own a copy.

Trail for the fox: pictorial space, art history course at Sotheby’s