Art is like an armchair

Henri Matisse. Ballerina Seated in an Armchair, 1944

It is Henri Matisse’s most controversial saying. “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Critics pounce on this quote, arguing that Matisse’s concern for beauty leads to comfort on the part of the viewer, indulgence, complacency. It is no way to change the world. But let’s be fair to Matisse. The artist took up art relatively late in life–at the age of 20–while recovering from an operation. Art was a form of therapy. The armchair simile may be Matisse’s way of saying that art has healing or restorative properties. Restful as the chair may be, in the charcoal drawing above, the ballerina in it seems to dancing. She is at once at rest and in motion, limp but graceful. As a dancer, she is also an artist, so Matisse may be commenting on his own process. Art involves both activity and its opposite.

How else is art like an armchair? Art needs a viewer–an armchair with a body in it. Art makes us stop and comtemplate. Art takes time–it takes time to make, it takes time to digest, to sink in. At some point, the viewer engages with the work and changes the work.

Max Ernst. collage, La Femme 100 Tetes, 1929

In a collage for Max Ernst’s collage-novel, La Femme 100 Tetes, 1929, a man falls asleep in an armchair and dreams of phallic shooting jets and flooding waters. He is the respectable bourgeois man whose unconscious reveals unspeakable desires, chaos, fears.

Other artists use chairs to challenge our understanding of media. Robert Rauschenberg is an artist famous for merging large three-dimensional objects with flat canvases in a way that blends painting and scultpure. In one work, Pilgrim, 1960, a paint-splattered chair sits beside a paint-splattered canvas. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth does something similar by placing a real chair beside a photograph of a chair and a dictionary definition of a chair. Chairs are at home in surrealist art, abstract expressionist art, conceptual art. They take on meanings that range from bourgeois to anti-bourgeois. They are even political.

Doris Salcedo. Installation for the Istanbul Biennial, 2003

Colombian artist Doris Salcedo makes artwork using chairs she collects from the families of the victims of state violence. These victims have been abducted and made to disappear from the political scene. Salcedo displays their chairs as symbols of voices that have been silenced. In the installation at right, the chairs are stacked in an urban crevice like bodies in a mass grave. In other works, Salcedo encases chairs, writing desks and other pieces of furniture in blocks of cement. They function like repressed memories; vanished people whose presence continues to haunt us.

Dawn MacNutt. Man in a Black Coat

 

Dawn MacNutt is a Canadian artist who merges craft and fine art sculpture. Her Man in a Black Coat, 1985, made of woven rope and willow, creates a fusion of half-man, half-chair. Here we feel the identity of a ghost-like being struggling to come to life. MacNutt depicts a world of flux and metamorphosis,    embracing human frailty in her frequently bowed and hollow figures and in her use of discarded materials like ditch-growing weeds and cast-off rope.

Art is like an armchair. Matisse’s simile takes us from the notion of comfort and luxury to that of therapy, self-healing and contemplation. The simile suggests the role of the viewer in completing a work of art. It evokes dreaming and the unconscious, expanding traditional media into realms of multimedia and conceptual art. It marks the place and memory of missing persons and serves as a lingering political protest. It also merges boundaries of art and non-art, where the possibility of transformation and the energy of imagination engage in a productive interaction.

 

 

Matisse and Symbolist Art


Detail from Henri Matisse. Dance (I), 1909. MOMA NY

People either love Matisse or hate him. His work strikes an immediate cord that bypasses thought. Most art histories relegate Henri Matisse (1869-1954) to a branch of early 20th century Expressionism that contributed to the vocabulary of radical modernism. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to grasp the essence of this alarm-provoking originality. If anything, Matisse is damned now for being too tame, too concerned with serenity and beauty. In an effort to place a little more nuance in an understanding of his work, I touch here on a few ideas and strategies Matisse shares with Symbolist art.

Gustave Moreau. Mystic Flower, 1875

Matisse’s teacher was Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Moreau is famous for creating beautiful dream-like images, full of rich colour, elaborate patterns, ethereal beings and exotic settings. Moreau is invariably linked with the late-19th century movement known as Symbolist Art, which was a counter response to Naturalism and Impressionism. Impressionism, when not found on shopping bags and pretty calendars, has something to do with the scientific observation of light effects, with a sense of the transience of modernity, with an emphasis on contemporary subject matter, especially outdoor scenes painted on the spot. In contast to this, the Symbolists turn to literature and mythology for inspiration. Symbolist artists, inspired by writers such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, pursued their desires into the realm of decadence, driving their imaginations to intoxicating heights. They reintroduced themes of psychological conflict, sublime isolation, exotic characters and locations. Symbolist art is imaginative but escapist, promoting art for art’s sake and ignoring current social problems. It stresses originality and genius to the point of being obscure, occult or hermetic. Part of this mystical impulse is the desire to unite contrary things, to come up with a cosmic all-encompassing vision of the world rather than depict a specific scene or localized street corner. Art historian Edward Lucie-Smith notes that “suggestiveness and ambiguity were the very essence of Symbolist poetry and art.” (Symbolist Art, 1972, p. 15) Allegories are one means of achieving this cosmic yet suggestive aim.

Henri Matisse. Dance (I). 1909, MOMA NY

Matisse’s themes–the joy of life, the dance, music, the dreamer, the circus, the artist’s studio–touch on Symbolist ideals. In Dance, 1909, Matisse presents a timeless allegory that recalls a distant golden age. It is a portrait of community in motion; the harmonious circle of nude dancers allows for a rhythm of contrasts: up and down, large and small, fast and slow, enclosed and open. The work is dynamic and interconnected, as if a chain of vitality flows from one figure to another.  If one dancer loses balance and falls, then all will feel the effects.

Matisse’s affinity for Symbolist art extends to his still life paintings. In the history of art, the still life is often heavily symbolic, with the addition of skulls, coins and clocks making comments on the fleetingness of life and the things we value. Matisse takes a slightly different approach, turning his still life images into cosmic fields that alternate between microcosm and macrocosm. His over-riding strategy is to bring inanimate objects –floral patterns, statues, mirrors, rugs, paintings within paintings—to life, blurring the distinction between nature and artifice. His inventive and witty analogies link one thing to another–a pot of flowers fuses with the floral motif on a background drapery, while household fruits lay scattered across the branches of a printed tablecloth. These paintings excite the senses, but also confuse and confound the viewer as foreground and background, interior and exterior space blend together. The wildly exuberant patterns are sensuous and suggest a joy of life as well as a richness of life. Vine-like surfaces, full of nervous energy, are hard to contain within the confined apartments and studios that are the most frequent settings. These works awaken strong affective responses, inspiring indescribable feelings.

Henri Matisse. Spanish Still Life. 1910-11. Hermitage Museum.

Henri Matisse. Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912. MoMA, NY

There is another way that the artist uses symbols. It is not the elaboration of information, a richness of detail or truth-to-life that makes something a symbol. Rather the reduction of information into a highly distinctive form that jogs the memory and triggers recognition is a key element of any symbol. By simplifying forms and colours, Matisse turns the goldfish bowl shown above into a miniature world.  His tiny sculpture of a reclining nude changes scale and appears monumental. In the process, the figure comes to life as a bather. The studio interior is all at once a forest glade, the vase of flowers serving as a canopy arching overhead. The rich field of colour creates an indeterminate free space, allowing the imagination to make these transformations possible.

Sample from Matisse's private fabric collection: North African appliquéd hanging, late 19th century.

Growing up in a cloth-making region of north-eastern France, Bohain-en-Vermandois, Matisse came across a wide assortment of pattern books and textile samples, samples he collected throughout his life and incorporated into his art. (This connection to fabric design formed the basis of the exhibition “Fabric of Dreams” held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2005.) Matisse’s paintings feature patterns drawn from diverse cultures and regions. These patterns when draped across the surfaces of a room turn a domestic space into a stage set, inspiring a sense of play and fantasy, as well as creating visual rhythms and associations of exotic unknown elements. Fantasy and the exotic are key themes of Symbolist art, as is the escape or transcendence of everyday realities. Many modern artists come across as alienated and brooding prophets of the sick soul. In contrast, Matisse comes across as a kind of therapeutic hedonist, a doctor of pleasure, offering us sanctuaries where boundaries dissolve and the energy of the imagination is released.

Conclusion: Matisse’s work is daringly modernist, but also draws on a Symbolist tradition from the 19th century. Like the Symbolists, Matisse’s world is slightly abstracted and suspended beyond time. He uses allegories and microcosms to suggest elaborate worlds of the imagination. The great simplification of figures and forms in Matisse’s work encourages viewers to read them as symbols. Conversely the great elaboration of pattern in his work helps trigger imaginative transformations, turning a simple everyday scene into a fantastic dreamscape.