I called in to the Matisse exhibition today at the Tate modern. For my birthday I was given a Tate Membership and I have been waiting for a good time to start it. Today was that day.
The exhibition is amazing. I will return, hopefully more than once, before it closes in September.
In a couple of rooms were video displays in which you could watch Matisse at work. I was struck by the vulnerability and trust that he showed. In his final years before his death, although he was able to cut the shapes himself he relied on his assistants for positioning those shapes. We see his assistants watching him intently as he directs them where to place each shape, how to rotate them, where the overlap should be … and so on. Every single piece of the ‘canvas’ ends up exactly where the artist wants it to be. Exactly. There is seemingly no room for error! To get to this, though, Matisse makes himself vulnerable and puts his reputation in the hands of these people.
It would be easy to argue that this is not vulnerability. At the end of the day, it could be said, the people put the shapes up and Matisse would eventually have said ‘ok … that’s fine’ … pretty much like the rest of us might do out of either exasperation or not wishing to offend. In one scene in a video, however, you sense frustration on both sides … frustration from the artist as the person is not hearing or reading where and how a particular shape could be placed …. and frustration on the assistant as seemingly the artists is being bloody minded and surely this is good enough.
Matisse exhibits vulnerability to the extent of being left alone with no help. I wonder if the were times when the assistants just wanted to scream, ‘I’ve had enough … I’m out if here!’ Maybe not … but I sensed there could have been.
I was particularly humbled as I watched Matisse at work and looked at his art as I moved from room to room. The rooms are set out in a rough chronological order. As Matisse gets older, more infirm, and seemingly less in control of his fine motor skills his works of art become more intricate, complex, ambitious and beautifully crafted.
I loved a lot of this work, but two rooms in particular struck me and caused me to pause … well it was more of a wait really, quite a long wait and I simply sat and looked.
The first room I gazed in was Ocenaia. Matisse built this stunning creation bit by bit, with no real idea of hat was going to happen. he cut and pinned pieces to his wall …. ‘Matisse had cut out a swallow from a sheet of writing paper and, as it distressed him to tear up this beautiful shape and throw it away, he said, he put it up on his wall, also using it to cover up a stain, the sight of which disturbed him. Over the following weeks other shapes were cut out and put up on the same wall.’ (Tate exhibition handbook)
The shapes are overwhelming, and simply invite you to rest a while … and I did.
I also got grabbed by The Parakeet and the Mermaid. A bizarre title of two things that should not go together as they normally exist in two different worlds. On this occasion though, Matisse brings them together because he can.
Matisse referred to this as ‘his garden’ and as he was too ill to get outside created something that brought the outside to him. I think that is sad, but wonderful in equal measure.
I sat in front of this for quite a long time imagining how this was a strong connection with the outside world for the artist.
I came away from the exhibition really quite stunned at how a frail old man, clearly struggling with life, and very weak could find strength to create such massive undertakings of work.
As Matisse becomes less in control his fine motor skills his work becomes more intricate.
As he becomes weaker, his art takes on a new hidden strength.
At a time when others his age maybe rest on their reputation, Matisse continues to push the boundaries and take on new challenges at a pretty major potential reputational cost.
I think that is an amazing level of vulnerability.
I came away wondering if my recent thoughts pondering the necessity for vulnerability and weakness to add value and integrity to mission are mirrored equally well in the art world … or maybe that is the other way round? maybe it’s more than that … maybe it’s a very human thing? Maybe this inbuilt requirement we have to feel less in order to do more is not just a bible/mission/christian thing …. maybe it’s more a human thing … a reality of humanity… to be continued … maybe