What exactly do artists do? They interpret life. They see and then they paint, they sculpt, they photograph, they collage, they video, they draw, etc. Anything else? How about trying this on for size; in reference to interpreting life, Matisse states, “Underlying this succession of moments [life] which constitutes the superficial existence of beings and things, and which is continually modifying and transforming them, one can search for a truer, more essential character, which the artist will seize so that he may give to reality a more lasting interpretation.”(Notes from a Painter, 1908). To say that is a loaded comment would be quite the understatement. So lets unpack it a bit. I think Matisse is trying to say that the artist, in his or her discerning eye, curious mind and particular investigatory processes is able to speak about a reality hyper specific to his or her time, and thus know the essence of what will be recorded by the history books.
Firstly, “Underlying this succession of moments which constitutes the superficial existence of beings and things” reveals how Matisse understands the more macro issues about human existence. He seems to believe that life happens as a multitude of happenings that get strung together as time goes on. He finds this process to be superficial to the point where the existence of the moments as according to the specific order in which they are strung, and thus any groupings they are put, is simply wrong. This then makes me question: what does Matisse perceive as true?
The second part of the quote goes on to clarify that these moments are constantly being shaped by their legacies (which are revealed as time goes on), which are also susceptible to a label. To illustrate the idea, one could understand that, for example, the Impressionists were understood to be innovators of light and color because their work aimed to capture fleeting moments. This label was given to them after their working years had past, in the future by people who did not live in that time period. Matisse is suggesting that by labeling these artists so uniformly, and according to their formal tendencies as opposed to philosophical ones, we may be flattening the deeper issues these artists were dealing with. What does a preoccupation with the fleeting moment say about the people? Yet, we are talking about the Impressionists still today, so did we miss the memo completely?
The last part of the quote discusses how the artist seizes the essential character of successive moments of life so that “reality”, or truth, can be more permanently preserved for the future. The artist preserves their cultures trends and endows them with the freedom to live on once their time has passed. Is Matisse suggesting that any idea outside of its time is superficial? Realist painter Courbet seems to be of the mentality that would support this idea stating,
“An epoch can only be reproduced by its own artists, I mean by the artists who lived in it. I hold the artists of one century basically incapable of reproducing the aspect of a past or future century-in other words, of painting the past or the future.” (from a letter written in 1861)
Or is Matisse saying that we must be careful as outsiders to any time not our own, not to be so tempted to put a label on the past to keep it neatly organized? Because, isn’t our organization based in our culture of today thus automatically ignoring the fact that the past culture could have never been organized by our standards? Art is a kind of treasure box that allows every person in the future to embark on unlocking what deep, hyper-prevalent ideas of that day were in the air if they can somehow reabsorb themselves in another time period.
Art historical scholarship always uncovers compositions, or motifs that have been reused by modern or contemporary artists that reference times past. For example Manets Luncheon on the Grass, 1862-63, directly references the compositional structure of the Renaissance master Titians or Giorgones, Pastoral Concert, c.1509. The placement of the figures is very similar; a group of three, two males and a female, form a circle sitting on the grass exchanging thoughts and potentially a bit of music. However, the woman in Titian or Giorgiones painting has her back to us whereas in Manets painting the woman is very clearly confronting us. She too is a enjoying a day in a picnic but she seems to be more interested is meeting our gaze then interacting with her male companions. The motif of leisure time in the garden is being reworked by Manet to make a comment about the way in which one can change a methodology of documentation to be something scandalous and abrasive. Manet was modern in his use of historical tropes to shed light on the issues of modern times. He was dealing with issues of nakedness instead of nudity, confrontation instead passivity, and flatly raw instead of roundly idyllic. But, would a viewer of Manets work from his time have known this? Most certainly. His historical quotations were not so far fetched that it was this artistic genius moment that produced them. In the least, the historical legacy of idyllic pastoral scenes with nude women would have certainly been present in the minds of viewers to Manets painting. Thus, the viewers would have felt internally jarred and shocked at what they were being forced to look at. The reaction to the painting of the time was largely about it being ugly and crass. There are a whole host of other images that quote each other. Take Matisse and Carrocci, or Warhol and Da Vinci, or another Manet and Titian. Historical quotation is a popular idea.
So what about today? What things are the artists of the 21st century quoting? Is it as obvious to us? Manet was forcing the people who viewed his work to think about a new way in which their gaze onto a scene was intrusive and potentially accusatory. He was changing the role of the audience of art. Today are artists giving us new things to thing about? Mull over? Are the messages they are producing political or global or personal?
Francis Bacon, a British artist who lived from 1909-1992 stated that it is up to the artist of today to “deepen the game”, and that it is the 21st century challenge to “distract oneself.” Through his work Bacon aimed to create works that were ordered accidents, fresh “off the nervous system”, and had a visual immediacy that displayed a kind of uncurated conscious. He wanted to make the paint create something that referenced memory, thought, and tangible form. What does it mean to distract oneself in today’s world? Could it mean that the artist is trying to become the masters of getting out of ones way to release a deeper intelligence? Is this just as revolutionary as what Manet was doing? And if it is we must think about how the viewers of art may or may not understand it. Are we letting the power of art slip through the cracks?