The Art of Textiles: Thinking about Matisse

Henri Matisse, ‘Harmony in Red’, 1908. Oil on canvas, 180 x 220 cm.

Matisse collected textiles throughout his life and had generations of weavers in his family. He wanted his work to be decorative and for it to redefine the ‘decorative’ as a positive phenomenon. Painting women and their domestic interiors in a radical way provided him with just the opportunity to explore and expound this.

Surprisingly, loose blue textile-inspired patterns dominate Matisse’s rich painting despite it being called Harmony in Red. They are expressive and organic, mirroring the rising shapes of the fruit bowl and its pot plant. It is as though they are growing out of the floor and claiming the table and walls. These patterns are wild and joyful, suggestive of potential creativity and spirit within the house. The trees framed to the left of the painting appear contained and groomed in comparison.

Despite the overall emphasis on pattern, the woman’s clothes are intriguingly plain. Her blue top compliments but in no way detracts from the blue designs. The angle of her bent head and stooped body leads the eye away from her and towards the patterns at the painting’s centre. She is very much a part of the still life and does not demand a stronger presence. Could she be a maid, or a careful mistress of the house?

In tension with the interior’s patterned promise of creativity, this subdued image of the woman could suggest that her housework – almost literally – consumes her. On the other hand, this blue harmony between her and her surroundings suggests she is at one with her home. In this way, Matisse is keen for us to see that decorative art can have a story and a weight to it. Like all genres of great artistic masterpieces, it shows you a tale just as much as it keeps you asking questions.

Matisse has been clever with this painting. It is heavily ornamented and yet not detailed, so verges towards the abstract. The table merges with the wall, the fruit seem like an extension of the random patterning and the chair is definitely missing a leg. Is it a window or a painting that occupies the left-hand side of the wall? The overall flatness and diminished perspective makes this a difficult question to answer. Pattern, colour and line come first.

The decorative is given a mind of its own; it is not about conforming, but about creativity, expression and the joy in pure colour and design. And let us not forget, the painting cries, that women have a positive – if often overlooked – place within the decorative and textiles businesses.

 

 

 

T. J. Clark comes to London to shed new light on Picasso and ‘truth’

Published in Trebuchet Magazine

This autumn, acclaimed art historian T. J. Clark has been travelling round London giving talks about his latest book ‘Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica’. In this book Clark concentrates on the artwork Picasso produced during the 1920s, which has been considered not to be the artist’s best period. Indeed, Greenberg calls the results of this artistic epoch a failure of nerve. Other scholars have criticised Picasso’s art at this time in terms of its ‘brightness’, condemning it as overdone. Clark conveyed that he wanted to re-address the 1920s because it is neglected and misunderstood – a motive that fits well with his well-known desires to re-address the methodologies and focuses of the history of art in a new type of Social Art History.

Clark concentrates on three particular paintings in his central chapters. The first, ‘Guitar and Mandolin on a Table’ 1924, which he renames ‘Still Life in Front of a Window’, is the largest still life Picasso ever did. Next to be considered is ‘The Three Dancers’ made in 1925 – a painting Picasso said was his best, or better than ‘Guernica’. This is renamed as ‘Young Girls Dancing in Front of a Window’ in Clark’s book. The last central painting addressed is ‘The Painter and His Model’ 1927, which is by far the least well-known work of the three. The renaming of the paintings to locate the subject matter within rooms and to include window references is important for Clark’s argument, as I hope to illustrate later.  Continue reading