Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Interior spaces

In the middle of my series of 4 for the final print assignment, i'm returning to last summer's engagement with henri matisse. notably his cut outs and his constructions of interior spaces.

there are two images that caught me as to the spaces they establish and subvert.

one is the

Henri Matisse, The Family of the Artist, 1911 (oil on canvas)
Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia (© The Bridgeman Art Library – London, New York, Paris)

the second one is this one:

Henri Matisse, The Blue Window, 1911
130 x 90 cm.
Museum of Modern Art, New York

While Matisse is first and foremost a painter, and thus possibly a bit misplaced in the Contextual studies pages of my Drawing logbook, I would like to discuss and have a closer look at Matisse's painting, and in particular his interiors and still lifes.

The questions to consider are
    How does he compose his paintings? In particular
  • How does he achieve balance and harmony (two elements he is particularly noted for)?
  • How does he construct spatial dimensions in his paintings?
  • He is well noted for depth in his paintings which works against conventions of perspective drawings
    For my own practice, these questions are relevant for
  • (a) the compositional arrangements of drawings - notably still lifes; and
  • (b) ongoing consideration over how to construct space and depth within the picture plane
As for the construction of perspective and space in space, some initial observations were:

The background with fireplace and two sofas seemed to be straight at eye level; as for the construction of the sofas, the left one sees the female figure floating on it, suggesting that the one plane we see is indeed the seat itself rather than the front panel; the sofa to the right in contrast does not seem to have a seat but only consists of back and front panel. But both sofas sit on the same floor line.

We seem to be looking for high up down onto the carpet and the top of the fireplace. Although the front of the fire place suggests that we are also looking at it side on.

There's a major change in perspective happening around the chess table and the two chairs. I traced the space of the chair legs and the left one stretched far into the back ground of the picture while the right chair's legs look fairly undistorted.

There are significant developments as to his perspective in this painting, and an earlier one (Harmonie Rouge 1908) - marking a difference to earlier ones:
- the flattening of space,
- the reduction of concrete objects into a space that isn't concrete and the simplicity with how objects are represented
- the space he establishes also contains metaphorical reference: the world as perceived and conceived. (Flam 1982, p. 30)

There is also some material on the convergence of Matisse with Russian Iconic art and a particular reference to his construction of space. [The author uses 'convergence' rather than influence, which strikes me as curious. He mentions the painting here also, which precedes Matisse's visit to Russia.]

"Sometimes Matisse's pictures and the icons are said to be "flat" because they lack Albertian perspective -- as if space were dependent upon such perspective. This, too, is an error, as will be made clear by our investigation of the nature of pictorial space. This investigation will begin in the following paragraphs, and will be taken up again and deepened later in this essay.

Our experience of space in the world is largely kinesthetic, dependent upon the sensation of our bodies' movement, our feeling of the forces of gravity and equilibrium, and the ever-varying correlation between optical stimuli and eye movements -- including binocular convergence, accommodation to focal distance and parallax. This elementary fact is forgotten by those who think that space is achieved in painting by optical verisimilitude [had to look this up: something having the appearance of being true], with its shading of volumes and its atmospheric and linear perspective approaching the effect of photography. An arbitrary "snapshot," the epitome of a purely optical impression, gives us a jumble of variously shaped tones removed from their spatial context. From being accustomed to viewing such flat images, whether in photographs or in academic "realist" paintings, we develop a "space blindness." The eye seizes upon recognizable details and, by a conventional sort of "leap of credulity" accepts the flat image as referring to things one has experienced in the world. The difference between flatness and space collapses.

The opposite happens in great paintings. There our experience of space is heightened. In a masterpiece of Matisse -- or of Rembrandt or Raphael, Giotto or Picasso or Mondrian, for example -- a feeling of depth is created by the pushing and pulling of shapes and colors. All the lines and tones are organized, at once musically and architectonically, in such a way as to give the viewer movement into and out of depth; and this depth is made palpable by the tension between it and the flatness of the pictorial surface. The real experience of space in a painting is not quantitative, dependent upon the suggestion of deep vistas; rather, it is qualitative, dependent upon the resonance of the tension between the flat plane and all the pushing and pulling planes of color. The difference between flatness and space is not collapsed in painting; it is amplified." (MATISSE AND RUSSIAN ICONS:
The Metaphysics of Pictorial Space by Lazarus James Reid, http://jacwell.org/Supplements/Matisse%20and%20Russian%20Icons.htm#Note16).
I found this very useful for understanding some of the limitation of perspective and how Matisse's complex treatment of colour and form establishes a depth of space which works at time with, at times against perspective.

These points were discussed on the OCA forum. The particular insight that emerged for me from that discussion is the way in in which the paintings seems to pivot around a central axis through the chess board. In summary, there are the following points to make:
  • There is an overall impression of harmony in this painting; it is achieved by repeating patterns (diamonds) and more importantly by red, black and white as unifying colours.
  • The sense of harmony betrays the complex social relationships that are displayed in the painting;
  • Examining the perspective, anti-perspective and construction of the picture plane gives some indications to these tensions - Anne's observation of a central axis along the chess table was a very important observation for this: so, people are distorted, float or huddle in the pictorial composition.

Without this discussion, I probably would have not considered the painting in more depth - the pattern and overloaden interior set up would have stopped me. I find it too frilly, fluffy and busy for me to dwell on it. It seems too decorative and too symbolic. However, the analysis of the picture plane opened up an interesting discussion on perspective conventions and the details of how an apparent flatness is indeed carefully constructed and achieved. It has also been insightful as to the dynamics contained in the convention of family portraits and interior settings.

Now, this has also been part of my printmaking research - what is there with the spatial constructions that I can take from it for the final series of prints?

Go. Figure.

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