In 2017, I visited the Giacometti exhibition at the National Art Museum in Tokyo. The show concentrated on the sculpture, but there were also a number of drawings, which I loved, and a couple of paintings. The overall impression was of an artist wrestling with the questions of reality and perception. There were no answers, but the sculptures were impressive, and to use a hackneyed term, timeless. Although I was familiar with Giacometti's painted portraits from collections, previous exhibitions (including the 1965 show at London's Tate Gallery), and reproductions, I found that the paintings still puzzled me in ways the sculptures and the drawings did not.
I recently watched the movie 'The Final Portrait' with Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti. The film, which I thoroughly enjoyed, led me to read 'A Giacometti Portrait' by James Lord, a short account of Lord's experience of sitting for the artist, and on which the film was based. Giacometti's single-mindedness and constant doubt fascinated me. I then read Lord's biography of the artist, looked at numerous reproductions, and watched as many Giacometti-related videos on YouTube as I could find.
Giacometti said that he was trying to paint what he saw and was destined to fail. In a 2016 post, I wrote about the concept of artistic failure and quoted Giacometti: “All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or perhaps equal to the failure.”
Even though the painted portraits may bear a likeness to the sitters, it is reasonable to assume that the paintings do not closely resemble what was in front of him. Of course, any artist's paintings are interpretations of what is seen, but somehow Giacometti's works seem to consist entirely of the process of interpretation. They are records or traces of how he saw –measuring, adjusting, readjusting, erasing. Colour is virtually absent, as if it would hinder the realization of the solid form of a head or body. In terms of form, his drawings are generally much closer to 'reality' than the paintings. So did the act of painting present particular problems of technique? Or did the paintings attempt something more ambitious, and therefore more difficult?
Giacometti's painting can be seen as an extension of the late work of Cézanne (who he greatly admired), but a major difference is the virtual abolition of color in Giacometti's paintings. Even so, there is a clear connection between a typical Giacometti portrait and, say, Cézanne's late frontal portraits of his gardener, Vallier.
And is it too much of a stretch to see a connection between Giacometti's mainly monochromatic images and the idea that nothing in the world 'out there' has intrinsic color? The notion that the world is full of colorless objects waiting to be brought to life by the perception of the onlooker?
In my secondary school art class in 1961, we were told to make a linocut on the topic of 'Concentration'. This was my effort, which my brother Frank rechristened 'Constipation'. I recently realized it has something in common with Cézanne's early 'The Painter's Father', now in the National Gallery.
Matisse painted View of Notre Dame in 1914. More than a hundred years later it's still a challenging painting. I'm still slightly disconcerted by the way it's painted. I feel an urge to tidy it up a bit, but if I know that would be absurd.
This painting is possibly the first 'finished' work in the history of western art to blatantly display the way it was built up, and the pentimenti are crucial. The Moma website claims that Matisse "left early compositional elements visible beneath the paint, accentuating the temporal quality of building a work of art over time." I doubt that was his intention; it's more likely that he left the compositional elements visible simply because it would have been somehow dishonest to completely erase them.
After seeing the painting in Matisse's studio, the critic Marcel Sembat described it as "lopsided; no one would understand [it] immediately." In fact, Matisse didn't show the painting until 1949, when it was thought to be "an unfinished sketch to which Matisse had unaccountably signed his name."
In fact, a 'rough' or 'unfinished' quality was characteristic of Matisse's work of the period. We tend to scoff at viewers who were shocked by the early Fauve paintings such as Woman with a Hat of 1905; Leo Stein, the brother of Gertrude, thought the painting was "the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen," but bought it nevertheless, recognizing its power.
View of Notre Dame shows the view from the window of his Left Bank apartment, a scene that Matisse knew well and had painted many times before. Two diagonal lines denote the Seine and the Quai and lead the eye past the horizontals and curved line of the Petit Pont to a green tree and its shadow, then to the mass of Notre Dame, which has clearly increased in size. A vertical line on the right suggests the window frame. Apart from that there is basically a whole area of a modulated pale blue, becoming darker towards the top left-hand corner. A suggestion of ochre at the bottom. All very roughly brushed in or scraped with a palette knife.
As with many works by Matisse, there is little hint of the lovingly crafted surfaces and textures that would typify later French abstract painting. As with Woman with a Hat, we can never quite relax; we are constantly assessing and re-assesssing what we are seeing. And we realize that every mark, even an apparently haphazard area of scratching, is in fact intentional and plays a vital part in the whole composition.
During the period 1913-17, the period of 'radical invention', we feel that Matisse was never simply repeating something he had done before; each work, and each decision within a work, was testing the limits of painting.
It's possible that this and other paintings of the same period were Matisse's response to Cubism. Picasso commented that Matisse never understood Cubism; maybe it was true that Matisse didn't understand the analytical Cubism of Picasso and Braque. That wouldn't be surprising, as for Matisse, colour always played a major role, and early Cubism was unapologetically brown and grey. Also, Picasso's Cubist works tended to be representations of three-dimensional objects in space, however fractured and distorted. In contrast, Matisse would always treat every part of the canvas on equal terms. His love of flatness, pattern, and colour meant that he could not be bound by the rules of analytical Cubism.
View of Notre Dame takes the contrast between the flatness of the picture plane and the implied depth of the scene to extreme lengths, and this presaged the work of the 'classic' abstract expressionists such as Robert Motherwell, and younger artists such as Richard Diebenkorn.
Matisse's period of experimentation would end in 1917, and he would only return to a similar flatness in the last twenty years of his life, most notably in the paper cut-outs. Possibly, even for him, the stress of maintaining such an uncompromising mode of representation was too much to maintain for long.
A black and white photo of Still life with self-portrait from 1962. That's a Babycham bottle on the right, which I thought was quite daring at the time. I just realised this is in the photo I posted in November last year. As I said then, whereabouts unknown.
I lived at the Abbey Art Centre in New Barnet, Hertfordshire in the late 1960s and early 70s, first in a room in the main house ('Remember, no flibbertigibbets,' Ms. Ohly, the landlady, had told me), then a succession of studios in the garden. The communal meals featured in the video had disappeared, but there was still a certain community spirit. Mike Figgis was one resident, at that time involved with the People Show group, and Lotte Reinegger, the animated film pioneer was another. The place hadn't changed much since the early fifties, and I'm pretty sure the abstract painter in the video is working in my first 'garden' studio.
If the video doesn't show up on this page, click here to view it.
"The seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle."
Here's a Matisse that does it for me (despite the cracks):
From an article in the New York Times (October 30, 2017) about the literary critic Franco Moretti and his "distant reading" - the computer-assisted crunching of thousands of texts at a time:
... even modest-seeming results — like the finding that from 1785 to 1900 the language of the British novel steadily shifted away from words relating to moral judgment to words associated with concrete description — unsettle established ideas of literary history.
Ted Underwood, a professor at the University of Illinois who also uses computational analysis, commented:
“We tend to see literary history as a story of movements, periods, sudden revolutions,” Mr. Underwood said. “There are also these really broad, slow, massive changes that we haven’t described before.”
Another way to think about the history of visual art, too.
While preparing for a talk ('Paris, City of Art') later this month, I was looking for images of late 19th century Montmartre and came across a particularly interesting photograph of the Maquis, the area around the Butte de Montmartre. Apparently it was taken between 1887 and 1889, and shows a hillside covered in what look like allotments with huts of various sizes. This semi-rural area, whether vegetable gardens or shanty town, would be obliterated by rapid urban development in just a few years.
The composition of the photograph (in fact, cropped from a wider view, I discovered later) was arresting - the bend in the track, the huts stacked cubist-style on the hill, and at the top, a mill (the Moulin de Galette in its original location), and a long barn-like structure. But the allotments themselves also fascinated me, looking so similar to the ones just a short walk from my house in Japan, and knowing that the Maquis would soon disappear gives the ramshackle scene an extra poignancy.
I also found a number of van Gogh paintings of Montmartre, including some of the Maquis. I realized that one in his darker manner, dated 1886, depicted virtually the same view as the photograph. Areas of untended land and the absence of some structures clearly show that the painting was made before the photograph was taken, but the features common to both are virtually identical. Perhaps unreasonably, I was surprised to see how accurately van Gogh had portrayed the scene, and how he had shown those humble shacks such respect.
I think I was 16 when I painted this. I was already influenced by Cézanne, and the blocky style was my naive interpretation of his style. Even from this image, carefully Photoshopped from an old snap, it's pretty obvious that I had no idea of what he was really on about, but I think it has a certain presence. The painting (oil on hardboard) was about six feet high and for years was stored at the back of my parents' garage and went to the tip when my father died.
An extract from Oliver Sack's 'The River of Consciousness', quoted in a New York Times article today:
"It is often felt that Darwin, more than anyone, banished “meaning” from the world — in the sense of any overall divine meaning or purpose.…. [And yet] evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a divine plan had never achieved. The world that presented itself to us became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life. The idea that it could have worked out differently, that dinosaurs might still be roaming the earth or that human beings might never have evolved, was a dizzying one. It made life seem all the more precious and a wonderful, ongoing adventure."