The Scene of Painting: Henri Matisse and the Painted Object by William Patterson – Critical Essay Second Place Winner

The Scene of Painting: Henri Matisse and the Painted Object by William Patterson (VCS Department) received Second Place in the Critical Essay category of the Humanities and Sciences Department’s First Annual Writing Program Contest.

What changes in the span of 12 years?  For Matisse, this gap exists to bridge an emblematic pair of paintings – twelve years apart in execution, sharing the same subject matter, observed from very similar positions.  They are both images of Notre Dame Cathedral, the recognizable icon of the city of Paris.  Their difference is startling, and marks a dramatic change in the way Matisse problematized the art of painting.  Taken together, the two works pose the question – for the subject Matisse, what is the object of painting?

glimpse_matisse         view_matisse

The first of the two paintings, A Glimpse of Notre Dame in Late Afternoon (1902), fills the scene with opaque colors and simplified forms.  We, as viewers, are posited in an elevated position, likely looking out from a window as suggested by the vertical blue at the far right of the canvas, what looks perhaps unconvincingly like an open window shutter.  From our vantage point, the picture grants a strong sense of depth and identification despite an apparently arbitrary correlation to the scene in the application of color.  

Matisse’s cavalier color choice, in particular the persistence of a purple-blue tone apparent in the architecture of the bridge, Notre Dame itself, as well as in the nearby shutter, draws into question the depth and separation of these objects in the painting.  This color bleeds between forms from the shutter directly in front of us to the bridge hundreds of feet away.  But despite this usage, we are still subject to the logic of resemblance that Matisse maintains at a minimum in his painting.  By juxtaposing gradation and differences in tone of his purple-blue, in conjunction with his use of a turgid line to separate them, he persists in relegating objects to their place.

But this purple-blue still flirts with the artificiality of its space.  A particularly subtle instance lies at the far side of Notre Dame, where the large building casts a shadow on its surroundings.  Matisse represents the area directly next to Notre Dame, namely the adjacent buildings and park that would reasonably sit within the shadow that it casts.  But the relation is rendered so indistinct that the forms may also appear to recede further back in the distance, which would place them firmly outside of the shadow’s reach.  In this instance, what appears to be the receding distance of the picture is simultaneously converted to the flatness of a backdrop by the shadow.  The very indeterminateness of the relation of these forms plays on their resemblance, allowing for a perceptual alternation between the shallow and deep spaces.

As can be seen by this demonstration, Matisse knows how to force our acceptance of depth without allowing us to fully understand it.  It is with this goal in mind that we may move to his follow-up work, View of Notre Dame (1914).  This second picture embraces the flatness of the surface much more dramatically than the first, refusing the play of shades as a means to pantomime depth.  He flattens the picture to its surface with a dark, muddy blue, resorting to black line as the only means of delineating distinct forms.  No longer is the play of the eye passing between resemblance and surface as it had been earlier.  We are forced to the surface as the default of our observation.

Matisse pushes the principle of line over color so far that Notre Dame is rendered in depth only by the subtraction of paint, the product of scraping away at the canvas, which functions as a form of line-work.  This illusion of depth occurs in the painting paradoxically by way of a reduction of the surface to its minimal means – by revealing the white of the canvas.  While the scratched out surface creates depth for the frontal planes, Matisse partially preserves color for the far face of the 3-dimensional Notre Dame, so that the surface that would be invisible to Matisse’s vantage point is revealed.  This breaks with the already non-systematized perspective of the earlier painting. moving away from the representation of spatial relations towards the creation of a multiple-perspective object native to the painting itself.

The problems that Matisse creates and solves through his painting are changed in the second work from the transmission of light onto a canvas to how one creates an object with paint.  Matisse pushes his response to this question further by drawing to the fore the temporal means of creating a painting.  Parodying the sui generis effect of the completed image, Matisse’s Notre Dame is constructed on the trace of earlier formulations of it, now drowned out by the dull blue that has dominated the canvas. This blue, which upon immediate view may appear to be the base of the painting, is in fact a loose and semi-translucent coat.  This translucence reveals the ghost of earlier compositions of the same scene, and uses that layering to privilege the time of construction instead of spatial illusion.

The hard black lines that hint at what was, for the first picture, the middle ground and foreground, play between a linkage with the under-painting and an abrasive disjunction with it.  The concentration of black that surrounds the building forces our eye to Notre Dame the object by harshly differentiating it from the rest of the picture, leaving the prospect of Notre Dame’s place in a determinate space always only partially complete.  Between these disjunctive actions, painting is revealed to be a series of decisions that link or break apart in the observation of it.

The difference between these two paintings is telling, as they illustrate the transforming concerns for Matisse at two separate meetings with the same subject.  The first painting may be said to problematize the space of representation, while the second privileges the picture as a performance of itself, and so reverses its intent.  Where we initially saw the object, Notre Dame, in the first painting, that object is itself a trace secondary to the painting in the second.  What we are left with instead, is a painting which was only ever its own, that demands the viewer see it for what it is – a collection of marks at the interface between vision, thought, and the screen that bears their meeting.”

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