Posts Tagged ‘Gustav Moreau’

Goldfish and Palette,oil on canvas, 57-3/4 x 44-1/4. Some sources give the date as 1914, others 1912-17.

Today is Henri Matiisse’s birthday. He was born December 31, 1868 in northern France, near the Belgian border and grew up in Bohain, where the main commerce was beets and weaving. His father owned a seed shop. When he was about fifteen, his mother gave him a paint set and he knew that he wanted to be a painter. Becoming a professional painter was out of the question since that was a disreputable occupation. He was sent to Paris to study law and worked as a law clerk for a while. He studied at the École des Beaux Arts, with Gustav Moreau, copied paintings at the Louvre to make money and lived in abject poverty with two roommates, also painters, who had one decent pair of pants between them.
He married in 1898, saying to his bride, “I love you mademoiselle, but I will always love painting more.”
Until his late thirties, his work met nothing but ridicule. When he visited his family in Bohain, the town folk called him “le sot Matisse” (the Matisse idiot). In Paris, when he exhibited his paintings at the Salon des Independents (non-juried shows) people congregated around his work in uproarious laughter. Matisse played the violin and had a reputation among friends as a ham actor, who did  satirical impressions. But about his work he was so serious that young artists called him “the Doctor.” His concentration on his work caused insomnia throughout his life. In 1903 he wrote to a friend “describing the state of misery and emotional numbness to which insomnia had reduced him, and which he feared might end in total disintegration.” (I, 250) He “approached the act of painting (with) a tension so extreme that those closest to him risked being sucked in with him to the verge of breakdown or vertigo.” (I,324)
In 1910 he had a one-man show at the Bernheim Gallery. “The critics responded with a dismissive brutality that even Matisse had scarcely encountered in this scale before. They accused him of vulgar excess, willful confusion and gratuitous barbarity. Even the more serious reviewers found him incapable of following any consistent line or evolving a style of his own. “(II, 41) The same year, the Bernheims tried to swindle him and Matisse fell ill. A doctor explained that “there was nothing clinically wrong with him, that black despair would inevitably follow bouts of such intense nervous pressure and emotional exhilaration, and that all he could do was learn to manage his condition by sticking to a regular work schedule and by being less exacting towards himself. “All artists have this particular make-up, that’s what makes them artists, but with me it’s a bit excessive,’ Matisse told his wife, adding optimistically, ‘perhaps that’s what gives their quality to my pictures.’” (II, 59)
matisse-f9d8dTowards the end of his life, Matisse was in a wheel chair and incapable of painting. He worked with scissors to make “cut-outs.” He did not buy the paper, he painted the paper he used for cutting. He worked with an assistant in placing the pieces. There was nothing restful about this work process. The current exhibit at the MoMA has people sitting in quiet contemplation of these often huge cut-outs. People generally perceive them as tranquil. The largest one is hundred and four feet long.

About Goldfish and Palette, André Breton wrote: “I’ve examined this picture twenty times. In truth it possesses at once innovation, profound penetration of every object by the artist’s own life, magical colors, it has everything…I’m convinced Matisse has never put so much of himself into any other painting.” (II, 168)
(The quotes are from Hilary Sperling’s two-volume study of Matisse.)
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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They hung it in the dark corner behind the piano.

There were three jurors and it’s easy to guess that one of them liked it and the other two saw it as an embarrassing nick-knack,  cringed and then finally conceded.  A purple brocade cat in a rococo-meets- goth frame!

I must be the only art lover on this Rothko and O’Keefe loving North Shore who’s taking this cat seriously.  In an ironic way, of course.

It’s not a cat. It’s the mythology of The Cat and the cobwebs of superstition that cling to the feline.

MoreauSphinx500I’m reminded of Gustav Moreau (1826-1898), who, good death- obsessed Victorian male that he was, illustrated mythological scenes.  The sphinx bit, for example.  Can you come up with a more ridiculous image than this one showing Oedipus gazing into the eyes of a winged cat woman? She has jumped on him and, gravity-defying, clings to his naked torso, while leaving him calm, classically poised and unscratched.  The cat-sphinx has to be a woman, of course, because the ancients enslaved and objectified women as property and then dealt with the accompanying neurosis by mythologizing them.

The sphinx, as everyone knows, is an invention of the Egyptians, another death-obsessed culture.  The Egyptians projected Sphinx-knows-what into their pussy-cats, but it must have been some major repression, because they embalmed their dead house cats by the thousands.  Archeologists keep finding these crypts full of embalmed cats.

The cat as the feminine and the cat as the chthonic come together here:  fear of the female/other and fear of death/change, all rolled up into one musty-moldy cat mummy.

I’m sorry the artist of “Nightshade,” Beth Clark-McDonal, was not awarded a one-month show of her own.  I would love to see fifty of her cat paintings in one exhibit, all in purples and pinks, paisley and sinewy, and in overwrought, antiqued frames. Let’s face it.  Let’s!  Whatever cat-superstition lingers in your psyche and in our Hollywooded, scapegoating culture, let’s just have a good look at it.  Let’s not call it kitsch, cringe in embarrassment  and hang it in the dark corner there.  Bring it out into the open.  Oh, my, so this is part of our dark side.

Would a kitsch-cat exhibit be funny?  Sure.  There would be nervous giggles from us Rothko lovers who feel we have moved beyond art-fair paintings of kitty cats.  But a third, let’s say half, let’s say more than half of the folks seeing the show  would lap it up, like warm milk in a porcelain bowl.

I can’t prove this, I haven’t interviewed the artist, but here’s my take:  “Nightshade” is painted—and framed–with deliberate irony.  I actually think it’s a sophisticated, post-modern piece.  It made me think and therefore it’s not kitsch.

(After an exhibit of cat paintings, we could do unicorns, Manga, big-eyed children, and Matrix tubing.)

Gustav Moreau may look like a timid illustrator of useless myths from an ancient culture that his own tired time clung to.  He may also have been a satirist. I prefer that interpretation.  It cheers me up.

In either case, he was Matisse’s teacher.  So, you see, there’s hope.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.




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