The Art Corner: Reflections on Matisse

James Waller is a practicing artist and also runs
Clonakilty School of Painting.

The Sorrows of the King by Henri Matisse, 1952. Source: Wikipedia

Whether it is a song, a poem, a dance, a painting, a performance or film, there is usually something we can recall that has moved us, resonated with us, made us laugh or cry, or held us with a quiet truth that we deeply recognize. Art has this incredible capacity to open us to ourselves and others, to trigger a sense of wonder, to excite our own creative desire, to reveal a sense of unity where before we felt none. Art draws us when it feels whole, complete, because we are not complete in ourselves. This is how it inspires. Dynamic, mysterious unity in a great piece of music is not only thrilling, it is healing: within it we can place all that is disordered and incoherent in our lives. We say to ourselves: “this composer really gets it, this singer understands me, I know this.” This is how art serves: by being a repository for untold feeling.

Art, therefore is not escapism (though it certainly offers escape from the mundane and superficial). On one level it sparks wonder and a sense of possibility, and may trigger us on our own creative journey. On another level it is a way of deepening and refining our sense of empathy. Far from escaping, it brings us closer to an awareness of ourselves, and others. 

At home and in the studio I often have art books open displaying works that inspire me. Just recently I’ve begun writing daily reflections on these works, and would like to share with you the first of these here, along with some suggested activities. 

I began the current series of meditations with Henri Matisse’s The Sorrow of the King (1952), a monumental paper cut-out which he created bed-ridden, two years before his death in 1954. The Sorrow of the King is for me one of the most joyful and uplifting compositions in Western art. It has an unerring and magical sense of unity, a lyricism of shape and a visual syntax that is unequivocally Matisse. 

Within The Sorrow of the King we find celebration in the face of departure. It is as if the central ‘figure’ floats between this world and the next, the form of the body a cloak of night, upon which drift golden flowers and guitar. Is this figure the ‘king’, the artist himself, singing his swan song? Whatever its significance there is no doubting the spirit of the one who forged it.

Matisse employed in this composition the powerful form of a spiral, and there is nothing more visually magnetizing. You can follow the spiral from the center, below the lower white ‘hand’, clockwise around the rim of the black ‘cloak’ leading to the white ‘figure’, and then around again and again, to the outer edges of the composition. 

As a creative project you could try creating your own paper cut-out. All you need is coloured paper, scissors and glue! Try beginning with a single coloured sheet as a base. Using other coloured sheets, cut any forms you like the shape of (it can be completely abstract). Then begin arranging them on your base sheet. You could try placing them in a spiral-like form, or in any way you choose. Remember, using black will lend intensity to your colours. Happy creating!


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