Pragmatic Matisse

When artists talk about art they are usually more down to earth and concrete than theorists or critics. But even most artists get vague and wooly when they leave technique and try to express essences. Matisse was exemplary in his objectivity and pragmatism:

“To give yourself completely to what you are doing while simultaneously watching yourself do it—that’s the hardest of all for those who work by instinct.”

That’s it. The method which is no method. As far as the difficulty is concerned, even Matisse couldn’t do it consistently. Or if he did, it couldn’t guarantee good results—the method and stance should not be confused with the result. To successfully do what he describes, which is something like a meditation or concentration exercise, we have to take account of the intermittent nature of consciousness. But the biggest obstacle today is that art no longer provides a repetitive manual activity to give oneself to. Even the most extremist devotees of painting are more concerned with conception than absorbed execution. Commercial art, book illustration, animation, graphic novels—these are the only areas where conscious absorption in making is still possible in art. And even these are being destroyed by the computer, which turns drawing into decision making. That’s why the most creative thing any painter can do is invent a practice—meaning a manual procedure that one has to practice, like scales for a piano player, over and over every day. It used to be life drawing, which served Matisse very well, till the end of his life in fact.

Henri Matisse, Music 1939

Henri Matisse, Music 1939

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