View of Toledo,
considered the very first Spanish landscape, is an interpretive
one -- the positioning and details poetic rather than factual.
The Cathedral, the Alcázar, the Tagus river, the Alcántara bridge,
and the Castle are rearranged like toy pieces in El Greco’s
reconstruction. There is a sense of transcendence – we see
the immensity of earth and sky as well as the tiniest figures
walking up the path, and the wild skies breaking open above the
town are delirious and rapturous with such contrasts of light and
darkness, such glimmerings and gleamings of peacock greens and
El Greco (1541-1614) was born in Crete, where he was trained as a
painter of icons, and moved to Venice, Rome, Madrid, and finally,
to Toledo. He worked in a highly self-conscious,
intellectual, and exaggerated style (influenced by Mannerism and
the Venetian Renaissance, always with echoes of things Byzantine).
His figures and faces are characteristically elongated, and his
colors are often bright, almost bizarre. He was a
painter of the ineffable, the artifice and distortions of the
surface manipulated to reveal the spirit and intellect. He
was out of step with his times, modern before modern, a precursor
to cubism and expressionism.
Paravicino, c. 1609, Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
We know he was well-read -- his annotated Vasari and Vitruvius
still exist, though his own writings are lost. This is
the important thing: he has a pre-eminent position in the history
of art today because this Old Master did something new, something
different. The last three lines of a sonnet by Paravicino
for his tomb anticipate this:
“Crete gave him
life and paintbrushes, Toledo [gave him] a better home where
through death he began to attain eternity.”
Henri Matisse in
his studio Photo: Lydia Delectorskaya
And then we have the
(1869-1954) being old, becoming new. A new life that began
for him in his seventies with his cut-outs. He revisited something
he had attempted years earlier, but that he now transformed into a
radical new art form as he became too ill to paint, confined to
his bed and a wheel chair. He began to use his scissors to
into the color’
as he described his
method. Matisse’s family had been weavers in the textile industry
for generations and he had always loved and collected fabrics,
costumes, and textile wall hangings. These were often
inspiration and props, a part of the vocabulary of his paintings.
Matisse had grown up in Bohain, a textile town, where luxury
fabrics were woven. Old weaver’s tricks from his childhood
in Bohain: this use of pins, of cutting of paper like cloth.
Something he had been familiar with since childhood. In the
Villa le Rêve where he lived during his last years this is refined
into a last reinforcing act in a career that is particularly
marked by his inclination toward reworking, reiterations, and
rethinking -- the movement toward perfection. How easy to rework with flat
forms of color that are cut and pinned. One unpins, recuts,
repins. He talked of the radiance of color and light in the
stained glass windows of the Vence chapel he designed toward the
end of his life. “It
is the whole of me . . . everything that was best in me as a
Matisse, the avowed atheist, wrote:
"My only religion
is love of the work to be created, and total sincerity."
Henri Matisse in
the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, 1951 (Photo: Life/Dmitri Kessel)
apparaitre le matin
elle se tut discrètement
The Thousand and One Nights, 1950, gouache on cut-and-pasted
paper, Carnegie Museum
Thousand and One Nights unscrolls from left to right telling
us the story of Scheherazade weaving a tale -- the magic lamp and
dusk, a blue form (that is a precursor to his later blue nudes,
but here is the hovering djinn). Hearts, leaves --
and hearts more than anything else -- border the work.
Work as love. Dusk turns to dawn, the djinn is back
in the lamp and Scheherazade stops her tale, is silent, discreet.
To live another day. Positive and negative, and their
juxtaposition and interplay, gouache, paper, scissors, pins.
Matisse, like Scheherazade, inventing new stories to keep himself
going . . . 'une seconde vie' as he called it
Being old, being new.
In other words, being
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at MoMA
Buy the Book:
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs -- Buchberg,
Cullinan, et al.
El Greco in New York,
Charlie Rose Interview with
MoMA's Karl Buchberg and Jodi Hauptman
design color france
Detail, El Greco,
View of Toledo
Thousand and One
of the work to be created, and total sincerity."