Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Matisse by mistake

A couple of weeks ago I watched a television documentary about Matisse. I didn't intend to - I generally avoid finding out too much information about artists, whether painters, musicians, poets etc because for me, knowledge about art and artists can get in the way of my appreciation of the artist's work. Some people find that knowing about an artist and the whys and wherefores of the piece of work can add to their appreciation. I'm not one of those people as I discovered during my teens when at boarding school, where we were allowed to watch one film per term in the school hall as a big treat. I was utterly bowled over by Shakespeare's 'Henry V', starring Laurence Olivier, but having to discuss the film in class the following day felt like some sort of desecration. I never read the programme notes at concerts or the blurb on CD covers and I detest the little notices pinned up beside works of art in galleries that 'explain' the painting, my view being that if the piece doesn't 'speak' to me of its own accord, it's best to move on to something that does.

But on this occasion I'd been working hard all day and all evening, right up to the 10 o'clock news and when the documentary came on after the news, I was simply too tired to get up and switch it off. And maybe there was just a small part of me that thought I ought to be more 'educated' about major artists!

The presenter of the programme was obviously a huge fan of Matisse and his enthusiasm was quite infectious as he wended his way through all the stages of Matisses's life, his relatonships, the places he lived and how they influenced him. And I just about succeeded in staying awake.

But then, towards the end of the programme, when Matisse was in his later years and in poor health, something happened that made me sit up and take notice! Suddenly we were seeing film of Matisse wielding a large pair of scissors to cut shapes out of paper - collage again! I seem to be discovering it everywhere - it's almost as if it's stalking me!

I had long been familiar with, and liked, Matisse's 'fauviste' paintings. I sometimes think my garden begins to look quite 'fauviste' as the summer wears on, but I had no idea that, after his cancer operation, when he was confined to bed or a wheelchair, Matisse had taken to collage as the only practical means of expressing himself artistically, and had taken on a new lease of creative life as a result!

Nor had I made the link between Matisse's work and that of the children's illustrator, Dick Bruna, which the presenter highlighted in his summing up of Matisse's lasting influence.

As it happens, I have never much liked Dick Bruna's illustrations. His books were very popular when my children were young and they weren't particularly interested in them either. Somewhere, all those years ago, I read that it was the parents and grandparents who bought the books who were attracted to them because they seemed 'modern' and 'trendy'. It was at about the same time that Sainsbury's changed their house-style from the ornate, old-fashioned grocer's style to the simple clean lines and unfussy blocks of colour (blue, green, white at that time) that they've maintained till the present day.

So elaborate flourishes and highly decorative whorls were out and simplicity was in. Which was fine for something like Sainsbury's, a welcome and attractive change of mood.

But small children are not as affected by fashion and the quest for the new. During my time as a primary school teacher, and particularly whilst teaching children to read, one-to-one, I've been able to observe quite a few children as they approach a reading book, even though we discourage too many illustrations in reading books to begin with because we don't want the children to guess the words from the pictures! What I have noticed is that their eyes are attracted to and held by the detail in the illustrations. The character lies in the detail and it's the idiosyncratic details that spark the child's curiosity and engage the child. What I have noticed is that children like an illustration that tells a story in itself, especially if there's a generous helping of the ridiculous included. I think that may be at least partly why Quentin Blake's illustrations are so successful and truly loved by children - as well as adults. You can look and look at this one and keep on finding new details, new micro-stories within the story!

And whatever one may think of the text, I think the same goes for Dr Seuss.

I think this may have influenced me when I added little robins in unlikely places and schoolboys who have outgrown their surplices to some of my first Christmas card designs - unconsciously of course!

But the day after watching the Matisse documentary, I made some collage Father's Day card designs.


Do I detect some rather uncharacteristically Matisse-style bold blocks of colour creeping in? Ah well, these are intended for adults, not children!


Country Mouse Studio said...

Books and libraries were a big part of my children's life and I agree with your opinion of Bruna. One of my children's favorite pastimes was studying (for hours) the Where's Waldo books or any of those books were you have to find an item in a very detailed picture. I used to think they would be fun to draw but maybe collage would be a better way because as you thought of things you could add them whereas with a painting you have to pre-plan a bit.

Di said...

great article! Hence why the waldo bks and other puzzle illustrations are popular with kids of all ages.