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Matisse on Rules

Post #1864 • June 1, 2020, 1:11 PM

Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908:

An artist always profits from information about himself, and I am glad to have learned what is my weak point. M. Péladan in the Revue Hébdomadaire reproaches a certain number of painters, amongst whom I think I should place myself, for calling themselves “Fauves,” and yet dressing like everyone else, so that they are no more noticeable than the floor-walkers in a department store.

The footnote on this passage:

Mérodack Joséphin Péladan, novelist and critic, was the founder of a mystic order of Catholic Rosicrucians. In the 1890s he had invented his own symbolic system in relation to which he conceived of himself as a prophet who would renovate art through mystical aesthetic ideas based on Dante and Leonardo (hence Matisse’s reference at the end of this essay). The article referred to is “Le Salon d’Automne et ses Retrospectives—Greco et Monticelli,” La Revue Hébdomadaire, 42, 17 October 1908, pp. 360-78, In this article Péladan (pp. 360-1) wrote: “The created being, like the Creator, in His image... is not restricted to historical costume. A manner of dress results from a manner of thought. The form manifests its basis; it is born of incessant work, of a growth from within and without.... Each year it becomes more difficult to speak of these people who have called themselves les fauves in the press. They are curious to see beside their canvases. [I don’t understand what this means.—F.] Correct, rather elegant, one would take them for department store floor-walkers. Ignorant and lazy, they try to offer the public colorlessness and formlessness.” Péladan’s review of the 1908 Salon d’Automne makes an interesting contrast with that of Georges Desvallières (“L’art finlandais au Salon d’Automne,” La Grande Revue, 25 November 1908, pp. 397 ff) in which Desvallières speaks of the purely plastic means of the Fauves.

Back to Matisse:

Does genius count for so little? If it were only a question of myself that would set M. Péladan’s mind at ease, tomorrow I would call myself Sar and dress like a necromancer.

The footnote:

Péladan wrote under the name of “Sar.”


In the same article this excellent writer claims that I do not paint honestly, and I would be justifiably angry if he had not qualified this statement by saying, “I mean honestly with respect to the ideal and the rules.”

The footnote:

Péladan (Revue Hébdomadaire, p. 373) had written: “The public, insensible to the difficult effort toward beauty, wants only antics. A clown makes the fortune of a circus, and thousands of artists imitate Chocolat; only it is the canvas that receives the kicks in the face in color. Truth, the most despairing of the Muses, terrible Truth would say: ‘Suppose that M. Matisse painted honestly; wouldn’t he be nearly unknown; he shows off as at the fair, and the public knows him.’ By honestly, I mean with respect to the ideal and the rules...”


The trouble is that he does not mention where these rules are. I am willing to have them exist, but were it possible to learn them what sublime artists we would have!

Rules have no existence outside of individuals: otherwise a good professor would be as great a genius as Racine. Any one of us is capable of repeating fine maxims, but few can also penetrate their meaning. I am ready to admit that from a study of the works of Raphael or Titian a more complete set of rules can be drawn than from the works of Manet or Renoir, but the rules followed by Manet and Renoir were those which suited their temperaments and I prefer the most minor of their paintings to all the work of those who are content to imitate the Venus of Urbino or the Madonna of the Goldfinch. These latter are of no value to anyone, for whether we want to or not, we belong to our time and we share in its opinions, its feelings, even its delusions. All artists bear the imprint of their time, but the great artists are those in whom this is most profoundly marked.

From Matisse on Art by Jack D. Flam, though my copy is the first paperback edition. I came across this this in search of a good quote to grace the bottom of my redesigned website, and fell upon “Rules have no existence outside of individuals.” Burying the lede here, but oh well.

It’s easy to view Péladan as the butt of the joke in this exchange, writing Rosicrucian art criticism under an exotic mononym, “dressing like a necromancer,” and getting Matisse completely wrong. But some kind of mystical criticism might be possible. I’ll suspend judgment on that until I read Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism. And in fact, most art criticism, even now, is written on the Péladanian model, from the standpoint that we should strive for some kind of ideal, and measure art by it—but with politics in the place of the Almighty, and without the cool names and the awesome necromancer garb.




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