My 22 year old daughter has rarely shown much interest in art. However, recently that attitude changed. Previously, even with easy access to numerous museums and art galleries art has failed to particularly excite her. She has recently returned home after having spent three weeks in France, first in Paris and then two weeks in sunny Montpellier, located about 3 hours south of Paris in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, neighbouring Provence. Tess had signed up for an intensive advanced French course and was captivated by the Mediterranean atmosphere.
As part of the final week’s course, the students were asked to prepare short presentations in front of the class on two artists of their choice. Tess chose two French artists, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. In researching their life histories she discovered the magic of their paintings. That got me to looking again and finding out some facts for myself.
I was amused to learn that Henri Matisse (1869-1954), only developed his interest in art from the age of twenty-one, about the same time as my daughter! He moved to Paris and was originally trained in the accepted academic style of the time. However, he quickly became influenced by numerous trends that moved through the mecca of the Parisian art world seeking his own particular way of working with composition. After a visit to his friend Paul Signac in St. Tropez, then a sleepy fishing village, the bold light of the South of France soon influenced his palette.
Stylistically, he would change over the years. He was connected to the short-lived but influential avant-garde Fauvist movement in 1905 (literally translated it means ‘wild beasts’) which refers to the intensity of the brush strokes and bright colours. Drawing was important to him and in the first decade of the twentieth century he focussed heavily on sculpture.
He had an important art patron that commissioned two outstanding works that would hang in his Moscow home – ‘Dance and Music’ 1909-1910. A trip to Morocco inspired paintings for the next few years followed by a shared interest with Picasso in Cubism. The female form tantalized him and after his move to Nice in the South of France he created a series of the female figure known as ‘Odalisques’, somewhat reminiscent of the harem. The theme of Dance would reoccur in 1937 and cut-out shapes became a preferred means of artistic expression shortly afterwards.
The list of his legacy of artworks is long. Colours, shapes and bold brushwork come right to my mind when I think of his paintings although there were periods of delicacy and detail in his drawings and creative output. For me, he represents consummate artistry.
The second artist on my list that attracted my daughter’s attention is Paul Gauguin. Born in Paris in 1848 (died 1903 in French Polynesia) of a French father and Peruvian mother. As with so many of us today, he had been forced to make an unexpected career change when the stock market crashed and the subsequent recession obliged him to ‘think again’ about his lifestyle choices. He had been a successful stockbroker who enjoyed painting for pleasure, but in 1882 had few other options and made it his full-time occupation. While still an amateur, Gauguin had studied under Camille Pissaro and through him exhibited with the Impressionists.
He left Paris and went to the rugged countryside of Brittany where he hoped to find a simpler lifestyle.
There he worked alongside avant-garde artists, focussing on intense colour to emphasize emotions that would lead on to the Synthetist style where form and colour shared equal importance.
He divided his time between Paris and Brittany for several years but then went further away to Martinique in the Caribbean and Panama. In 1891 Tahiti captured his emotions and imagination but even there no idyllic life could be found and always his restless spirit sought to discover the elusive elemental essence of being. South Sea maidens and the inclusion of primitive symbols dominated his paintings of this time. Other artistic mediums of expression included printmaking, ceramicism, sculpting and writing. His primitive sculptures would have inspirational impact on Picasso and the Modern Art movement was stimulated by the artistic explorations of Gauguin, forever owing him a debt that could not be repaid.
Today his paintings are valued in the multi-millions and the stylistic changes inspired numerous artists in their own search for artistic nirvana. Like so many tortured artists though, his life was not easy and the middle-class values he had abandoned denied him a peaceful end.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.