Of Matisse it may be said at once that he is mad, as William Blake was mad. But Blake in his "madness" was isolated from his fellows, while the "madness" of Henri Matisse is shared in kind, if not in degree, by artists innumerable, a host that before the war centred upon Paris from all countries. For his contemporaries to dismiss Blake by the charge of madness was an easy relief, since the mystic type had long disappeared from Georgian England, and with it all reason for other than mere graphic representation evaporated from common experience. Thus Blake's justification attended upon the rediscovery of mysticism; but Matisse represents a type, or at least a tendency, which can be estimated in terms of daily thought.
That an artist has produced an expression so far removed from tradition is proof that strong forces bave been at work upon the sources of art. It is not in quiescent ages that eccentricity, the flying-off from a common centre, dares claim authority. Whatever one's ultimate opinion of Matisse's work, one must at least realize that here there has been force and not weakness drawn upon for artistic creation. More than any other artist, moreover, Matisse may be studied against a background of contemporary art in general.
The "modern movement"—the slang is of Paris—took its rise in the early part of the nineteenth century. It dates, significantly enough, with the appearance of evolution as a universal law in the consciousness of Europe. Now the one principle which is general to modern art in all its phases is that it is the attempt to control movement. By "control of movement" I do not mean external movement, movement in the subject or medium, but movement as an idea, a concept taken up into the racial mind. Every "modern" has faced this as the characteristic task, and however the various methods have diverged, all are to be explained sooner or later by reference to this principle. Modern art, then, derives from the same surge of creative energy which has vitalized modern science and sociology; with them it is founded upon a new idea of the universe. What the scientist terms "evolution" the artist terms "rhythm."
From this origin in a new idea common to all fields of thought and experience, modern art, like modem science or religion, turns abruptly away from the method employed in the older world. From the Renaissance on, the task of art had been to control not movement but space. Development in art had been toward controlling perspective, the third dimension. That phase I call the architectural phase of art, since, like architecture, its values were spatial. And like architecture, it was an art of symmetry, balance, static rest, corresponding to men's fundamental assumption about life. The art of our day has lost symmetry and the static qualities, because science and religion have lost them. This phase I call the musical phase of art, its values being movement and rhythm. Opposed to the old idea of symmetry through the balance of equal and opposite forces we have rhythm, the thrusting of one supreme force among the opposition of other lesser forces.
The first attempt to control movement as the essential fact of experience was made by Cézanne. Cézanne possessed an extraordinary perception of the significances of form. In his canvasses objects are selected from nature and so arranged one against another that the whole picture vibrates, as it were, under the stress of thrust and opposition. Numberless were his solutions of the problem; but in every canvas Cézanne developed the same method. Sometimes the arrangement suggests a circle, sometimes a triangle, a quadrilateral, an ellipse ; not one, however, suggests the symmetry which is rest. Cézanne is a series of tremendously interesting structural problems; he is the Paul Morphy of art, if not the Napoleon.
Gauguin had none of Cézanne's faculty of abstract perception. His distinction lies in his power of human sympathy, allied to a vigorous decorative sense. Gauguin was a true "primitive." Probably on account of his Peruvian mother, he could not endure civilization, but fled from Paris into remote Britanny and afterward to Tahiti, where his nature flourished in the life of pure paganism. His art has interpreted a racial existence now forever passing away; not so much an ancient time as an ancient manner, forgotten by us, in him lives again. Never was the life of instinct as opposed to reason so beautifully rendered. Gauguin penetrated the depths of primitive society as Lafcadio Hearn penetrated the depths of old Japan. Whitman, too, might have had a broad basis of understanding with Gauguin in their mutual reverence for the good red earth. Apart from this, Gauguin solved the problem of movement by arranging his subject decoratively, that is, in flowing lines and masses of color selected not for their abstract value but an immediate sensuous appeal. A Gauguin sings; one feels the radiation of energies like those in a deep-toned symphony. But it must not be thought that Gauguin lacked intellectual perception entirely. His "Christ Jaune," one of the most remarkable pictures ever conceived, contains infinite suggestions on a high spiritual space.
The direction of a curve can be plotted by means of a few controlling points. Most modern painters are only variations of the three methods already described. The most pronounced tendency of modern art today is to destroy objective reality and establish a reality derived from intuition. Halfway between Cézanne and Picasso stands Matisse.
In Matisse objective reality is maintained, but in a state of distortion. He has enlarged the artist's freedom of expression without transferring it to an entirely psychological plane. Matisse began by painting in the most approved academic fashion. His "distortion" of the subject is due to his increasing conviction and necessity to control movement in a new and distinctive manner. To appreciate a Matisse one must realize that artistic reality is not a matter of photographic likeness, but of color and line, a construction intended to express the artist himself in terms of the subject. A cave-dweller's arduous drawing may possess far more artistic significance than the labored perfection achieved by a prize student.
Matisse's work is permeated with energy, the stress of mass against mass, color against color. When so perceived, it loses the quality of "distortion," for, as was remarked by a French critic, its "equilibrium is destroyed and then renewed as by sheer will power." And remember, too, that Matisse is not a method but a personality. Without his synthetic vision, his "will power," a canvas constructed by such a method would collapse into the insignificance of a child's spilled paint. From Matisse, moreover, new lines of force run outward into the future. He is not an interrupter hut a conductor of power, and as such his work receives illumination not only from the art which had been an influence to him, but also from that which his influence brought out in others.
Picasso, for example, carried the "distortion" of objective reality to its logical conclusion, annihilation. For that outward resemblance which stands the test of the camera, he substituted subjective reality, that which corresponds to perception. A Picasso is laboriously, tortuously constructed from states of consciousness linked by the intrusion of nature into the mind. A violin becomes enormously significant because for the first time in art it is not taken for granted but subjected to infinite scrutiny, infinite brooding, as by the converged stare of the intellect's thousand relentless eyes. In the resultant synthesis, the transcription of the violin upon canvas, it emerges as a composite vision, a dismembered fly drowned in the amber of philosophic perplexity. I do not praise Picasso nor deride him. Once again the issue is a personality rather than a method; and it is true of Picasso that for those whose minds turn often upon themselves his art stands supremely precious in its power of evoking, as by double mirrors, the sheer unutterable meaning of common things received into the depths of experience.
From Picasso arises the school of Cubism, and indirectly, of Futurism. At first sight both these schools stand to Picasso as theology to the mystic—personality devitalized into a system. Both have felt themselves compelled to summon the aid of literature to justify an art of which it is claimed that its justification lies entirely within. Now the whole idea of subjective as opposed to objective reality is raised by Cubism and Futurism, as it was not raised by Picasso himself. Eventually the world will accept a forceful personality at its own valuation; but a mere method, claiming philosophic authority and propagated by means of academies among whosoever wishes to learn it, can and should be met upon its own basis. In general I suggest that subjective reality has its justification not only in philosophy, hut in common experience; hut that subjective reality is not properly the province of framed pictures. It is and always has heen the province of decorative art. Thus our reply to Cubism and Futurism is not that art may not be based upon intuition, but that Cubism and Futurism have diverted the true meaning and value of intuition into the wrong channel. Already, indeed, a school has arisen out of which decorative art will probably be restored to its rightful position, as creative as painting, but achieving its results in an entirely different way. What is more subjective than the design upon a Persian carpet or a Chinese bowl ? And who would think of denying its validity? So we look for a gradual adjustment among all the forces at work in modern art; the restitution of objective reality to framed pictures, though with a new freedom of treatment, and of subjective reality to decoration, enhanced by the splendid opportunity for decorative art in the modern world, a world rebuilt and reimagined from day to day.