Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Decoration as work




A touch here of Linda Grant who argued on her website that you cannot have depths without surfaces. Patricia Hampl in Blue Arabesque argues something very similar. Here is one of her key passages on Matisse:

I felt the deep taproot of the decorative instinct in Matisse as I could not in Picasso. Yes, the deep root of decoration, for the surface of decoration gives way, for those who live close to its truth, to the labor and the pride in labor that Matisse knew in the Bohain textile mills and that my father and the old Austrian growers knew at the greenhouse, their backs humped over from lifting flats of petunias, their hands cracked from tamping down the dirt around a seedling's squiggle of white root, They were the ones with real taste, my father always insisted. They could judge...


Matisse subscribed to the old democratic weavers' definition of the decorative arts as "something more precious that wealth, within everyone's reach." The poor in spirit could hope to inherit, if not the earth, then at least a length of paradise in a bright factory-made cloth...

and, a page earlier:

Only one who had seen the unforgiving circumstances of industrial labor could understand that the odalisque does not loll on her divan as an erotic opportunity but is even more deeply sensual, an image of pure leisure, that commodity most cruelly denied the poor of the earth.

This is a very attractive line of argument and I am tempted to partly believe it. The world of Matisse's sumptuous odalisques is certainly more than pretty or seductive, though it is that too. And certainly it meant more than a decorative pattern like a fine wallpaper or carpet to Matisse. The fine wallpaper and carpet are parts of a coherent vision, in which the woman does not become merely an extension of the wallpaper or carpet. Wallpaper, carpet, woman, outfit, divan all belong together in Matisse's vision of luxe, calme et volupté.

And yes, that part about the voluptuousness of pure leisure being only fully appreciated by the poor of the world is likely to be true, it is just that we know that these were precisely the luxuries they were least likely to be in a position to enjoy and that Matisse's description of these luxuries was way beyond their means. Nor do we feel that the writer of this sumptuous prose is ever like to have been in a position where the experience of the poor of the earth was any more than imagined.

These thoughts come on return from Prague where we were able to live an extremely brief and very humble version of luxe, calme et volupté. The freedom to lie in bed in the afternoon in the heat of the day was a stolen pleasure and therefore sweeter. We could be odalisques for the afternoon hours if we so chose. Stolen pleasures, I say because both C and I are of the doing rather than being temperament. There were no silken girls bringing us sherbet, just waiters bringing roast duck. The whole of old Prague seemed to have devoted itself to the single object of making servants or served out of everyone.

What is the function of pleasure? Sheer hedonistic pleasure, I mean? Is it, after all, simply leisure with a better class of appurtenances?

We dropped some twenty degrees arriving in England. The hedonistic pleasures of England? Decent cups of tea. And maybe this:

The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

Pleasure fading off to ennui or tightening to neurosis. The violet hour and what follows.



10 comments:

Poet in Residence said...

"pride...old Austrian growersknew at the greenhouse"

presumably not the old Austrian growers, mainly women, who often have bad hips and bent backs and sometimes are seen walking as if they are still sitting on their stools plucking seeds from pumpkins ....

Complete the following in 12 words or less:
Art that hides the truth is ..............................
and win a traditional farm holiday in Waldviertel or Steiermark

George S said...

I do agree a touch of romanticisation is going on here, Gwilym, but the argument remains interesting.

Poet in Residence said...

Yes, "a touch of romanticisation" and that's why we need Orwell, Dostoyevsky and Zola, Egger-Lienz, Schiele, van Gogh...

The poor can, if they wish, be dressed-up in Oxfam charity but what's going on is an illusion.

Vienna, the capital of the 12th richest country in the world, is littered with homeless. They are out of sight in the U-Bahn or on the Donau Insel.

A person whose bed is a park bench and whose worldly goods are contained in old supermarket bags is known a Banker. Bank, being the German word for bench. How ironic.

The weather remains warm.

George S said...

Yes, though I think the argument does not rely wholly on that. She wants to say that Matisse's paintings are not the product of a hedonistic, wealthy sensibility, that Matisse himself is the son of a tradesman, living in a grey industrial landscape in which decoration is more than indulgence, it's a necessity. From this she moves to the position that Matisse's depictions of langorous odalisques is, by the same token, not so much a display of lazy sensuality, but of essential rest. Which is one of the ways in which she tries to account for her love of Matisse.

That is not an argument I have read before and it strikes me as lucid and interesting without being necessarily fully convincing.

Poet in Residence said...

I tend to agree.

It's interesting about the odalisques. The Turkish odaliq means chambermaid. So here we have a chambermaid. Do you think she may be waiting to start work? Her bored expression, as I interpret it, seems to suggest it.

George S said...

I suspect they meant chambermaid in a more hand-maidenly sense, Gwilym. The work our odalisque is waiting to start may not be just plumping up the pillows. There may be a bit of de-plumping first.

Poet in Residence said...

there's no "may" about it, George!

Is it detail or the complete picture we have here?

Vlasta said...

I hesitate to put my oar in this fascinating exchange, but as I'm going off to Prague myself in less than 48 hours (to teach for 2 weeks, an annual stint), I figure now or never. My own research on the word odalisque (which I included elsewhere in BLUE ARABESQUE) took it back to the root "oda" which meant not chambermaid but school or schoolroom, and though the reference to a serving maid is of course apt, it is a later meaning, I believe. Matisse also wondered if he spent too much time/attention on his odalisques, recognizing the indulgence and perhaps what you have noted as romanticisation. Yet he followed his daemon, even beyond his own approval, just as later still he made his final great work the Chapel at Vence at the request of a nun--he who was a non-believer and had urged the woman (originally his nurse through his cancer) not to throw her life away in a convent. We may need Whitman here to speak for such irritating (or intriguing) paradoxes and inconsistencies --"Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes." Of course I'm grateful to Matisse for being imperfect and hanging in there with his furies at the impoverishment of his background and the lure of beauty. Thank you for contending so mightily....Patricia Hampl

Poet in Residence said...

I'm pleased you threw your oar in because it gives me the opportunity to say, having seen it for myself, what a wonderful job Matisse did in Vence and what a lovely old town Vence is.

I'm not surprised that D H Lawrence went to Vence to die. To be buried there in those hills above the sea among those flowers is heaven. To be dug up and shipped to Mexico is hell.

There's nowt so queer as folk, me duck!

George S said...

Ah, Patricia. I didn't hear you come in...