Chatting With Matisse and Diebenkorn

Henri Matisse: “Exactitude is not truth.”  ……  Richard Diebenkorn: “One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the artist.”   

Henri Matisse: I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors is black.”  ……  Richard Diebenkorn: “It’s starting with a plan and letting the painting change your mind.” 

Recently I had the great pleasure of seeing the exhibition, Matisse/Diebenkorn, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. My husband and I made a spur of the moment decision to hop on a plane to Baltimore for the sole purpose of spending two glorious days with two of my all-time favorite artists. The exhibition was all that I hoped for and more!

All artists are inspired and influenced by other artists both past and present. One can find many fine examples throughout art history of artists being inspired and influenced by other artists and how necessary those influences were in discovering their individual voices. Richard Diebenkorn spoke often about being inspired and influenced by Henri Matisse, the artist whose approach resonated with him most deeply. After seeing a Matisse exhibition in 1952, thirty year old Diebenkorn felt that he began to internalize new ways of looking, seeing, and translating the world onto the flat picture surface. Matisse, often cited as the father of Modernism, posited that shapes that correspond with objects in a representational painting could also function in terms of the abstract formal elements, something that Diebenkorn focused on in his figurative images, which in turn profoundly influenced my own figurative work. 

In his essay for the exhibition catalog, John Elderfield wrote, “Matisse and Diebenkorn both began with the wish to record something close at hand – to make an image that rang true to their experience of it. Then, in their different ways – both came to the realization that to make a true statement in a painting – something that spoke credibly of its subject in their own individual voices – would require attending very carefully to the language of art. This obliged them to both pay attention and call attention to the means they used. It is reasonable that critics have concentrated mostly on the stylistic affinities between the two artists, but their most important practical commonality may be a quality of alertness – a mixture of judgment and vigilance – about what happens in the process of making a painting.”

The paintings were in chronological order, with many side by side examples of both artists’ work. Seeing the paintings and listening to the very informative audio lecture, I felt that I was privy to a lively chat the two artists were engaged in about abstraction, flatness, color, form, space, and “grand compositions”. They spoke not a word about exactitude, they chatted mostly about the glorious process of painting – spontaneous and improvisational mark making, juicy and expressive brushstrokes, and how much depth and meaning they felt that the erasures, corrections, and revisions they made in their paintings added to their final imagery.

I found myself adding my own thoughts and ideas to the spirited chat as I listened, looked, and internalized it all. On day two I brought a notebook with me and took extensive notes on ideas that resonated with me throughout the chat. I was already very familiar with both Matisse’s and Diebenkorn’s  work as the paintings of both artists have been major influences in my own work. They were the mentors I turned to for answers when I was desperately seeking ways to get past “the exactitude factor” in my paintings – what Cezanne referred to as “the tyranny of subject matter.” And Diebenkorn ‘s improvisational  approach of “plastering it on”, making changes, revisions, and corrections during the process of painting, and letting the painting change his mind deeply resonated with me and was very instrumental in my decision fifteen years ago to move from transparent to opaque watercolor. Diebenkorn was sometimes called “indecisive” because of his painting process, and when I first read that I had an “aha” moment and became aware of the fact that in my painting, I’m pretty indecisive too. Not a good trait for a transparent watercolorist! I felt like I was given permission to own my indecisiveness and to stop trying to change my personality to suit a painting medium – I needed to find a painting medium that suited my personality.    

The Boston Globe called the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition “deeply stirring; the result is an unusually beautiful show, in which the unique glow emitted by one painter meets the glow from another and seems almost to create new atmospheric conditions.”

I am so grateful I had the privilege of basking in that glow. I’m already dreaming up new ways of looking, seeing, internalizing, and translating my subject matter onto the flat picture surface.

Happy Painting!

4 thoughts on “Chatting With Matisse and Diebenkorn

  1. Susan Wiley

    Thank you for sharing your museum experience and thoughts. I love to hear you say find a medium that suits you, not trying to suit your medium! It’s a much less restricting approach to painting and I love that freedom. I also love the idea of being beyond exactitude. I’ve always considered that being a chain. I am preparing for a show next week in which I will be ‘putting myself out there’ for the first time with my new work that is very different from my traditional watercolors. I am anxious to see how people respond. In any event, it has been fun creating these new works.
    Thank you again for sharing a bit of yourself; I always look forward to your blog and, of course, your new work.

  2. Robin Avery

    I can definitely hear the excitement of your visit! Connecting to particular artists is like
    relishing the few chosen chocolates in a large assorted box. Carla O’connor said once in her
    workshop..” Along the way you will find artists that really SPEAK to you.” I believe that is so true. The
    fauvists spoke to me…and many of your favorites have too.
    I guess we have to paint enough to reach that point where we allow ourselves freedom to paint in the manner that suits us best! For me painting in the traditional watercolor style was like Cinderella’s step sister trying desperately to FIT into something that didn’t feel right. LOVE LOVE LOVE YOUR STYLE….and approach.I have finally given myself permission to branch out and am enjoying painting much more.
    Thank you for sharing all you do ….its very encouraging…..

  3. Bobbie Powell

    The exhibit is coming to San Francisco next, and I already have tickets. Thank you for sharing your experience. I have always admired both artists, never knew the history until last night in reading the SFMOMA literature. Now this morning this from you. What is the Universe trying to tell me? I look forward to getting into this show.

    Donna, absolutely love your art and your online instruction. Thanks for everything.

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