Roy Oxlade on Matisse’s drawings

The most telling observation about pre-historic art in relation to the art of our own time was made by Matisse in 1952 in an interview with Andre Verdet. Matisse said he loved the arabesque ‘because it’s the most synthetic way to express oneself in all ones aspect. You find in the general outline of certain cave drawings. It is the impassioned impulse which swells these drawings.’ The words used here, awkward in translation, need to be looked at. First, and straightforwardly enough, Matisse assumes that, for the artist, drawing is concerned with expression; ‘in all one’s aspects’ I take to indicate an attitude of totality, a complete absorption, a losing of oneself in the action of drawing.

Line is the most economical and direct outcome of the interplay between hand eye and mind.

The drawing owes its being to a spontaneous synthesis – an event which Matisse calls an impassioned impulse. Could you call the drawing an impetuous dance, is this why Matisse used the word arabesque? Other definitions of the word, liking it to ornamentation are obviously inappropriate: cave drawing is marked by its simplicity. Matisse is careful to say ‘certain’ cave drawings; there is a qualitative principle at stake. Then it is only through the ‘impassioned impulse’ that the drawing will ‘swell.’ This is, I think, a very important part of the statement, I don’t think ‘swell’ necessarily means a flattening out, although in some instances it could do, but I believe it is intended to mean a springing into satisfactory form from what otherwise would be flat. To speak of the sense in which the drawing can be said to ‘spring into’’ place or ‘arrive’ is to call attention to its non-preconceived nature. The drawing, unknown to the artist until it emerges, comes out of a controlled wildness. Control and wildness, otherwise antithetical terms, unite paradoxically to describe the liberated working mood familiar to artists and others who rely upon bringing together of intuitive resources. This is what Matisse means when he talks about the impassioned impulse. Perhaps, the French passionne carries a less extravagant tone and allows for a necessary and compensating balance of subliminal restraint. Apart from the evidence of the drawings themselves you have only to think of photographs and films made of Matisse at work to be sure that there was nothing of the Pollock about him.

None of the above (text, not video), offered to some degrees as the introduction to a criterion, seems to me to be in any way evident in the work illustrated in Vitamin D. To these artists, with the possible exception of Marlene Dumas, it would, I think, be mumbo jumbo. Neither does it make any connection with Emma Dexter’s (1) claim that telegraph wires, aircraft vapour trails and footprints in the snow are ‘drawings.’ This is the same fundamental category mistake as that made by Jon Thompson (2) with his camera. The error is major and not limited to the issue of drawing alone. Not surprisingly, echoes of its reductionism are to be found in the whole field of contemporary art, especially as a curatorial strategy. According to Dexter, whether video, film, sculpture or print, ‘Bruce Nauman’s entire oeuvre can be seen as a form of ‘’drawing.’ I take this to mean that whatever Bruce Neauman does you can take to mean whatever you like. This is the same reasoning which allows Dexter’s ‘unbroken line’ to extend from pre-history to our own time, precisely because the definition is so broad as to be meaningless.

How can artists who are sharply aware of art history and current practice produce work which is innocent of it?

To avoid this trap it is necessary to leave the framework of expectation, the safety of an anticipated result, and instead trust hand and eye to combine instinctively. The place of an artist’s judgment here is critical. First, it must inevitably initiate a choice of starting point for any work even to begin; secondly it must allow for an openness to change, even radical change as the work develops; and lastly it will inform the artist’s critical decisions about the work done.

The remarkable thing about Matisse’s work at its best……is its closeness to work by those untrained in traditional method, by sophisticated amateurs. His work triumphs when he has been able to bring about a synthesis of innocence with awareness.

It is true that during the Renaissance ‘working’ or ‘first thoughts’ drawings maintained an unconscious link to nature. Through spontaneous and instinctive touch, the hand of the artists was able to convey a sense of rhythm and grace which in many instances freed the work from its immediate historical circumstances. Yet inevitably those natural qualities were subordinated in the finished work to conform to the presentational requirements demanded by the time. Content has dominated from most of art history.

A particular ten year phase of Matisse’s drawing, roughly between the mid 30s and mid 40s, illustrate clearly the importance of this argument of an approach to drawing which, to the detriment of drawing and painting as a whole, has been neglected. Matisse himself, in the Verdet interview (3), links his drawings to that of certain cave drawings. Nowhere is the connection clearer than in his 1938 charcoal drawing Reclining Nude Seen from the Back. Overdrawn, again and again, the figure shifting across the paper, the drawing links across the years to the cave mammoths at Rouffingnac.



(1)    Emma Dexter, Curator of Contemporary Art at Tate Modern pg.124
(2)    Jon Thompson b.1936. British artist, curator and academic. Was head of fine art at Middlesex University School of Art. – Oxlade was on a panel with Thompson about life drawing in art education in 1994. Oxlade says ‘’the verb draw is…all embracing for Thompson; he draws with his camera, he draws when he is polishing a piece of sculpture’’ pg.124
(3)    Interview with Verdet, 1952. Printed in Matisse On Art by Jack D Flam. Pg.142 1990 printing
From Printed in Roy Oxlade – Art And Instinct Selected writings of Roy Oxlade, Vitamin D: For Drawing pg 126. 2010. Ziggurat Books International. First published in Blunt Edge 6, April 2006
This entry was posted in MAMO Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.