Walter Pach in his 1938 book Queer thing, Painting remembers the famous artists he met as a young man traveling in Europe.  One of those artists was Henri Matisse.  He has an insightful vignette of Matisse:

Matisse’s fundamental belief is that there is no such thing as essential change.  Appearances change, men learn certain things (we were speaking of the early work of Cezanne as compared with his late painting), but the man is the same, and it is the man that counts.  He showed me his first picture, a thing he did in the small town he came from, and at a time when he had never met an artist.  A book had given him certain rules for composing still-life objects into a design, had told him what colors to buy, and the effects of their combination.  His result was an “old fashioned” imitation of a bit of nature.  The canvas remained at his home until after his father’s death, when it came to him with other household effects.

“Shall I tell you what I thought when I got that picture again, after thirty years without seeing it?  Well, I felt a discouragement such as I have rarely known.  It seemed as if I had not made one step of progress.  Every quality I have ever obtained is in that canvas, at least in embryo.  And when people speak of certain arts as primitive, they simply show their insensitiveness to the grand expression in such work; if they saw that, they would realize that the form and color were perfect in their relationship to the idea of the race….”

My drawing above, made with memories of Matisse, this drawing of my daughter when she was little, is so like other things I made in the deeper past, like things I made at my beginning.  I have felt Matisse’s sadness too, when I realized that things I make now are so much like the way I began.  Somehow I thought that learning would be utterly transformative.  But to believe that your early works will not resemble your later work is like believing that your old face will not resemble your youth.

It is as though you looked at your face in a mirror and expected it, somehow, to be someone else’s face.

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3 thoughts on “On being and change

  1. Bingo! Fantastic post Aletha. You have nothing to be sad about – you were good back then and you are good now 🙂 I love how you relate it to our faces – of course there will always be a resemblance to our past ‘face’. For a writer it is the ‘voice’ that might deepen, but essentially it is the same ‘voice’ – and when we are really old, it will be really croaky – haha.

  2. What a beautiful post Aletha.
    I had felt the same, going through drawings I made when I was in my twenties…nothing has change, I thought. Now I realize that it is our soul that we are showing, with a little more experience, but the same soul, and I now think it is comforting.

  3. This is a lovely sketch… nicely augmented by the Matisse notes… I hadn’t read that passage before… thanks for drawing our attention to it. And your sketch, still, has LIFE.

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