Look at the work of Henri Matisse and Elizabeth Blackadder and write some notes in your log about the two artists. What are the similarities and differences between them. Which artist do you feel more affinity with?
I have written a little about both in the past as part of my level 1 OCA studies so rereading these was a useful refresher.
Initially I was uncertain where to start and finish. I decided to pull together brief biographies and consider what and who has influenced the two artists and look closely at some of their still life paintings. This should then enable me to draw some conclusions about similarities and differences.
Henri Matisse (French 1869-1954)
Matisse is widely regarded as the greatest colourist of the twentieth century and, alongside Pablo Picasso, was highly influential in the development of visual arts in the early 20th Century. He was primarily a painter and also a sculptor and printmaker. He emerged as a Post-Impressionist and first achieved prominence as the leader of the French Fauvism (wild beasts) movement. Although interested in Cubism, he rejected it, and sought to use color as the foundation for expressive, decorative, and often monumental paintings.
Still life and the nude remained favorite subjects throughout his career. His sculptures are also highly regarded. Towards the end of his life, he made an important contribution to collage with his cut-out shapes of color. One of his last works was the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence (1948–51), for which he designed decorations, Stations of the Cross, furniture, stained-glass windows and the vestments and altar cloths.
Matisse’s many influences included:
- Van Gogh and Australian Impressionist John Peter Russell
- Colour theory and the works of many artists including Cezanne, Gaugin and Manet
- Painting in St Tropez with neo impresionists Signac and Henri Emmond Cross using bright expressive colours without feeling the need to reproduce actual colours
- Japanese, North African and Moorish Art
- Matisse surrounded himself with the things that created inspiration for his paintings; flowers and plants, caged birds, goldfish, decorative tiles, pottery, African carvings, Tahitian bark paintings and Congolese weavings.
- He collected lengths of cloth on his travels and these appear in his paintings – draping models, arranged over furniture and as backgrounds.
Elizabeth Blackadder (Scotland 1931-)
Elizabeth Blackadder studied at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1949 until 1954; travelling scholarships took her to southern Europe and Italy. In 1956 she married artist and fellow Scottish Gallery exhibitor John Houston and began teaching at the Edinburgh College of Art.
One of Scotland’s greatest artists, she is best known for her detailed watercolours of flowers, ‘table-top’ compositions using oriental objects and her beloved cats. She is also an accomplished painter of landscapes and figures.
The influence of trips to Japan and Venice can be seen in landscape and townscape pieces as well as in an an important still life series using decorated tins and boxes arranged with exotic fish, fruit and vegetables.
From the 1960s still life featured regularly in her work. Her compositions are full of spatial ambiguity. Objects are chosen for their colour and shape as well as for personal meaning. Her ‘deconstructed’ still life compositions show a strong Japanese influence and a masterly use of negative space. The space surrounding her still life objects is as essential as the objects themselves.
Blackadder’s many influences include:
- A love of the detail of flowers which started when, as a child, she collected and pressed them.
- An extensive and ongoing collection of objects of interest from around the world, including items she has gathered herself and gifts.
- Travels in France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Japan and of course her homeland of Scotland.
- Her travels in Japan starting in 1985 led to an interest in kimonos and other oriental objects. The Zen gardens in Kyoto. and the Zen idea of empty space appealed to her.
- She is fascinated by exotic plants and fruits and especially pomegranates ‘which as well as being visually exciting with their jewel-like seeds always seemed to me to be particularly poetic with mythic connections.’
- During travels in France she became more and more aware of the work of Matisse and this led to a lightening of her colour palette.
- In the 50s she was influenced by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. I can see the Rothko influence in her still life backgrounds and bold use of fields of colour.
- I would also add to this list her husband John Houston, a successful and accomplished painter of colourful landscapes in an impressionistic style. She sought advice from him about her work.
A CLOSE LOOK AT TWO OF MATISSE’S WORKS
The Red Studio, Issy-les-Moulineaux, fall 1911
Matisse’s use of a blanket of red as a background with objects only lightly delineated in white plays some spatial tricks on us. It takes a moment to realise that it is actually a room and not a random collection of painted objects against a plain background.There is perspective and depth in the painting but most of the objects (excluding the table and chair) are flat(2D) and have no shadows. The square forms of the paintings are offset by the rounded and organic shapes of the glass, bottle, plant, plate and statues The red dominates and, in many instances, isolates the individual objects. The composition fills the picture plane; the one empty area just off centre seems designed to lead the viewer into what we can now see is a room.
The Dessert: Harmony in Red, 1908
In this painting Matisse has removed the edges of the table so that the red of background and table cloth merge as though they were a fabric draping down forward across the table. The decorative motifs of flower baskets and branches appear both as background and foreground.
Objects (fruit, bowls, flask etc) are flat with no shadows and appear floating rather than grounded. The soft curves of the figure contrast with the harsh square lines of the window frame. Colours conform to colour theory. Red with its colour wheel opposite of green and blue with yellow.
A CLOSE LOOK AT TWO OF BLACKADDER’S WORKS
Flowers on an Indian Cloth, Oil Crayon 1965
Blackadder takes inspiration from a textile in her collection as the background to a vase of flowers painted loosely and expressively (in contrast to the more botanical flower images against a white background which she became known for later in her career). The swirling background motif is repeated in the background and foreground. Spatially this is ambiguous. Is the background, a table cloth or wall hanging? There is light and shadow but it doesn’t conform to any rules.
I draw a parallel with Matisse’s The Dessert: Harmony in Red image above in which the objects and the background motifs are interwoven. The whole image is vibrant and alive – quite different to Blackadder’s later more botanical flower paintings against a relatively plain coloured or white background.
Chinese Still Life with Arum Lilies, 1982
In this still life a seemingly random selection of objects (possibly toys) feature horses, cockerels, a duck, rabbit, tiny wrapped box etc. In the foreground is a vase of Arum lilies on a window sill. Are we looking out of a window or at a view or is this a tabletop arrangement.? It is for the viewer to decide. Except for the vase, the objects all float. They are flat, two dimensional without shadow and isolated by the block of yellow which surrounds them. There is a balance to this orderly composition.
We may be seeing the influence of Rothko’s fields of colour and the spatial arrangements in Japanese Zen gardens. The objects are a carefully selected variety of shapes, rectangles, circles and less geometric shapes. The one larger red rectangle with the horses seizes attention first. While the objects themselves are highly coloured, the overall feeling is calm and soothing because of the large expanse of muted yellow background and the cool blue surrounding. There is a balance to this orderly composition but rather than being boring, it is quietly enigmatic.
Looking at the work of the two artists side by side
A selection of Elizabeth Blackadder’s still life work
A selection of Matisse’s still life work
Interestingly, these paintings would not be out of place hung in a gallery together. There are very strong similarities in the colour palette (Blackadder being influenced by Matisse of course). I reflect on further differences and similarities below.
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
- Both artists kept an extensive collection of objects, including textiles, which provided inspiration for and featured in their paintings.
- Both artists were influenced by their travels, Japan in particular.
- Both often create a spatial ambiguity in their still life arrangements. Objects seem to float and are often 2D without shadows. They both play with perspective.
- They are both masterly in their use of space; they fill the picture plane. Negative space is as important as the objects themselves. They may both have been influenced by Japanese Zen Gardens in which isolated objects are surrounded by gravel which is raked every day into changing but discrete patterns that connect the rocks.
- Influenced by Matisse, Blackadder adjusted her colour palette and similarities can be clearly seen in the works side by side shown above.
- Both make very effective use of subtle and strong colours in their backgrounds.
Matisse’s works are full of vitality with lots of flowing organic lines which pull the objects together into a playful, exuberant whole.
Blackadder’s still lifes are, on the whole, much more orderly. Shapes are often geometric and isolated by a Rothko-like block of solid colour. Despite the frequent use of vibrant colour, her paintings are much quieter in nature because of this generous use of space.
Matisse’s choice of objects sit side by side in a natural way. They are they things that we might find together in a sitting room or parlour.
Blackadder’s objects do not necessarily have connections with each other, they may appear randomly selected to the outside eye but they are carefully chosen by the artist for their shape and colour and personal meaning.
Which artist do you feel more affinity with?
It feels impossible to put Blackadder ahead of Matisse because he is acknowledged to be one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century but I have a high regard for and have learnt a lot from both. There were many more similarities in their work than I had anticipated at the start of this research project and it was fascinating to discover these. In terms of my own taste and my own practice, I am more drawn to the exuberant work of Matisse with its organic lines but I enjoy and admire the work of both.