The child's eye and the sign
". . . (the artist) has to look at everything as though he saw it for the first time. He has to look at life as he did when he was a child . . ." wrote Henri Matisse, the master of line, color and composition, perhaps the greatest painter of our century. Matisse repeatedly cautioned against technical proficiency being made to serve for artistic vision -- that is, clarity of sight and fidelity of depiction. ". . .the artist must summon all his energy, his sincerity and the greatest modesty, to shatter the old cliches that came so easily to hand while working. . . ."
To look at life with the eyes of a child.
How do children look at life?
With distortions, certainly. With misunderstandings and misconceptions, undeniably. Children have too little common experience, too little common knowledge to share common views which adults take for granted. Children are new to the world, and everything in it is new to them. They look at things individually, and they experience sights personally, evocatively, provocatively. They see the spirit of things. According to Matisse, that incisive personal vision is what the artist must maintain and constantly renew.
Of a trip to Oceania, Matisse wrote, "With my eyes wide open I absorbed everything as a sponge absorbs liquid."
. . . as a child absorbs the sight of the ocean, with clarity and wonder as if it were the first ocean in the world. Children and artists see symbolically. They see essences of things.
Children see essentially and express themselves directly and economically in art, relying on pure colors and basic symbolic forms to convey their visions.
Matisse's paper cut-outs could be described accurately, if incompletely, in just that way. Pure colors and basic symbols. Nothing but essentials. How did he arrive at this medium? What artistic aims led him to devote his final creative years to flat areas of colored papers, cut to form blunt, often recurring shapes?
Carl Jung believed that the power and value of art lies in its effective presentation of spiritual essences in archetypal images. We respons to those archetypes instinctively, and we need them, vitally, for spiritual renewal. Matisse was dedicated to discovering essences and giving them archetypal form in signsm.
"You know the Burmese statues with very long flexible arms . . . ending in a hand that looks like a flower on the end of its stalk. . . . That's the Burmese sign-for-a- hand. Each thing has its own signm . . . . There are two sorts of artists, some who on each occasion paint the portrait of a hand, a new hand each time . . . and others who paint the sign for a hand. . . . This marks the artist's progress in the knowledge of the world, a saving of time, the briefest possible indication of the character of a thing. The signm ."
At seventy-five Matisse turned temporarily, he thought, to paper cut-outs as a less demanding art form than large oil painting. He wrote, "I have been working at my craft for a long time, and it's just as if up till now I had only been learning things elaborating my means of expression."
Within ten years, he was working exclusively in paper cut-outs. "The cut-out is what I have now found as the simplest and most direct way to express myself. I have attained a form filtered to the essentials."
The cut-outs are pure, signal compositions. Each shape in a sign; the shapes in combination form a greater, more complex sign, as the shapes for heaven, the stars, a soaring man and a heart, combine to create the sign for the soaring human spirit, Icarus.
Matisse once said that the importance of an artist could be measured by the number of new signsm he had introduced into the language of art. Matisse devoted himself to discovering and introducing archetypal signs in oils, drawings, sculptures and, finally in the paper cut-outs. His importance as an artist could be measured by those final signs, alone. Breathtaking in their brevity, their energy, their fidelity, they express -- in the essential iconography of a child -- an essential, personal vision of The Signs at the heart of all things.