Artists are innovators and experimenters by nature, the last thing they desire is a limit to their creativity. Painting, sculpture, performance – whatever media that constitutes as art is but a symptom or piece of evidence for something larger: an idea.
The idea-seed as I like to think of it, can be limitless, both in its intelligibility and in the manner it is expressed. So why not use language? Artists have expressed themselves through the written word in all kinds of ways: attempts to explain their oeuvre, descriptions of how and why they create, poetry, and general musings on life and art.
Unsurprisingly, many of them have some very beautiful and profound things to say. Matisse was of their number. He accumulated many notebooks in which he formulated ideas through drawing and his broad, calligraphic writing. Matisse believed in the soothing power of art, and aspired to an art of ‘balance, purity and serenity’ which could calm the mind, ‘rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.’ I like this idea that art could be something to relieve you, something lenient and inviting.
But this is not to suggest that Matisse’s art was without vigour. On the contrary, I can’t imagine anyone familiar with his work could say his designs and use of colour are anything but pure vital energy. Indeed he explained, ‘I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.’ The artist was relentlessly innovative throughout his whole life, and described his process of cutting for his late collages as ‘a way of drawing and sculpting at the same time.’ It is interesting to gain insight into the way this artist perceived this creative action, and the implication it has on his general perception of reality is intriguing: what other actions might he have fused together? To what extent did he perceive the world as interrelated?
I am fascinated by interrelation and connectivity and so marvel at the condition of synaesthesia: the idea that the senses are somehow joined, that sensations apprehended by one sensual mode will be understood by another mode simultaneously i.e. hearing something from seeing something, or tasting something from touching something – can you imagine? Mm, touching this table is like the taste of apples!? Kandinsky was blessed with this condition and he famously described hearing a variety of sounds when looking at colour. His synaesthesia was so pronounced he was confident making claims such as,
‘The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with treble.’ Indeed, Wassily. I’m always hearing a high pitched trumpet when I look at yellow autumn leaves..
Like Matisse, he had a beautiful way of describing his creative process and was particularly poetic when he explained, ‘Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key to another, to cause vibrations in the soul.’ Life must be pretty rich for the Kandinskys of the world.
Not all artists offered insight in such a romantic, serious way. Some were a barrel of laughs really. Take Andy Warhol. He wrote a book called The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, which to me is the mirror image of his silkscreen prints in written form. He is wonderfully candid while highly self-consciously constructing a persona. What he creates is original, yet is made from references and reproductions of everyday things and situations. Hence, he and his work are a constant contradiction. Go figure.
In his book he discusses everything from the mystery of love and death, to economics and work. There’s even a chapter called ‘Underwear Power’. Why not Andy, why not. He loves anything to do with superficiality, it totally fascinates him, you could say it’s the air he breathes. When discussing beauty and appearance he stated,
‘When you’re interested in somebody, and you think they might be interested in you, you should point out all your beauty problems and defects right away, rather than take a chance they won’t notice them.’
He explains that at the age of 23 or 24 he dyed his hair grey so that people would think he looked great for his age. ‘When you’ve got gray hair, every move you make seems “young” and “spry”, instead of just being normally active.’
His candour is particularly vivid when he discusses how jealous a person he is, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m always trying to buy things and people just because I’m so jealous somebody else might buy them and they might turn out to be good after all.’ The first step is admitting I guess…
Among all these entertaining anecdotes he makes some pretty interesting and surreptitiously profound remarks:
‘During the 60s, I think, people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don’t think they ever remembered. I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again.’
To me, this comment actually offers quite a neat summary of postmodernism, if such a thing can be possible. I do think that natural and instinctive emotion was cast aside and replaced by irony and layers of self-consciousness. His comment suggests the malaise of falsity and artifice, which seems to be at the centre postmodernity.
Matisse, Kandinsky and Warhol’s written work were pretty different from each other, and always very individual. Whether you marvel at artists’ insights or laugh at their eccentricity, you are in for a special experience.