Regular posts about my painting practice present and past.

Henri Matisse, cineaste; Temporality in Le bonheur de vivre

| 30 September, 2011 13:01

the painting is like a movie

The title of Henri Matisse’s two and a half meter-wide masterpiece Le bonheur de vivre from 1905 is most often translated as The Joy of Life. I think for reasons intrinsic in the iconography of the painting it more accurately depicts The Joy of Living.


The word “living” stresses the temporality or experience of life through time. The word “life” denotes a static condition. 


Matisse’s composition shows an anomaly that that has puzzled commentators for decades.  The figures, which were carefully developed through numerous studies, do not appear to inhabit one coherent space.  Some of the nude figures (they are nearly all female) are either too large or too small for the space they purport to occupy in the picture’s fairly unambiguous landscape space.


I don’t know what Matisse intended to do with that pictorial conceit, but the effect is to dissociate the figure groups from each other.  The harder we try to comprehend the composition as a whole; as a single gestalt, as a moment in time, the more elusive the figures appear.


It is only possible to engage individual figure groups by ignoring the figure groups next to it.


The figure groupings in Henri Matisse’s’ Le Bonheur de Vivre can only be apprehended in sequence. In this way they represent the evanescence of experience. After you experience through the painting the joy of dance, say, you have to put it aside and come to something new.  That evanescent quality is at the heart of the joy of living Matisse seems to say. And I believe that’s what gives such poignancy to this painting, the one Leo Stein called “the most important painting done in our time.”