The many masks of modern art
The differences in this century's perception of man as a subject for art couldn't be better demonstrated than in the two pictures reproduced on this page.
In the Matisse, man is an object, a form to be reduced into as few lines as possible. In the Nolde, he is a raw nerve end, transmitting the starkest possible image of human self-awareness.
The Matisse is a codification, an objectification of human form, and reflects the idea that art should be detached, formal, and serene.
The Nolde, on the other hand, is a passionate projection of human emotion, and reflects the notion that art should touch and give voice to man's deepest level of feeling and consciousness.
For Matisse, art was a matter of balance and discretion. For Nolde, it was the cutting edge of a cry for compassion and sympathy.
Matisse is one of the glories of French art, and one of the two generally acknowledged geniuses -- Picasso being the other -- this century has so far produced in painting. His art was a lifelong process of clarification and simplification, from his first break- through as a dissident -- a Fauve immediately after the turn of the century -- to his last glorious paper cutouts.
Above all, Matisse was a master colorist, one of the few painters ever to have given color near-autonomy without, at the same time, losing control over it. He was also a master draftsman and printmaker, and created some of this century's most breathtakingly beautiful drawings, lithographs, and etchings.
Nolde, on the other hand, started to paint relatively late in life, and didn't find himself as a painter until he was well into his 40s. But, once he knew what he wanted, he went ahead with a focus and passion not seen since the days of Van Gogh.
Like Matisse, Nolde was a magnificent colorist, but in his case color was fiery, tumultuous, and pitched to the very highest levels of intensity. Unlike Matisse's color, which creates a feeling of balance and expansiveness, Nolde's color assaults our sensibilities with its driving, shrill, often hysterical emotionalism.
This driving, pulsating expressiveness is also evident in Nolde's prints, which number among them some of this century's graphic masterpieces.
We have here, then, two artists who were exact contemporaries, who were master colorists and superb printmakers, and who kept themselves strictly apart from their period's tendency toward abstract and nonobjective art.
But that's about all they had in common. Beyond that they stood for very different things: Matisse for containment and codification of passion and sensation, Nolde for giving passion and feeling full play.
Or, to put it more simply, Matisse represented formal sensibility; Nolde, inner necessity. Matisse chosem to paint, Nolde was drivenm to do so. Matisse was rational, logical, and orderly, and painted to give the most perfect external form to feeling and sensation. Nolde was emotional and evangelical, and painted to gain sympathy and complicity from the viewer in matters of feeling and concern.
In a large sense, Matisse represents those force in 20th-century art which see painting as a search for formal clarity and resolution, as symbolic verification of natural or divine law, and Nolde, those who see it primarily as an expression of emotion, as justification and proof of personal identity.
Seen from this viewpoint, Matisse's persistent search for the clearest and most all- inclusive pictorial form reflects a creative personality essentially in harmony with the universe and its laws, while Nolde's passionate insistence upon direct and total projection of his most personal and private feelings reflects his deep-felt anxiety as to the nature and quality of his identity and being.
Matisse, in other words, found creative fulfillment and meaning through the symbolic reconciliation of personal feeling and will with universal law. Nolde found his through a highly focused act of seduction aimed at causing others to share with him his deepest feelings and perceptions -- which, when successful, confirmed his own humanity, identity, and being.
Matisse and Nolde represent two crucial facets of 20th-century art: disciplined but exuberant formalism and passionate evangelism. If these are seen in conjunction with the qualities and contributions of the other pivotal modern masters, with the art of Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, de Chirico, Mondrian , Klee, Miro, etc., we begin to understand the full range, depth, and thrust of 20th-century modernism.
But that is only possible if we switch our focus from the narrow study of individual artists and give equal attention to modernism as a whole.
Art may be created by individuals, but always in dynamic interaction with other individuals and with the social and cultural forces that shape a particular period. Significant art is never created in a vacuum, and certainly not at the whim of any one individual, no matter how powerful his genius. Even Picasso, one of the greatest and most arrogant geniuses of all time, spent his entire life in creative and highly dynamic dialogue with the full range of forces that shaped 20th-century culture.
While Picasso may have dominated much of the art of this century, there have been quite a few other artists who made significant contributions to the art of our time and to our better understanding of ourselves.
Among these are Matisse, whose brilliant color-magic will continue to enchant us and to revive our spirits for a long time to come, or whose drawings and prints will teach us what we need to know about balance, simplicity, and economy of means. And Nolde, whose passionate images of human vulnerability will continue to remind us that we do not stand totally alone, that there are others who also need and wish to share.
What is most significant is not that eitherm Matisse or Nolde is important, but that they and the rest of the "pivotal masters," and all true artists everywhere, exist in creative counterpoint to one another -- and not as competing soloists.