(Henri Matisse, The Painter’s Family, 1911)
I’ve always used the word “decorative” as a pejorative when describing a work of art: to me it has meant pretty-to-the-eye, but without further depth. Synonyms in my mind – equally pejorative – have been superficial, even artificial. That’s why I’ve always tripped on reading “decorative” in writings by and about Matisse. He’s a hero, and none of my heroes are shallow. So what gives?
It may be that a more accurate way to understand the word is as “on the surface.” “On the surface” acknowledges that in drawing and painting, the artist is physically dealing with a flat plane (the canvas or sheet of paper). Turning this flatness into dimensional space – into “realism” – is valued as skilled and serious. It is valued as depth spatially, but also morally in Western art. But spatial depth on a flat plane is an illusion. What’s more, we don’t really see the world like realism. We see it in bits and pieces, probably more like Cubism than a photograph.
Through surface, Matisse takes on the plane as a plane with multiple areas. It may in fact be that the superficial is the means to depth. More on this soon.