Matisse, and how creativity keeps you young

In the spirit of leap years, daylight savings and the possibility of stretching time, I am saluting the visionary Henri Matisse.

This glorious Frenchman understood that his purpose as an artist was to “recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it”. Driven by this goal, Matisse was able to tap into beauty, simplicity, and visual joy in a way that few others have been able to.

His story is inspiring. As a struggling artist, Matisse’s first foothold in the history of art was at the turn of the Century as part of the Fauvist moveent in painting. “Les Fauves” (wild beasts) took the liberties of Impressionism a step further by proposing brash colors and interpretations that strayed from literal representation. Throughout the stylistic waves of Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada, and despite his close relationships with Picasso, Derain, and others formidable artists of the 20th Century, Matisse drove forward his love for effulgent color and distilled composition with independent integrity.

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Towards the end of his life, Matisse was diagnosed with a grave illness which placed him in a wheelchair and threatened to end his art career. In lieu of defeat, he traded in his canvases and brushes for a pair of scissors, sheets of paper and a couple of lovely assistants. Matisse reveled in the liberating nature of his new process, and its essential purpose. “You see, as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… There are leaves, fruits, a bird.” This resourceful pivot towards ease and play gave Matisse a new lease on life and the cut-outs that resulted are some of the most influential and beloved works by the artist.

Watch this rare snippet of Matisse, letting his scissors steer the winding landscape of a piece of paper.

This gorgeous video is revealing: while his cuts are clearly masterful- confident, controlled, and visionary, they also bely a childlike nature. Matisse then holds up tendrils of paper, and tries to divine the future that lies within those messy curls. Next we see him shuffling shapes on a blank page- basically a child at play with toys in his sandbox.

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Creativity is the spirit of play. It is the ability to keep an openness and an innocence and to let things be easy. No matter how young or old you are, how healthy or sick, or how teeny-weeny your living space is, or whatever else you believe impedes you, creativity is the fountain of youth.

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The great Irish Playwright, Bernard Shaw once said “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”


Here is a simple creative exercise inspired by Matisse’s cutouts

Happy Paper Squiggle

1. You need 1 sheet of paper (white or a color), scissors and a pushpin

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2.  Using organic curves (no straight lines or sharp angles), let your scissors make an ongoing squiggly line in the paper. Don’t over think. Just let the scissors and the paper do the work.

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3. Try to keep line going as long as you can and touch all regions of your paper

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4.  Find a good point with which to hold up your coil of cut paper
5.  Pin it on your wall
6. Observe the beautiful shapes and rhythms that it makes
7. You can repeat this several times. Using colorful paper, these can make very happy wall decorations to enjoy.
8. Photograph your work and share it  with #tchcutout, or send it to:  thecreativehours@gmail.com

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Further reading:

Matisse on Art by Jack Flam compiles the major writings of Henri Matisse. Flam provides an astute biography, and shares his reflections on the development of Matisse’s aesthetic values and theories.

 

 

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs by MOMA was published in conjunction with the most comprehensive show of Matisse’s cut-out works, which were first created in the early 1940s and were made until the artist’s death in 1954.

 

The Unknown Matisse by Hillary Spurling tells of his early years in a gloomy French Village, discovering himself as a Fauvist and artist, the scandal that almost destroyed his career, and his fight back to life and the vivid joy of his paintings.

 

 

Hannah Hoch and Collage

Hannah Hoch was ahead of her time. She was one of the few women participants in Dada, an avant-garde art movement from the early 1900s, which included members such as Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and George Grosz, as well as many women–consistently overlooked–such as Emmy Hennings and Beatrice Wood.  Dada emerged after WWI and was anti-war, anti-bourgeois, and dedicated to upending notions of the artist, the art object, and the establishment.

Hoch said she possessed “an experimental turn of mind”, and she is now recognized for pioneering the technique of photomontage as an art form, which presaged the mash-up media world that we live in now.  

Hannah Hoch Collage

Photomontage is a collage technique. It is a process of generating an original image out of other images and fragments which can be cut, layered, glued and arranged. The resulting composite conjures new visual and conceptual associations.

Hannah Hoch faced ugly bias from the male dominated art scene, and was routinely pushed out of the Dada club. Confronting dismissal from her peers and an ill-fated love affair with Dada artist Raoul Hausmann, Hoch persevered on her own, her work growing more and more politicized and challenging to gender norms, racial bias and class discrimination.  The series “An Ethnographic Museum” is a powerful example, which layers a mixture of fierce social criticism and soulful aesthetic sensibility.  I think it is a masterpiece.

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Here is a playful exercise based on Hoch’s work:

Photomontage Selfie

Goal: to use your hands, open your mind to playful associations, and by cutting and “alienating” imagery, and recombining it- to see the visual information that surrounds us anew.

Secondary Goal: to have a great post for Instagram.

  1. You will need paper, scissors, glue, a few magazines, catalogues, newspapers, and a printed image of your face. I prefer rubber cement for collage, but a glue stick or Elmers will suffice.  For the base of your photomontage, a black piece of construction paper is ideal, though a regular sheet of printer paper can also work.  Cut your paper so that it is a square.
  2. Print out a picture of you (ideally a close up) on 8 ½” by 11” paper.
  3. Choose images from your source material to cut out.  Find interesting shapes, subjects, words, colors, or anything else that intrigues you.  Take your time cutting out stuff, and don’t worry about overdoing it.  Abundance is good.  Cutting can be very meditative and relaxing.  Enjoy it.  This exercise can also be fun to do with a friend.
  4. Take image that you printed of yourself, and carefully cut out your features- your eyes, nose, mouth, hair or other distinctive shapes.
  5. You are going to create a new self portrait of yourself.  Start by playing around with compositions made from the cut up images.  
  6. Look for continuity of shape or color or juxtaposition between images.  Find arrangements that make you laugh. Be playful and trust your intuition. There is no “right” way here. Try a number of iterations before landing on a composition that interests you.
  7. Incorporate your features into the collage.
  8. Piece by piece use the glue to afix the collage to the paper.  Do this carefully, but do not fret if something gets messy or out of order- it might be your materials telling you something.  
  9. Set the collage to dry for an hour or so.
  10. Use your phone to photograph your photomontage selfie.  Try out different filters on your phone to see which looks most interesting.
  11. Post it with hashtag #TCHhoch

It is hard to get hold of good books on Hoch, which may be because Hoch is still marginalized by the male-dominated art world. She was brilliant. It is well worth the hunt.

Further reading:

Dada’s Women by Ruth Hemus.   Includes biographical material and artwork by Emmy Hennings, Sophie Taeuber, Hannah Höch, Suzanne Duchamp and Céline Arnauld

 

 

Hannah Hoch: Picture Book   A picture book for children, using her photomontage technique, of mythical creatures and plants. 

 

 

If you want to think more about sexism and art history, I recommend reading any of the books by the inimitable Guerrilla Girls: 

The Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. “A leveling indictment of bigotry in the art world, the work of the Guerrilla Girls elevates cage-bar rattling to a fine art.”—Mark Dery in The New York Times Book Review

 

Equipment & Supplies:

Stellar Scissors

Having a good, satisfying pair of scissors is a must

 

Rubber Cement

Choice glue for collage

 

 

Black Sulphite Sketch Book

Black paper makes a great base for collage

HAIL CAESAR, and how we get great ideas

Last night I attended a special screening of the Coen Brothers’ brilliant new flick, Hail Caesar. Ethan Coen was there for a Q&A following the film.  What a gift. I love the Coen Brothers, whose films have included Barton Fink and Oh Brother Where Art Thou, True Grit and Fargo, to name a few. Their movies always serve up nostalgic charm laced with poetic/pathetic humor and philosophy. Hail Caesar certainly delivered. Set in the 50’s in a fictionalized movie studio, starring George Clooney, Josh Broden and Scarlett Johansen, Hail Caesar is a frivolous caper in which a pupu platter of Hollywood genres are joyously jumbled. Run to the theaters ASAP if you haven’t seen it already. If you loved  Singing In The Rain, this movie is for you.

Singing in the Rain

It is always great to hear an artist talk about process and the creative life. As Ethan was describing the nature of his collaboration, the inception of Hail Caesar, and how he and his brother had come up with the idea for the film, I had an epiphany for The Creative Hours: We back into our big ideas. Ethan and Joel had a funny image in their heads. A pleasing lark. A tickle, a spark. They imagined a dashing and bewildered guy in gladiator regalia, sitting in a swank mid century pad on the California Coast sipping a Mai Tai. That image, which made Ethan and Joel crack up, is the seed from which the film started. The Coen Brothers did not set out to make a profound movie about movies, or a philosophical comedy. They did not start with an outline or an agenda. They started with a nonsensical shard of an idea.

There are a lot of scientific methods out there on how to be creative. Creativity has become a business. However, in all the brainstorming, mind-mapping, Post-it™ laden pedantics, I have noticed a gulf between innovation strategies and how most artists arrive at great ideas and creations.

Creative people understand the wisdom of intuition. A million visions may appear each day, but occasionally one stands out. Why?  It is hard to say…it just seems promising.  It is what we are in the mood for–even if we have no idea what awaits. Trusting our senses, we follow the trail and let the map unfold as we go. Eventually the big idea makes itself known and in the end we arrive, surprised at how we got there.

We do not build our great ideas from the big idea up. Often stellar and complex ideas are backed into by trusting a spark of imagination. Let your mind wander, start small, trust the path, and go see Hail Caesar!

Further Reading:

 

Interviews with the Coen Brothershttp://www.amazon.com/Coen-Brothers-Interviews-Conversations-Filmmakers/dp/1578068894/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&qid=1456545695&sr=8-1&keywords=coen+brothers+interviews&linkCode=li2&tag=&linkId=acfebea2f6f0ad9b78aa9553f68c613d, from the Conversations with Filmmakers series.

John Cage and The Art of Listening

Inspired by our launch of The Creative Hours, I’ve been compiling a diverse collection of practices that nurture creativity. Tools, rituals and exercises from around the world, across disciplines, and from the nether regions of my own noggin, that are aimed to foster fluidity, imagination, innovation and play. It struck me that a good portion of my collection was dedicated not to making and doing, but rather observing and listening.

Learning how to pay close attention and be receptive is a foundation for creative thinking.

No one embodies this principle better than artist and Buddhist, John Cage. His beloved book Silence: Lectures and Writings is both charming and profound.  I highly recommend keeping it near for creative inspiration and grounding. It is a wise book that never grows old, and offers itself for fruitful rereading again and again.

John Cage
John Cage

Composer, writer, and artist and music theorist, John Cage is considered one of the major American creatives of the 20th Century. He pioneered ways of thinking about sound, silence, instruments, composition and chance.  Also influential in the world of dance, Cage was life long partners with the equally seminal choreographer Merce Cunningham.


For our first creative practice on The Creative Hours, let’s channel John Cage. This exercise pays homage to his his passion for the world of sound and draws from his artistic commitment to mindful listening:

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THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE: LISTENING  MEDITATION   

  1. Find a private moment in your day, and a tranquil spot. Close your eyes. Breathe Deeply.  
  2. Start to turn your attention to the soundscape that surrounds you. Notice the many threads and types of sound.
  3. Start by focusing on the sounds that are farthest away. Do you hear cars humming, wind blowing, an airplane or the buzz of lives spinning outside. Spend one minute carefully finding and listening to these “in the distance” noises. You do not need to name or comment on the sounds, but simply to pay close attention. Stay listening for a minute or so.
  4. Next listen for the nearby sounds that are in your immediate sphere. Let the far away sounds recede, and listen carefully to the composition of sounds around you. Listen to tone, quality, pitch, rhythm of all the different ambient noises. The rumble of the refrigerator, the ticking of a clock, the rustling of a pet. Again, just listen for a minute or so.
  5. Finally, shift your focus inward, and try to listen to the sounds within your own body.  Hear your heartbeat, your stomach growl, your breath rise and fall. See if you might even be able to hear your brain churning or your blood flowing. Stay attentive to the smallest details and feelings. Stay listening for a minute or so.
  6. Take a deep breath and open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Take stock of your body, breath, your emotional state.
  7. What did you notice? Experience? Share your reflections #TCHlistening or email them to thecreativehours@gmail.com

This is a wonderful and grounding meditation to do before you begin a creative practice. It puts you in a sensitive and receptive state- a great state for letting the creative process flow.

Further reading: 

Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage

First published in 1961, Silence is a wise and whimsical collection of Cage’s essays and lectures.  In keeping with John Cage’s experimental approach, many of the pieces feature poetic methods of presentation or composition.

 

John Cage: Visual Art, To Sober and Quiet the Mind by Kathan Brown

A treasure of a book featuring 116 color images.  This exquisite book features Cage’s sublime chance made drawings, and Brown’s insight into his work and the role that art can play in this world.