Glorious Descent

Glorious Descent
Acrylic on canvas 60 x 40cm

Friday, February 28, 2014

Paintings from a European Summer: Nice

Ponies of Nice Gouache & pencil on paper 20x15cm 2013

I made this painting during a visit to the Matisse Museum in Nice in September 2013.

I remember the journey to the South of France as arduous but visually spectacular. It was a romanticized place for me and as autumn was approaching I was seeking that last hoora of summer by the French Riviera. I had travelled by train from Bern Switzerland early in the morning on a suitably prompt Swiss train, passing through lush green pasture so iridescent it reminded me of rice pats in Vietnam. The mountains that encircled the grass were majestic and serene, hardly as imposing as those that I had seen during my time Canada. Approaching Geneva the train started to twist and turn as it rounded Lake Geneva, I had taken a phone call from a loved one in Australia but had to abort the conversation as I became transfixed with the landscape that was evolving in front of me: Rows and rows of grape vines were cascading down to the water's edge which was mirroring the peaks of the mountains overhead. It was pristine and clean. This had also been the condition of the efficient train that I had been travelling on, even with the addition of Swiss soldiers who had boarded two stops earlier, the cabin was civil and reverent to the changing landscape outside the window. This experience however came to a sudden halt when we crossed the border into France and transferred trains in Lyon. I was ushered into crowded, hot cabin class onboard a train to Nice, where one had to fight for a seat between sweaty legs, birdcages, snotty nosed children and enormous suitcases. Needless to say the southward journey was arduous and I longed for the civility of the Swiss and the cool climate. 

The temperature began to rise as we approached the Mediterranean and you could sense the arid heat by looking at the dusty red soil outside. With the transition of green to red it felt like I had witnessed an eclipse of landscape and culture. As the Mountains came into view of the Cote De Azure I noticed they were craggy and sunburnt and completely un vegetated. Yet despite the dryness there were abundant vineyards, growing but I presumed was the regions specialty: Rose. This was a pleasant discovery as I likened the red pigment of the soil to the subtle pink colour of the wine and imagined how deliciously quenching a glass of chilled rose would be on a day like this.

Soon the train was nearing Marseille, which I realised was where most passengers were alighting, returning from their summer holidays in France and greater Europe. School was to return the following week and the working year was to begin again. Hence the disgruntled French families travel beaten and nauseous from the rollicking train ride disembarked, leaving me alone to continue onto Nice. As the sun began to set I finally arrived at my destination where I found my hostel and some rest for the night. Tomorrow I would explore.

My initial experience of the cities' streets was similar to that of a pinball machine where I was the tiny metal ball being bounced and flung amongst a maze of bright colour and lights. The city sucked me in and I made a twisting path through the streets following fragrances and alluring colours around every corner until I met the sea. It amazed me how different this French city could feel to that of Paris, which up until this point had been my only address in France. Not only was there the contrast of coloured architecture to the limestone blocks of Paris but also I could feel the salt on my skin but the smell of citrus, figs, cumin and olives wafted freely. I could visualise the origin of these flavours in Greece, Italy and Morocco and the bustle and colour of the market city made more sense - I was compelled to follow the source, jump on a trade boat as if I were a stick of cinnamon and transit between these exotic places.

On a later day I learnt that the city had been the home of Matisse for 25 years, as a favourite painter of mine this information only added a new layer of meaning to my experience. My appreciation for the cities atmosphere had been growing something about the Mediterranean air seemed to add a joyful lightheartedness to the spirit of the place. It was as if the city were wrapped in a blanket of warmth that kept people's attitudes at a healthy medium. The history of the city as a Jazz haven in the 1930's could be read in the architecture of the city halls and hotels that stretched along the ocean boulevard. The music could still be could be heard in the colonial architecture which kept a vibrant beat of colour and a created a gentle hum of market activity. The neighbouring white art deco suburbs were the image of timeless melodies with their elegant balconies and sweeping lines. It made sense then that Matisse made music and dance some of his most memorable subject matter and celebrated it through colour and line. As one gazed around the city the pieces of his paintings could be found: A date palm here, a juicy peach there, a pattern of terraces and a blanket of blue sky. 

I decided to seek out the Matisse Museum and revisit his famous works many of which I had only seen in textbooks during art school. Located a short but steep bus ride out of central town the museum was set within an olive grove and overlooked the seaside city. As soon as I entered the building and witnessed my first work it were as if I were returning to the family home, where the idiosyncrasies of your loved ones make sense amongst the familiar smells of the kitchen and the worn cushions of the lounge. 

The works of Matisse are very familiar to me yet viewing them within the context of their source enhanced their potency. For me Matisse remains an impressive painter through his complex combination of analytical painting and joyful expression, done so with such effortless style. His work captivates my sense of perception in their analysis of the picture plane: How a composition can both construct and deconstruct space. His draughtsman ship and unapologetic construction lines chart the evolution of the work and pays homage to artistic practice. Yet despite Matisse contributing to some major advances in the development of abstraction his work manages not to intimidate but rather remains approachable and active. His use of line is deliberately unresolved and bright colour and humble subject matter maintains a sense of humility. What I think resonates with so many people about Matisse's work is that it celebrates life and can be understood through the representation of dance, music, food and bathers. Similarly the careful identification of colour, shadow, pattern and space serves as a reminder of the vast scope in which beauty can be found and is in tune with the details of life. It is this quality that makes Matisse's work deeply human and capable of reconnecting the viewer with simple sensual pleasure that can often become lost or taken for granted.

Having exited the exhibition I felt as though I had been reunited with an old friend and continued to muse about the work as I wandered the grove of olives that encircled the museum. The muted green leaves created a soft haze in the afternoon heat and spinning happily in the centre was a carousel. I took up a chair in the neighbouring cafĂ© and took out my sketchbook, with Matisse by my side.

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