I know, this studio photo is a bit creepy, yes? Matisse looks like a frickin’ doctor already. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a metal table with a paper cover and some elevated stirrups. I can’t imagine that this is how it was done in his studio, at least, I hope that’s not how it was done in his studio. I’m talking about his art – I think? This picture is posed after all. The easel is loaded with a finished painting. The low side table with the flowers is positioned to fill the frame behind Matisse while holding open the door for light. The whole thing just looks really uncomfortable. Basically, this photo is staged and staged for a reason. Rather than seeing the wild, color dude painting nude chicks, what we are meant to see is a photo of a staid professional clinically involved in a reasoned and reasonable interaction with a subject. There isn’t a SHRED of heat or emotion in this set up. And this “pose” is in stark contrast to the way Matisse talked about his life, his work and his reasons for making art in the first place. Our Matisse spent a lot of time denying the label of wild man (fauve.) He felt that in order to find respect he had to appear as a reasonable man. He did, after all, study to be a lawyer. But if you’ve read Hilary Spurling’s or Jack Flam’s books about his life, you know that this picture only makes sense in the way Matisse crafted his public persona. His life was far from conventional. And that “fauve” came through in his personal correspondences.
“…occassionally he [Matisse] lets down his guard, and in a letter to a friend he expresses his delight in the sheer physical presence of the women themselves. “She’s a big girl,” he wrote of one model, “a colossal woman with tits like 2 liter chianti bottles!” Matisse and Picasso by Jack Flam
So much for the staid professionalism…
Artists present themselves in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons – to each his own. But what is the truth of these presentations and how do they form out of the studio lives that artists lead? Above are the artists Gustav Klimt and Julian Schnabel. Both were/are known for their outsized lifestyles and their nonchalant attire. Klimt wore self-designed monks’ habits in order to exist in a kind of profaned artistic religiosity. Schnabel is known for wearing designer silk pajamas; a pilgrim’s habit donned on the road to a Postmodern Luxe Internationalism. These are artists playing the parts of Dantean tour guides through the Heart of Hollywood Darkness. Both of these presentations allude to an extreme disregard for social convention. But they also portray something deeper, showing us that the creative is and must be connected to another reality. These artists live in an ecstatic world in a way that most of us could not, would not understand. They both reside somewhere in the realms of magic, somnambulism and inspiration. They are natural, decadent, unbridled, sexy, effete and in-human – like Byron in his oriental robes or Lawrence in his kaftan or Prince in his purple trench coat. These artists are ready, willing and able to engage with a heightened dream state, life lived as ecstasy, where clothing and convention become hinderances to artistic communion. To roll from the bed into the studio, unshaven, unwashed; to listen to the call of the muse at any moment; to forego the conventions of constructed time – all of these constructs are there in these photos. These men are otherworldly artists – at least that’s the presentation.
In a more contemporary view is this photo of the marvelous Cecily Brown by the fantastic David LaChappelle. Cecily’s paintings were/are presented in a very specific way. First in her work there is the idea of painterly touch and the historic connection that has been made to Willem De Kooning’s oft repeated bon mot, “flesh was the reason that oil paint was invented.” Next is the subject matter of her work which is garnered not only from art history but from pornographic photographs. Finally, there is the press that has followed her every move from the very beginning of her career; her parentage, her boyfriends, her stellar career and mostly her immediate acceptance into the top tiers of NY fashion culture. Cecily has been featured in nearly every “hot” magazine in the business. In the picture above she is presented by the fashion photographer LaChapelle – all you have to do is google to see the spectacular high-stakes world that he inhabits! In this photo all of that spectacle is evident. The artist appears in a working class neighborhood dressed in an outfit appropriate for a night of rave and trance, cigarette and cocktail in hand. Her large painting, a huge erection front and center, is at odds with the ordinary life of the Mom and child making their way down the ordinary street. In the back of the scene the words True Value underscore the artist and her work. Cecily is the artist of flesh and sex, the hot new celebrity artist connected to the streets, transcendent through her youth, beauty and art – Kiki of Montparnasse NY, heir apparent to the world of ABEX fleshiness! Now, all of this is interesting because she’s being presented in this way by a well known and highly-sought-after glamour photographer as an “advertisement” about a contemporary artist/celebrity. He has taken the basic PR story of her glamorous life and blown it up into grand proportions giving us not Cecily, but “CECILY!”
I find pictures of artists and how they present themselves fascinating. I often wonder what they’re thinking, what images they are looking to present of themselves, because it’s also speaks of their work and their lives. For me, it all comes out of the studio – the world that’s created there. Now I know a lot of artists, or I did at one time. Many of the studios I’ve been to over the years kind of look alike. Large-ish empty spaces with white walls and painted grey floors – a desk to the side (sometimes), an uncomfortable paint smeared chair to sit in, a place to store finished canvases (usually near the desk) and at least one long wall to paint on. This is a cookie cutter work convention we all learned in college. It smacks of the professional, the worker, the serious clerk. I, however, look for the tell-tale slip – the piece of material hidden near the papers, the black & white picture of a beloved or the postcard purchased at the museum shop. It opens something human in this “profession.” And it is the human part of all this Art Entertainment that has been missing. And it is the human part we should be looking to, involving in our work.
In September we will be bringing you a series of articles by and about artists and their lives in the studio. It will be Henri’s “Art Issue” if you like. Just in time for the new Art Season!