Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Exactitude is not always the truth (Henri Matisse)


There is one thing which, throughout the whole of our lives, we never, ever see. That is our own face. The only thing we become familiar with is our mirror image. Yet we know our own face intimately - the curve of the brow, the shape of the nose, the blemish on the cheek.

We recognise ourselves, our friends, celebrities in pictures in the newspapers, in photographs. Maybe a profile might flummox us for a while, but full face hardly ever.

It used to be said that to "Westerners" it was much more difficult to differentiate between the faces of the so-called "pure" races - say the Chinese and the Japanese. This may still be so.

The cartoonist can create a caricature which is instantly recognisable by emphasising just one feature - Tony Blair's "smile", Prince Charles's "ears", Gordon Brown's "bags under his eyes."

I have been reading a piece written by Henri Matisse for a retrospective in Philadelphia in 1947. Included in the exhibition were four line drawings of his face - all very different - yet all obviously Matisse.

The upper part of the face is the same in all four drawings but the lower part varies. In one the jaw is square and massive, in another the chin is elongated, the third - drawn at a slight angle - has a pointed chin and the fourth is totally different from the other three - yet all are obviously Matisse.

He likens this to the leaves on a fig tree, saying there can be quite a difference in the form of the leaves yet each is united by that common quality "fig leaf." The same, he says , applies to all vegetable forms and all fruit - they can have so many different characteristics yet all marrows are obviously marrows, all lemons, lemons.

In the case of his four drawings he says the elements are still always wedded in each drawing with the same feelings:-the way the nose lies on the face, the way the spectacles hang on the nose, the same tension in the gaze. His point is that inexactitude in a representation does not detract from the expression of character or the inherent truth of the personality - in fact these little inexactitudes help to clarify. As he says, "Exactitude is not necessarily truth."

One is reminded of the Graham Sutherland portrait of Winston Churchill which his wife, Clemmie, hated so much that she burned it. Had Sutherland, by inexactitudes, shown aspects of Churchill's character in his face which Clemmie couldn't tolerate?

The portrait at the top is of me at 17.

25 comments:

willow said...

Fascinating post, Weaver. I have always been mesmerized by the human face. Matisse's quote is something to ponder. Very interesting. Your portrait is wonderful!

Gramma Ann said...

I like your portrait when you were 17. You were a lovely young woman, just as your profile photo shows you as lovely today as you were then.

I find your post today interesting. The person who comes to my mind when ones make a caricature of is Jay Leno, I don't know if you are familiar with him or not. But, he has a look which is very easy to recognize in a caricature.

Heather said...

I thought the portrait might be yours before I read to the end of the post - a wonderful painting and I imagine a good likeness. Another fascinating post with much to ponder on.

Cathy said...

I like your portrait too. It's an interesting post.

Arija said...

You look to be a little aprehensive ... Matisse is quite right,either you capture that certain something or you don't.

acornmoon said...

Did you paint the portrait? It is very good, I am full of admiration as I find painting portraits well nigh impossible.

By the way, I visited your friend Denise, I like her work very much, thanks for the introduction.

Elizabeth said...

Such an elegant portrait.
I also loved the one of Tess below.
Yes, we had rabbit wire all round our garden in Essex and my father used to get quite wild about the rabbits.
I love them.
Also re-read the Tennyson -such a nostalgic feel to it as you note.
Plants and flowers a treat as ever!

gleaner said...

Enjoyable post, Weaver. It is a fascinating topic and in the last few years I have considered having a portrait done...only because I want to see the changes that I know are happening but just can't see fully...sometimes I have to look twice because I'm not sure if it's me and other times I see a glimpse of my mother. I'm watching my ageing process with fascination and respecting the story in the inexactitudes (no Dorian Gray story here)

Raph G. Neckmann said...

What an interesting post with lots of food for thought, Weaver!

Your portrait is lovely - who was the artist?

Hildred and Charles said...

When I compare your portrait at 17 with your profile picture, Weaver, the same eyes look out at me. and make your face very recognizable. A most interesting post, - I sometimes wonder what my active, laughing face looks like, - or what sympathy looks like on my face. We only see it in repose, - unless we are terribly narcissistic.....! Thank you for something else to ponder...

EB said...

Intriguing. My husband took several studio photographs of my mother a couple of weeks ago, several of which I loved, of her laughing, looking mischievous. But she said she didn't recognise the person in them as herself. She is now 73. but it wasn't only the aging that made it seem unfamiliar - one rarely sees one's own face in motion, I think.

jeannette stgermain said...

I agree with Matisse!
Bytheway, haven't seen you on my blogroll lately, but you have written posts, so somehow you must have "rolled off", so I'll put you back on, because I like your blog:)

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

And here was I wondering if the portrait was by Matisse! Not enough unusual colour I suppose. But a very attractive portrait nontheless. I think we might all benefit from a little inexactitude!

jinksy said...

I thought it was! And the artist?

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks to all of you. The portrait of me at 17 was done by my then boyfriend, later first husband, Malcolm Rivron (father of Dominic, see my blog list). I never felt it was a good likeness but various other people thought it was - I suppose that is proof of my post.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Matisse was only half right.Something that doesn't even exist(exactitude) can never be true.When it comes to portraiture or even photography we get only impressions of people or moments.That said, this is a wonderful portrait and instantly recognisable. Perhaps the best artists paint not what they see but what they feel.

Leenie said...

Very interesting comments by a great artist. The human face (at least for me) is a challenge to reproduce in art. It even takes a clever photographer to capture the essence of personality. Your post gives lot to think about, and brings a high respect for the great protrait painters.

What spooks me is seeing my reflection unexpectedly in an unknown mirror. "Who is that funny looking lady?"

Dominic Rivron said...

I have heard it said that one thing humans do that computers are (or certainly were, things change fast)very bad at is recognising "families" of things (fig leaves, etc) that have common qualities.

Rachel Fox said...

Beautiful painting! The hair, the eyes, the colours...I love it.
x

Denise Burden said...

I remember seeing that portrait when I first met you all those years ago and thinking the artist who painted it had captured something special in his depiction of you.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I once sat as a subject for an art class. It was a rather fascinating, and bit disconcerting, experience. Not only did I learn that it's difficult to sit in the exact same position for two hours, but also that I have "a lot of blue in my face". Who knew?
The best part though, was seeing all the different interpretations of my face at the close of the class. All so very, very different....but all me. A little bit creepy actually.

I adore your portrait at seventeen. A very handsome face indeed.

Janice Thomson said...

Gosh I think the painting has a striking likeness. How wonderful to see the young beauty matured to even more beauty.

Teresa said...

What an insightful and thought-provoking post, Weaver. Especially for someone who has a fascination for portraits. Matisse is right, of course, but I've never heard it articulated quite that well.

Re: Your portrait... what a beautiful portrait - and subject! How nice to have a handpainted treasure like that to keep.

Kayla coo said...

Lovely painting of you.
I enjoyed reading about Matisse,I do so admire his work.

Red Clover said...

Beautiful painting! It's amazing how those things happen, and the interesting thing about photos is that they capture some elements that you don't feel are you at all!!!