Pattern on Pattern, in Red
is with color that you render light, though you must also feel this
have it within yourself.
His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams
Museum of Art
June 23, 2005–September
of being in a sari shop in India with yards and yards of fabrics spread
out, a wild and beautiful overlapping of flowing textiles, a riot of
vividly colored patterns that were embroidered, embossed, block-printed
or dyed. Also, the visual stimulation of embroidery and design on cushions
and wall-hangings, carpets and dhurries, block-printed bedspreads, bandhini
dupattas. Seeing pattern everywhere, imagining patterns where there
were none. This is something that Indian fabrics gave me—an understanding
of the vocabulary of pattern and fabric, an appreciation for the drape
and flow of textiles, the orchestration of color, pattern and texture.
And so, a visceral pleasure in Matisse’s paintings.
at Matisse and his use of textiles I realized that one of the defining
characteristics of his oeuvre is the interplay of pattern on pattern,
always reinforced with a subtly brilliant use of color. This idea of
pattern on pattern inevitably brought to mind moiré patterns. A moiré
pattern is created when one semitransparent patterned material is placed
over another patterned material and a pattern that does not exist in
either original can be seen. Originally, the word moiré came from mohair
(from mukhayyar in Arabic), which is made from the hair of
the angora goat, but later came to mean what is also called watered
silk, a fabric where a rippling wave-like pattern is formed when lengths
of dampened silk thread are pressed together and meshed, or where the
moiré pattern is impressed with heated and engraved rollers after weaving.
Matisse is known to have collected textile swatches and I wonder if
a piece of moiré silk was a part of his museum. Matisse grew up in the
textile manufacturing town of Bohain and this appreciation for textiles
led to his collecting pieces of fabric as an art-student. He collected
assiduously, from that early collection of swatches, to the famous piece
of toile de Jouy that was found in a thrift store and soon became central
to his compositions, to Moroccan textiles and robes. African Kuba fabrics
and Spanish shawls. A red Madras headdress or a green Romanian blouse
were inspirations for paintings. As in a moiré pattern, Matisse’s incorporation
of pattern juxtaposed with pattern creates something new, a pattern
that did not exist before, a third imaginary new thing in the painting
that the viewer sees—something harmonious, languorous, and beautiful.
As his biographer Hilary Spurling says, “It was as if the fabrics Matisse painted gave up their individual identities—as tablecloth, bedspread, wall-hanging—to become the expressive fabric of his painting.” The textiles in his paintings lost their functionality and became abstract, became instead pattern and color.
Matisse has been dismissed by critics as being merely decorative, that his interiors were some Western fantasy of the Orient, complete with odalisques in harem pants. Matisse said about his work, “The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. The place occupied by the figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part.” He also said that the decorative element was an extremely precious thing for a work of art, “ an essential quality”. There is, however, a different way of seeing his work: that his paintings instead of being merely decorative are in fact at that halfway point between European and Islamic art, fusing elements of classical Western art—still life and portraiture—with the patterns of textiles and fabrics, capturing decoration (or pattern or geometry) which is at the heart of Islamic art. As in Persian art, the perspective is flattened, and figures and objects float in a densely detailed space.
fall of 1910, Matisse spent a week at the Munich exhibition, ‘Masterpieces
of Islamic Art’. This show was of seminal importance and is also credited
with influencing Kandinsky to create his first abstract painting. The
exhibition was defining in its impact on the metamorphosis towards a
modern sensibility in Matisse’s work. Enamored now with Islamic art
he traveled in December of that year to Granada to see the Alhambra.
This only further intensified the effect of the Munich show. After going
to Granada, Matisse went to Seville and painted Spanish Still Life
and Seville Still Life—both paintings that he had visualized
while visiting the Alhambra. What is the beauty of the Alhambra if not
color and pattern and the juxtaposition of pattern against pattern?
One looks at these two paintings and sees that their titles state exactly
what it is that they are: the marriage of the Alhambra (or Spain, or
Seville) with European still life.
began his career as a leader of the Fauves (who worked with violent
color)—and color, the use of color, color against color, this is something
that Matisse manipulated to much effect. And there is his use of red,
glorious red, the color of passion and anger, of headdress or culottes,
of wall and studio. If Matisse was in love with textiles and patterns
then I believe that red was the color of this love. Red is seen as a
recurring theme in his work—from the early Mme. Matisse: Madras
Rouge in 1907 where his wife is portrayed wearing what has
been called a ‘Red Madras Headdress’. Even then, in this early painting,
as in Dishes and Fruit on a Red and Black Carpet from
the same year, one sees the beginning of the appreciation for pattern.
In 1908 he painted Harmony in Red/La desserte where pattern
on the cloth covering the table (the same piece of white and blue toile
de Jouy now recolored violently in red) frees itself and starts covering
the wall, and the textile is transformed into some fantastic creature
of his imagination. The 1911 painting, The Red Studio, is an
unabashed paean to the color red, and to pure color, saturated and intense.
By the time Odalisque with Red Culottes is painted in 1921,
the use of pattern on pattern is sophisticated, subtle, adding to the
overall feel of languor and beauty, and the red of culottes is both
center and anchor in the composition.
on pattern, in red.
days, I see echoes of Matisse everywhere—the textural play of pattern
and color in some of Wong Kar-Wai’s sets, the Rockwell Group’s new interior
for Nobu 57, an Englishman walking down the street in patterned jacket
on patterned tie on wildly striped shirt. It’s a difficult thing to
pull off, this pattern on pattern thing, but when done well, it is oh
quarter, Anita Itty writes on topics of leadership, identity, business
& culture for SAWLF. Ms. Itty received an MBA from Columbia University
and is the 2003-2004 winner of the First Words South Asian Literary
Prize. Ms. Itty lives in New York City where she is currently working
on a novel.
To contact Anita Itty,
Recent contributions from Anita Itty:
La Vita Nuova, April 15, 2005
The Elephant in the Room,
January 15, 2005
The Wall and the Books, September 15, 2004
On the Shoulders of Giants, June 15, 2004