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The Concepts of Expression and Decoration: c. 1890 - 1914


'Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings.' Henri Matisse, Notes of a Painter, 1908, Art in Theory, p.73).



Gauguin's painting, Manao tupapau (Spirit of the Dead watching), (Ref.1), 1892, was painted in Tahiti in 1892 and serves to demonstrate Matisse's definition of decoration. Lying across the middle of the painting, face down, is a naked girl. We appear to be intruding on her nightmare and she turns her head slightly towards us, one frightened eye daring us to enter her dream. At the back of what we assumne to be her bedroom a foreboding spirit skulks. The two figures are almost crudely painted and by themselves with the contrast of her brown body on the yellow bedsheet this would appear to be all that was required to evoke the subject of the painting. And yet Gauguin has gone to some trouble to add fliurishes to her pillow, to the undersheet and the rear wall of the room and has added another floral pink pillow. The fliurish on the wall behind the girl mirrors the contours of her back, the line is echoed by the colour, the pattern on the undersheet is angled to match the angle of the girl: these are not accidental motifs but are there to help convey the mood, to place us in Tahiti with the girl, to place us in her dream and to help us feel what the girl is feeling. There is a rhythm to the painting: as Gauguin wrote, 'By the combination of lines and colours, under the pretext of some motif taken from nature, I create symphonies and harmonies which represent nothing absolutely real in the ordinary sense of the word but are intended to give rise to thoughts as music does' (Ref. 1). The use of colour in this painting is for its direct emotional response it may invoke in the viewer. This is not to say Gauguin has deliberately falsified all the colour. The girl's skin is brown and as such shows that, for Gauguin, the subject matter was still important. It is the the other colours in the scene that can be chosen or distorted to invoke the required emotion and as such the the painting is in opposition to the naturalism of Impressionism.


Expression and Decoration

Gauguin's use of the female nude, and in particular the non-European female nude helps to express his estrangement, his alienation from modern life, that forced his move from Paris via Pont_Aven to the authenticity of Tahiti. This move back to nature is exemplified by the use of the female nude and its supposed closeness to nature, to rebirth, as did the 'primitive' Tahitian culture. Gauguin wanted to directly express meaning in painting without it being a piece of social comment: he wanted his paintings to express mood and feelings and the crudity with which the paint is applied and the flat areas of colour he felt were ways of doing this. He thought this very primitiveness imbued them with an autenticity and immediacy; they offered the viewer a direct expressiveness. For Gauguin the pink pillow, the black and ornage undersheet enhanced the painting's expressiveness. Gauguin also believed that the colours themselves imparted feelings and moods, affecting the viewer in a direct, uncensored, unmediated way. The use of complementary colours such as the yellow sheet and the pink pillow, the small splash of light blue below the girl's face, all deliberately placed for 'decorative', evocative effect. The decorative flourishes add a rhythm to the painting and this musical analogy Gauguin thought, apsired the painting to that most expressive of art forms.

Matisse took some of these ideas and in 1908 wrote, 'What I am after above all is expression... The chief aim of colour should be to serve expression as well as well as possible... To paint an autumn lanscape I will not try to remember what colour suits the season; I will be inspired only by the sensation the season gives me'. (Ref. 2) Matisse's seems to be embodied in his painting, Luxe, calme et volupte, 1904-5. (Ref. 3) This painting is bathed in a warm sunshine and evokes a luminous serenity. There is however no shadow, no sense of direction for the light source, this feeling of warmth and sun comes from the colours used and the juxtaposition of the colours. There is still evidence of line drawing in places, the painting is far from purely abstract, but in many places the outlines are merely boundaries of different colour. The use of the patterned surface gives the painting a look of decoration and suggests the pointillism techniques of Signac. It also emphasises that the subject matter is perhaps of less importance than with Gauguin and that for Matisse the technique used is merely there to bring emphasis to the xepression through the use of colours. The colours themselves are distorted but, for example, the juxtaposition of greens and reds on the bodies of the bathers, from distance, seems natural and unjarring. The subject matter embodies the French idea of 'joie de vivre', of enjoying sensation, and the use of naked women again would appear to relate to closeness with nature, closeness to our feelings. Unlike Gauguin however, this Matisse painting is not placed in an overtly 'primitive' environment (tahiti) and is more abstracted. Matisse's painting is perhaps more a painting of the imagination, whereas Gauguin's painting of seven years earlier is of a real subject, albeit he is capturing the emotion of that subject.

Matisse is now starting to uproot the viewer from earthbound reality where time and place are inconsequential. Matisse has classised the primitivism of Gauguin and he does this again in his painting, Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-6. Matisse later left this classical Arcadia, merging the decorative and expressive into a childlike explosion of colour, exemplified by Harmony in Red, 1908, (Ref. 4). Here colour takes complete precednce over form which is limited to a few curved and straight lines. As he wrote in his Notes of a Painter, 'What I am after, above all, is expression'. Lighting and modelling have been removed and decoration has taken precedence. Shape and colour have been meticulously manipulated to achieve a balanced harmony in the painting, the flurishes again invoking a musical motif.

Paula Modersohn-Becker expressed her objective to express, 'the unconscious feeling that often murmurs so softly and sweetly within me'. She drew on Gauguin's flattened and simple forms and produced a large number of female nudes, often with child, including nide self portraits. Her work has a marked French influence but her monumental figures of earthly womanhood have none of the sensuality of Gauguin's Thaitian nudes: her women dominate their natural surroundings. Modersohn-Becker also removes much of the decorative qualities of Gaugn and Matisse's work whilst still emphasising the closeness of women to nature. Her painting, Kneinde Mutter mit Kind ander Brust, 1907, shows women's association with nature through the fruit and the plants surrounding the central figure, but equally shows the mother figure as dominating these surroundings. Matisse's Nu bleu, Souvenir de Biskra of the same year also shows a nide woman as part of nature but here the woman is at one with nature, seemlesslyabsorbed into her envirnmonet (although one reading of the blue 'halo' effect separates the woman from her environment). Matisse's woman is sensual and Oriental with a figure to be enjoyed by the viewer (but without offering a male sexual reading), whereas Modersohn-Becker's woman is more Western, unattractive and imposing although the pose is ethnic. The woman has a 'tribal' mask look to her face with lozenge-shaped eyes, large breasts and deformed buttocks which as well as duplicating features of African statuettes also emphasises the nurturing and life bringing areas of the body. Modersohn-Becker's use of colour is also more muted and naturalistic than the French painters and more brooding. The use of decorative flourishes is minimal and the painting shows more modelling of the figure. For Modersohn-Becker the subject matter is still of primary importance. A more decorative work of hers (the woman's dress and flowers for example), is Alte Armenhauslerin im Garten of a year earlier but the woman figure has a similar dominance.

In 1906 Erich Heckel of the Brucke school painted Sitzendes Kind. This expressionistic work is more violent in nature than those we have already discussed. The crudeness with which the paint is applied and the apparently hurried, spontaneous brushstrokes all give the impression of the artist giving vent to his emotion. And compared with the sensuous, peacefulness of the French artists these emotions are frustration, anxiety and resentment. The primitivism of the French painters is also expressed differently. It is not so directly apparent, it is as if it has been absorbed and used to influence their paintings in a different, less direct way. If we consider other works such as Kirchner's Die Lehmgrube and Badende am Moritzburg, 1909, or Heckel's Glaserner Tag, 1913, (Ref.5), their primitivism comes from their earthly subject matter, the association with naturism and in particular the association of the female nude with nature. Heckel's Galserner Tag does use the theme of a naked woman with pendulous breasts and an exaggerated protruded stomach suggesting tribal staturs. Her half hidden, featureless face give the figure a more symbolic status, she is important to the painting only for what she symbolises. As such this work is more lyrical than Kirchner's paintings or indeed Heckel's own Sitzendes Kind. The dominance of blue in the painting as opposed to the aggressive oranges, reds and complementary greens suggest a more, albeit brooding, serenity. The colours still lack the vibrancy and joy of the French painters. The snow capped mountains and their reflections are angular and severe compared with the curvaceousness of the French.


Both the French and the German Expressionists were reacting to the naturalism of Impressionism. Both explored in their own way how to put ideas and emotions onto a canvas such that they would offer an umediated emotion in the viewer. The emotions displayed were very different, the sensuous, languid 'joire de vivre' of the French against the angry, aggressive, fragmented paintings of the Germans. However both countries felt the same emthods appropriate to portraying emotion on canvas. They both felt the need to use primitivism and primitive motifs, albeit in different ways: the German paintings almost suggest a primordial rather than primitive association. They both used the female nude (and also for the German artists the male nude) with its perceived closeness to nature, to rebirth. Both used apparently spontaneous application of the paint and unnaturalistic colours. For the expressionists colour has precedence over form and as such these artists provide the bridge between naturalism and complete abstraction.


Ref.1 http://z.about.com/d/arthistory/1/0/U/V/ambrvoll_09.jpg

Ref.3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Matisse-Luxe.jpg

Ref.4 http://www.artchive.com/viewer/z.html

Ref.5 http://www.fotos-und-bilder.de/Die.Bruecke/ErichHeckelGlaesernerTag%28BadendeamMeer%291913.jpg


Harrison , Charles and Wood, Paul, Art in Theory 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing ideas, (Blackwell Publishing, 2003).





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