Notes from sketchbooks

Sargy's thoughts on art and visual perception

Below are a selection of passages directly transcribed from Sargy’s notebooks.

October 1976

‘Matisse’s fauve paintings are almost entirely made from colour discords. This is because in the first place discordant contrasts are very potent but also because to make the eye most responsive colour you have reduce the tonal contrasts and with discords the natural tonal order (see Barrett Carpenter) is reversed.

One important difference between Matisse’s fauve paintings and Vlaminck’s is that Matisse completely remakes the picture in discords  whereas Vlaminck simply over saturates the existing colour order. Vlaminck just makes the sky too blue, the grass too green, trees too orange etc, there is no invention and the paintings are forced and untrue. Matisse re creates the light truthfully but out of discords instead of tonal contrasts.

2nd Oct.

Cezanne, and only Cezanne, seems to get absolutely the best of both worlds: An absolutely clear crisp flat pattern; coloured shapes locking together with what I can only describe as a springy rigidity -but all constructed from sensations ! The ultimate in touch painting to achieve the ultimate in clear flat decoration

You can see Matisse (the only one since to come near this) struggling after this ideal. The earlier great decorative pictures were arrived at through hours and hours of assimilating sensations, sifting them, clarifying them, changing them, condensing them, to find the final clear decorative flatness. I am thinking the portrait of his wife (1913), the blue window 1911, Nasturtiums, and the Danse (1911) and many others. When you look at the reproductions in Aragon, which are very well focused  and show the underpainting (changes) up, much more than most, you can see just how much how many of the paintings were changed and how hard fought for the final decorative clarity was. You can see the process starting in the 1900 nudes and other paintings of the time (Matisse, like so many great artists, painted different sorts of paintings at any one time), and there are are pairs of paintings, like the sailor boy portraits or ‘Le Luxe’ where having fought his way to  some sort of conclusion, on the canvas in the first, he then does it over quite flat in the second. In his mature, or rather , late paintings he seems to have done as much of the preparatory work as possible in charcoal drawings so as to preserve as much as possible the precious decorative flatness of his canvas from the ravages of necessary change in the painting. Although he seems to have discovered how to clean right down to a surprisingly white and unstained ground after much painting comparatively early. How he managed this technically speaking, I don’t know. Take the development of the ‘Romanian Blouse’ for instance and there are many others.

In Aragon there is a very interesting reproduction of ‘Luxe Calme et Volupte’. I’ve never before really experienced the light in this painting. It must be to do with my own painting as I didn’t really get the point of it when I saw it in the Grand Palais. Now, the quality of the sun, just about to disappear behind the cliffs, raking the beach, hitting the figures and the pine, seems so true and like I have experienced in the evening painting at Seatown. And now that I have seen the light I can see how very logically Fauvism, Matisse’s Fauvism, developed from his pointillism. Luxe Calme [et Volupte] (1904) is very nearly a Fauve painting in dots.

The big battles are always the same: to keep the decorative flatness without losing the space and form (cubism, one of many examples), and to keep the colour intensity without losing the light (Fauvism)

Years ago I remember writing in a sketch book (or it could be in the notes for a thesis on Picasso I never wrote) that Fauvism was to colour what cubism was to drawing, and I still think there is some truth in this. A consistent tonal scale as the main source of light is rather like consistent perspective as a main source of space and form, and they have similar drawbacks: they work too well as illusion. Because in both conventions, and particularly so when they are combined, the system works as well for the part as for the whole, and also because both are as close as possible to everyday perceptual experience, a recognition of and belief in the part can be arrived at without an appreciation of the whole and so, through recognition, the experience is reduced to our own measure.

With cubism or fauvism, and the best figurative ( and possibly abstract ) art to follow them, and Cezanne before, belief in the part is only possible through digestion of the whole. You have to have the artist’s world or nothing. Well not nothing. You have what you start off with and can always return to: The decoration, the beautiful flat pattern which is the initial seduction and only means of communicating the alien, because heightened, experience.