Harder than it looks

Henri Matisse | France 1869 — 1954 | Portrait de Claude D. (Portrait of Claude D.) 1946 | Collection: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris | © Succession H Matisse. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2011

My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion. The simplification of the medium allows that. At the same time, these drawings are more complete than they may appear to some people who confuse them with a sketch.

Henri Matisse, ‘Notes of a painter on his drawing’, 1939

Henri Matisse wrote a number of short treatises on his own work which reveal his thoughts, theories and aims for his art. This quote is a particularly interesting one as it goes some way towards explaining something that may confuse some viewers of his work.

Like Picasso, Matisse was trained in and very adept at academic, realistic drawing — a style that many associate with a high level of skill. What Matisse points out in this quote however, is that to simplify but at the same time retain the essential qualities that he wishes to express in his drawing is much more difficult. Many pure line drawings are included in the ‘Matisse: Drawing Life’ exhibition at GOMA which describe the essence of objects, plants, faces and the human form in restrained and greatly simplified form. This kind of economical drawing is like the difference between a precise, evocative poem and a longer, extended essay.

‘Matisse: Drawing Life’ shows the development of Matisse’s drawing from carefully shaded academic studies to his late works made with brush and ink which are, as he says, ‘the purest and most direct translation of my emotion’.