Reading through the blog-comments of last weeks (Charles you’ve been busy) and cleaning up my desk at home, I stumbled upon a page I copied from a recent number of October-magazine. It was an article by Hubert Damish on abstraction. I remember reading it some weeks ago, sitting in the library and feeling a bit naughty somehow for doing it. Of course there was little time – the museum may be conservative in its function as repository, but its practice is as fast as anything today – but also the type of phenomenological language in which it was written, the blatant western focus (Matisse as undisputed centre of a world that was spinning around Paris) it was all so remote from the type of dialogues we are involved in in the museum. The ‘internationale’, the symposium in Ljubljana, a recent visit I myself made to Bulgaria and Slovakia , talking in Berlin with people from ‘Public Movement’ (an artist collective from Israel), all this made my traditional, art historical head spin and were so distanced from that phenomenological engagement with vision and abstraction. Sentences which in my study were so important like they cryptic remark of Merleau-Pony in his ‘eye and spirit’, that the ‘painter puts in his body,’ now seem to speak of problems from a distance past. Why was the relation between body and mind, between ‘eye and spirit’, so important? Did I think something could be solved if only we had a sufficient theory to explain the abyss between the non-conceptual world of our experience and the conceptual domain of the mind?
Questions to which the answer was always sought in a more and more complex and delicate language which so few people had time to engage with and learn the skills to read it in all its details. Still, I have a weakness for it, I couldn’t resist reading Damish, struggling with the web of metaphors he was building.
Suddenly, however, I landed upon a passage which somehow seemed to pierce right through the divide that was the origin of my own feeling of displacement. Damish refers to a passage in which Matisse explains his difficulty with drawing a tree. The central focus of these remarks deal with the difficulty of representing a tree. Matisse poses the problem in all its beautiful, insignificant splendor (what in God’s name is the relevance of being able to represent a tree and to think so deep on the difficulties related to it…?). Matisse takes the question seriously and notices how there is no way to subtract himself from the equation.
He – his feelings, his history – is part of the drawing, they are part of the tree, if there is to be an answer to the question of representation, then the world in which the tree exists needs to be taken into account. And in this case it even means taken into account that this ‘world’ is also the world that asks for a representation; it’s both the world and the object and the question that seeks to unite both, that wishes to makes the one transparent to the other and vice versa. In the worlds of Matisse: ‘I have an object in front of me that exerts an action on my mind, not only as a tree, but also in relation to a lot of other feelings.’
Matisse his simple wish to ‘draw a tree’ to ‘represent it’ was troubled by his emotional response to the tree. He continues: ‘I couldn’t rid myself of my emotion by copying the tree exactly, or by drawing the leaves one-by-one in conventional terms…But after having identified myself with it, I had to create an object that resembled a tree, the sign of a tree.’ These sentences intrigued me. Matisse seems to suggest that the only way to establish a ‘sign’, a representation, was to allow somehow the entrance of his world in the process of representing – even if the focus was not lying on the side of emotions but in the simple wish to copy. There is an objective sentiment at work that simply wants to copy, but that is overtaken and informed by the emotional world of the agent that wishes to copy. We want to represent and have no way to place a boarder between that what still is appropriate for representation and that which is personal, private, not worthy of representation. The will towards a sign, deals with this impossibility to place the border, but only on the basis of that action can we discuss and relate.
Reading these sentences in the library of the Van Abbemuseum it was easy to read the world ‘representation’ in a second way, with a political ring to it. The action of drawing a tree obtained the status of type of micro-politics, making apparent, through this mundane quest to copy a tree, how representation is a complex, entangled game of drawing lines between that which needs stating and those empty spots where one can retreat into the nowhereness of a private space. Perhaps, I thought, Matisse somehow unwillingly gave us a quite accurate description of a political process? It was a comforting thought to me, for it suggested that the struggle for description that is at the core of the art historical and critical practice, the sometimes so ephemeral actions of artists, they are not something marginal to our type of society – even if we study it at the margin of our lives, when we take time to engage with art.