In a famous sequence of photographs, Henri Matisse documented, over the course of six months in 1935, twenty-two states of his evolving Large Reclining Nude. On impulse, I recently made photocopies of these and fastened them together as a kind of flipbook. This yielded a crude approximation to a cinematic experience in which the nude figure turned and twisted and fluttered her legs up and down, while parts of her body swelled and subsided. It was in fact quite sexy but did not seem quite to fit what Matisse spoke of, figuratively of course, as a motion picture film of the feeling of an artist. So I shifted into a sort of slow motion, and register the following tentative observation: In the first state, recorded on May 3, Matisse’s model is depicted in a fairly straightforward way, occupying roughly the lower half of the canvas. By September 6, her head has been disproportionately enlarged, and it has become a recognizable portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, his poseuse. On October 30, the head has grown disproportionately small, the features are schematic, the torso has grown lank and her bent arms fill the canvas from top to bottom. It really felt as if I had been able to track the artist’s feelings toward the model, who becomes for him an individualized woman about midway through the painting’s development. If so, the sequence does more than document the stages of a painting. It charts a transformation, from an external relationship between artist and model to an intimate relationship between man and woman. The motion picture film then yields something we could not easily get from the completed painting itself, marvelous as that great work is, and it shows something about the limitations of painting as a medium. Who knows if Matisse did not begin photographing his painting because he sensed there might be a deeper story to tell than the history of how a painting changes.
The artist’s emotional involvement with Lydia Delectorskaya has remained a Matisse family secret, but it is difficult to suppress the thought not only that a change of feeling toward her took place in the course of executing Large Reclining Nude but, more boldly, that Matisse used painting as a way of discovering what his feelings were. The South African artist William Kentridge speaks of drawing in almost these terms: “The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world. It is in the strangeness of the activity itself that can be detected judgment, ethics and morality…. So drawing is a slow motion version of thought…. The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to construct meaning.” Note the cinematic metaphor through which Kentridge characterizes mental process and how, though his artistic ambitions otherwise resemble those of Matisse to no appreciable degree, he also sees drawing as an avenue to self-discovery.
South Africa was invited to exhibit in the Venice Biennale in 1993 in acknowledgment of the repeal of apartheid; and in 1995 the first Johannesburg Biennale was organized as a gesture that South Africa was now part of the international art community. Kentridge himself exhibited in the Fourth Istanbul Biennale, held that same year, and ever since he has been widely shown and highly admired for his animated films, based on his drawings. But the drawings themselves have an independent authority, in large part, I believe, because of the palpable evidence they provide of their author’s search for meaning and even for personal meaning. It may seem curious that in work with so marked a political intention as Kentridge’s, there should be the same preoccupation with self-understanding that we find in Matisse, who seems almost flagrantly hedonistic as an artist. But upon reflection it is no less curious that someone who created for himself a world of luxe, calme, et volupté–to use an early title that Matisse appropriated from Baudelaire–should, at a somewhat advanced age, use painting as a method of self-analysis.
In point of style, Kentridge’s work has a certain retrospective aura, as if it belonged more to the era of Matisse than to the contemporary world. The drawings and, indeed, the animated films for which they serve as material feel much in spirit as if their provenance were the art world of Mitteleuropa from the early part of the twentieth century. Kentridge himself has commented on this: