If you look up ‘20th century's greatest artists’ you will find that French artist Henri Matisse features on every list. Known for his use of colour to explore and express emotion rather than just to imitate the physical world, his work radically altered the course of modern art. Ever since I came across a Matisse documentary about a year ago I’ve been harping on about him with the same religious zeal as someone who has had a born again experience. However this is not an article about art, I am not qualified to critic art for public reading. It’s more so about how Matisse impressed a certain attitude on me through his aptitude for dealing with criticism and adversity. In an age where the want for “likes” is steadily increasing, his story reminded me that rejection isn’t automatically negative.
I watch a lot of biographical documentaries, art, business, finance, sports…any genre, because I’m interested in notable people’s development and practice. The recurrent theme I encounter is not talent, luck or approving circumstances (all the things I find myself blaming the lack of when stuff doesn’t seem to be happening) it’s mindset and personal practice. Of course talent counts, however what is evident is that hard work beats talent when talent isn’t working hard. And by hard work I don’t mean long hours. I mean the discipline to practice daily, the commitment to lifelong learning, a dedication to constant improvement and a readiness to take risks, all mental attributes rather than physical toil. So what I wanted to know about Matisse’s history was how did he get to be so groundbreaking? What was his outlook? How was he able to create a painting of 5 bright orange, figures entitled “Music” which although at the time was considered barbaric now seems so sophisticated? And how was he able to come up with a new art form, the Cut-Outs, which were labelled “paper jokes” and weren’t recognised properly till 20 years after his death?
Matisse’s circumstances weren’t favorable, although renown as an artist the aggressive criticism and ridicule his work encountered made it difficult for him to make a living and support his family. He was nickname was “King of the Wild Beast” for his part in FauvisimIn and his work was even burnt in effigy by Chicago art students for what they considered artistic crimes. Matisse didn’t delight in such condemnation, he wasn’t trying to provoke a scandal but neither did it obstruct him. He described his sentiment towards his insulted paintings as if they were his unfortunate children. I wished I had the same compassion for my work, I fear had it been me they would have been orphaned. At the time I came across this documentary I had spent months producing masses of mediocre designs (none of which I put out). Although the small amount work I had put out as a fashion designer had received little negative feedback I still fell prey to attempting to avoid criticism. I was stuck, I didn’t want to produce average work but I didn’t want to be disliked. What Matisse woke me up to was the fact I couldn’t produce great work if my main concern was how it would be received, I had to relinquish the desire for approval.
Equally radical is Matisse’s patron, Russian textile tycoon and visionary collector Sergei Shchukin, who is described as someone who boldly sought out rejected artist. Are you prepared to be a rejected artist? Judging by the disappointment that we all experience at one time when too few people like our photo on instagram suggest that we might struggle. Part of accepting rejection with grace includes surrendering the need to be understood. Defensiveness serves only as a distraction to our focus, which should always be on the work itself. Grace in turn opens up a space for people to be honest with us about our work, which is essential for progress. On receiving the paintings he had commissioned Dance and Music, Shchukin said to Matisse “Overall I find these panels interesting and hope to like them eventually. I have full confidence in you. The public is against you, but the future is yours”. I was so moved by Shchukin’s honesty, far from offensive it demonstrates his unconditional conviction in Matisse’s vision. Ironically Shchukin himself considered mad for his taste in art owned 13 Monet, 3 Renoir, 8 Cézanne, 4 Van Gogh, 16 Gaugin, 39 Matisse and 51 Picasso artworks amongst others.
What I found to be true of Matisse and other greats is that they never cease seeking to improve and evolve. Most of the time what we consider to be adversity at work is just discomfort. It doesn’t feel good so we complain and we try to be rid of it, but really it’s just an opportunity to grow. No one demonstrates this better than Matisse. The cut outs were in fact created whilst Matisse was confined either to his bed or a wheelchair after an emergency operation for intestinal cancer. The physical limitation far from persuading him to cease work inspired him to create this new way of working. Here he is in his 70s still pushing for new ideas, forget Nike’s “Just Do it”, in my bedroom I’ve hung up a picture of a bed bound Matisse, holding a super long paint brush, painting on his wall. No excuses, no limitations.