“My conversation with Matisse and his work has been an ongoing business since the end of the ‘70s when I visited the Museum of Modern Art (NY) and first saw ‘The Piano Lesson” in the flesh….I have since always included this work in my personal pantheon.” Henry Symonds, January 2013

As war clearly loomed in Europe, ca. 1913, Henri Matisse faced a dilemma: not just the dilemma of imminent global warfare - significant enough, to be sure - but a personal war within his own work. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Matisse and Pablo Picasso had emerged as the twin geniuses of contemporary French avant-garde painting. Although friendly, they were seen as rivals, a perception fueled by the apparent polarization of their aesthetic revolutions, i.e., Matisse's sybaritic Fauvism and Picasso's austere Cubism.

By 1913, both artists were in crisis: Picasso, along with his somewhat more courageous colleague, Georges Braque, began to back away from what seemed to be the inevitable end-game of their evolution from analytic to synthetic cubism: full-blown, non-objective art. Ultimately, they would leave this development to counterparts in Germany, Russia, and the Netherlands in the hands of Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian. Instead, Picasso slowly began to soften his Cubist wedges and hard-edged linearity, reintegrating color into what had been the monochromatic Cubist palette, and return to figuration, all in apparent acknowledgment of his “rival,” Matisse. For his part, Matisse, too, began to look for direction outside his immediate orbit of Fauvist options, and ironically, introduced a modified Synthetic Cubist structure into his otherwise epicurean canvasses. For these two inventors of modernity, it was an extended moment of brilliant and humbling exchange.

With the exception of iconographically-appropriate works such as the Guernica (1937), Picasso would never again fully abandon curve and color, having used Matisse as a kind of ‘recherche du temps perdu.’ The Cubist experiment was less natural for Matisse. Matisse was the painter of color, light, and pattern, par excellence, the painter who dreamed of an art "…devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter…[with] a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation…." He would become the singular artist of the 20th century to sing consistently and reliably of the joy of modern life rather than its travails. Nonetheless, Matisse's Fauve work of the early 20th century was ill-suited to the mood of World War 1 Europe, to his own mood, in fact, and he knew it. Cubist-inspired pieces, with their muted color schemes, hard-edges, and graphic word play would dominate his production during the period of the War, 1914 to 1918. Of these, The Piano Lesson, painted in the late summer of 1916, is arguably his masterpiece.

The Piano Lesson was sited at Matisse's house in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb southwest of Paris. We see a young boy, the artist's son, Pierre, gloomily at his piano in front of an open French window. Behind him at the upper right is a rigid and apparently somber woman, the erstwhile “teacher” who watches over the scene somewhat ominously. In actuality, this is Matisse's painting of 1914, Woman on a High Stool, of Germaine Raynal, wife of the art critic, Maurice Raynal. It also serves as a telling foil to another of Matisse's own works referenced here: the sculpture, Decorative Figure of 1908, at the lower left corner. Together, these two works have been seen as metaphoric summations of The Piano Lesson, and perhaps the core of Matisse’s crisis, in general: the place of the rigid vs. the relaxed, the disciplined vs. the sensuous.
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Prologue: The Piano Lesson 2010
Pierre Matisse was clear that this moment in his life was a suffering: “Yes, it was me [in the painting] and you have no idea how much I detested those piano lessons.” The boy is trapped at the right margin of the painting, his head popping up joylessly over the piano. Unable to escape, he is also bound by the piano’s music stand in front of him, the severe figure of Raynal behind him, and the resolute vertical beam that effectively blocks the open window to the left. This was undoubtedly a difficult time for the father, as well. One of the bloodiest battles ever recorded, the Somme Offensive unfolded not far away in northern France, and Matisse could expect the imminent deployment of his sons. Older son Jean was taken into the army in 1917, and Pierre in 1918. To attempt to distance himself from the War, Matisse would leave Paris in 1917 and move to Nice, where he remained, off and on, for the rest of his life. The Pierre we see here, however, is not the Pierre one year from the age of conscription (18), but a significantly younger version, perhaps 12 or 13 years old. In The Piano Lesson, Matisse is looking back to a less complex time, and references to time abound: in the inclusion of different styles of Matisse’s own art production, past and present; in the literal references to quotidian time in the onset of dusk suggested by the lit candle on the piano; in the aggressive wedge of late afternoon shadow on Pierre’s face; and finally, in the foregrounded metronome, whose job it is to mark time. A mood of nostalgia, underscored by the dominant military gray of Matisse’s palette, prevails.

“Over the last four years, I have been interested in looking at interior spaces as possible subject matter for my studio activities. In particular, I have been gathering information – historical/documentary photographs of studio interiors with a vague idea of looking at possible correlations between the interior and the artifacts generated from that particular space.” Henry Symonds, January 2013

For an artist interested in the domestic interior, particularly one luxuriant with a richness of texture, pattern, and color based in references to Africa and the “exotic” East, Matisse is a treasure trove. This is precisely the kind of artist who would resonate deeply with Henry Symonds. Matisse had made several trips to North Africa (1906, 1912, and 1913), integrating its implications of high-contrast color and organic patterning with his own European training and traditions. These would ultimately result in mid-career works, primarily interiors, that are breathtaking in their lushness. Symonds, a transplant to New Zealand, was born and raised in the veld of South Africa. Of combined Dutch-English ancestry, his South African roots can be traced back several hundred years to the first white colonizers, and the iconographic, emotional, and aesthetic ramifications of this are rarely far from him. The marriage of Africa and the West in the work of Matisse is easy, relaxed, and inspired; for Symonds, it can be fraught and complex. For both, the domestic interior becomes a place to explore a rarefied, hothouse environment entirely of one's own making. It is replete with identity, where objects occupy dual sites of personal identification and aesthetic preference, and becomes a place of both nostalgia and celebration.

Like Matisse's approach to Picasso in 1913, Symonds turned to Matisse at a time of challenge. He had begun to fear that his highly skilled hand was becoming “pedantic,” and he looked to Matisse as a springboard of liberation. Following a return visit to the Museum of Modern Art and The Piano Lesson in 2009, Symonds committed to produce a group of works in which he relied on his memory of the canvas “to evoke a series of responses.” Five of the most ambitious of these, as well as several small early studies and a “prologue,” are exhibited here. All are domestic interiors, and specifically, Symonds’ own studio space. Each one speaks to the success of this experiment in renewed painterly process, as well as of the joy that can be squeezed from color and medium that Matisse and Symonds often share. African plant life, textile patterns, and artifacts further bind these works throughout, included not only for their impressive formal properties but as evocations of Symonds’ childhood. Like Matisse’s work, but with more compelling authenticity, Symonds’ paintings are visualized negotiations of his European and African inheritance. The series itself is a fascinating evolutionary sequence of liberation from the very inspiration with which Symonds began: The Piano Lesson.

“Certain elements, even objects, repeat themselves as one considers and reconsiders their potential in the shifting relationships one creates each time one embarks on the business of loosing oneself in one’s process. It is from this place that my habit or inclination of working in series comes.” Henry Symonds, 2013

The first in the series, Prologue, anticipates, rather than engages Symonds’ soon-to-be renewed acquaintance with The Piano Lesson. Dated to 2009, it, instead, reflects a preliminary period of intensive research into paintings of the domestic interior, beginning in 2008, that initially led him to the French post-Impressionist Nabis, the so-called Intimistes. In painters such as Edouard Vuillard, Symonds could find a more modest version of the patterned opulence of mid-career Matisse, who also found inspiration here. Significantly, Vuillard’s emphases on surface texture, a bright but tonal palette, and hermetic intimacy are the signature qualities he does not pass on to Matisse. These seem to be some of the qualities that particularly attract Symonds. Prologue shares with Vuillard the premise of the privatized domestic interior and a surface enervated with painterly touch. The latter, in particular, become increasingly important to Symonds as the series progresses in the ways in which Vuillard deftly shifts brushstroke, tone, and paint density. On the other hand, Prologue is much more directly related to another, very specific inspiration of this period: Richard Hamilton’s Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing? (1956).

While Symonds has called Prologue a “loose interpretation” of Hamilton’s collage, there is a clear relationship in compositional structure in the repetition of shape, placement of specific pockets of space, and in palette. Moreover, both make autobiography of the domestic interior, and this is an important distinction. In the work of Vuillard, one finds the mood, pace, and look of life in bourgeois turn-of-the-century Paris. As a resident of his mother’s home until the age of 60, Vuillard knew of this interior intimately, and yet it was not about him nor of him; like Degas, he was simultaneously an insider and an outsider of the scenes he painted from his environment. Both Prologue and Just What is it? present a loaded compendia of personal taste. As an early exponent of British Pop art, Hamilton makes a visual checklist of all that was new and hip in mid-20th century capitalist culture, “things” to which he aspired and that populated his home and studio. While Symonds’ work is a redaction of Hamilton’s intention and product, he, also, chronicles the objects that define his identity at particular points in time: the Chinese cloisonné vase on the extreme right of Prologue was found in an abandoned, colonial cemetery in Zambia in 1972, the teapot is a gift from (but not by) renowned South African ceramist, Hylton Nel, the small vase on the left is Persian and was a gift from Symonds’ high school art teacher in 1967, and so on.

At the same time as Prologue is deeply personal to Symonds, it is also distancing. This is in large part due to Symonds’ categoric rejection of a very important component in Hamilton’s, Vuillard’s, and Matisse’s pictures: human presence. Thus, we do not get to see the artist, nor project ourselves onto his work. While the reasons for this are likely complex, it is important to note that this does not mean the absence of a humanizing or anthropomorphic spirit. This job is performed by the African statue at the center of the composition, meant to dominate our attention by its placement, it frontality, its somewhat comic fierceness, and its humanoid likeness. It is also an autobiographical reference, not merely to the artist or the artist’s African past, but to his mediated identity as Euro-African: the sculpture immediately evokes the hybrid figures of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and related studies. These were works from early in the 20th century that typified the French avant-garde discovery of the art of sub—Saharan Africa and their use of it to help dig their way out of centuries-old western aesthetic tropes and traditions.

This line of investigation into Hamilton and the Intimistes was “disrupted,” to quote Symonds, by his reacquaintance with The Piano Lesson at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009 and his commitment to take it on in a formal series. It is likely that Symonds’ intensified attraction to the piece was a response not only to its aesthetic qualities, but its nostalgic mood, and more importantly, his own. This was a time when he, like Matisse, was reassessing his painting process. Not incidentally, Symonds could also find himself in the piece on a familial level: his grandfather was a young soldier fighting for England in the Somme Offensive, the epic battle raging north of Paris while Matisse was painting The Piano Lesson. He has written, “I closely identify with Matisse reflecting [in The Piano Lesson] a private domestic world that could be calm, ordered and controlled in the face of a larger world out there which was chaotic, complicated and threatening.” Symonds’ appreciation of the intensity of Matisse’s focus in the face of real-world challenges derived from concerns he, himself, experienced as a citizen of an apartheid state: “I certainly used my own private space as a refuge – my living space, my garden and in particular, my studio – it was a place of escape from the chaos and confusion in the broader political sense as well as personally.” The interest in the domestic interior bespoke a will to create a personal and professional life unburdened by anxiety.

“Part of the exercise was a memory-response to the work…[A]t the same time I worked at refreshing my practice in as much as I…[attended] to the actual manner in which I was applying my paint, the quality of the brush marks, the level of autonomy and looseness of mark as a reaction to a tendency I had noted in myself of becoming increasingly pedantic and controlling of my process. I was not attempting to change my way of work as much as to allow it more oxygen and space to breathe. Henry Symonds, 2013

Symonds returned to New Zealand in 2009 and proceeded to produce a series of small works that relied on his memory of The Piano Lesson to capture his responses. Over the next 18 months, he painted about 50 of these, primarily small color and motif studies, of which several are included in this exhibition. While they are dominated by Matisse-like color and geometry as presented in The Piano Lesson, they are far from derivative. They are Symonds’ own in their salience of recollection, and especially, in painterly touch. The lively surfaces of these works in their shifts, rhythms, and autonomy of mark, and the ways in which they reveal a formal hand of exquisite facility, has been a signature element of Symonds’ work since the beginning of his career.

These studies find their first successful, large-scale distillation in The Piano Lesson Considered. Of the series as a whole, this work is the most literal transcription of the memory-exercise. We will see that it establishes a kind of ground zero for an almost Darwinian evolution of works that sequentially distance themselves from Matisse’s Piano Lesson and its memory, as Symonds increasingly dominates the exercise. In The Piano Lesson Considered, what is it, exactly, that the artist has considered? To be sure, Considered is an abstraction of the Matisse in its committed non-objectivity, but it is also an abstraction in the purest sense of the term; what is taken over from the Matisse are the touch points that drive the picture as a whole. The first of these can be cited as the color palette revolving around grays and greens. Even when Symonds adds a red not in the Matisse and eschews the dominant pink that is, he impressively manipulates the tone and hue relationships for a similar aesthetic and emotional effect. Second is the structural geometry, especially in the use of the aggressive wedge shape found throughout The Piano Lesson and reiterated in the Symonds similarly as the compositional lynch pin.

Equally interesting is what Symonds does not consider, and its corollaries. Most obvious is human presence, once again banished from this work. This translates as no brooding Pierre or watchful Germaine and it immediately shifts the mood of Symonds’ painting. What Symonds has chosen to emphasize from Matisse’s work is not the implications of iconographic narrative, but of the formal painting within a painting, here writ large. Matisse’s work dialogs with two-dimensional and three-dimensional space, often conflating or subverting them as is characteristic of the artist at this early period. Symonds, instead, lays one square shape flatly on top of another, allowing one dimension to bleed into the other, but controlling and regulating space almost in the manner of a Josef Albers. What is pure Symonds is the enlivening of surface. Almost nothing about the surface quality, whether autonomous marks of shape or color, paint density, or its rhythms can be traced to the Matisse. We will see that this very specific attention to surface will grow exponentially to the end of the series.

“The objects or even the subject of the works became incidental as one was drawn into the business of what paint can do and the wonderfully intricate and delicate business of working within a space and bringing all the elements into an harmonious whole... Paint surfaces are what really excite me about the work. It is in the end the material quality of the paint and the interest I have in how I manipulate this rather than the subject per se that drives my studio practice.” Henry Symonds, 2013

Does the influence of Matisse’s palette and geometry remain a consistent factor as we move through the series? The next four works, all titled The Piano Lesson Considered and Abandoned, indeed, reveal varying levels of commitment. Euphorbia is the first work for which the artist has conscientiously used a canvas of the same proportions, if not size, as The Piano Lesson, and this will continue in the next two works. Euphorbia is also the first major leap toward independence from the Matissean model. Except for the most fundamental points of comparative lay-out – a 2/3 to 1/3 division of the “background” plane, a pink-toned “piano” inserting itself at right foreground, the “slice” of window at extreme left – it is difficult to cite a source in Matisse. Matisse’s wedge, the single definitive shape in The Piano Lesson and reiterated throughout – is virtually gone, referenced only as a remnant in the aforementioned pink “piano.” Symonds’ palette, despite the resonant note of Matissean pink and wide swathes of gray, has been rendered brighter and richer in contrast, and is now dominated by a butterscotch yellow barely suggested by the lit candle of The Piano Lesson.

Symonds has taken ownership of this painting, enlivening and transforming any reference to his model. He begins by making Matisse’s simple, airy space dense and complex. In place of big, broad planes of shape and color, a gorgeous riot of pattern appears. Gone are Matisse’s discreet and elegant curlicues and letters, replaced here by a lattice that overtakes much of the painting and refers to a motif Symonds had researched for another commission. With this, he also definitively eliminates even the possibility of human presence as it appeared in the The Piano Lesson by sealing off the area at right where Matisse had carved out space for Germaine and Pierre. Rather than The Piano Lesson with its openness and simplicity, Euphorbia suggests a Vuillardesque hermeticism and much more complex weave of space, in general.

“The inclusion of [objects from] my studio…establishes a larger point, that while my cultural heritage and education was European, my lived experience was African. Being apartheid South African,…there was also a veiled sub plot… the aloe which has sharp thorns to cut and wound [also has] sap…used to heal and restore and so on.” Henry Symonds, 2013

The euphorbia plant, a succulent native to South Africa, is included as a reference to the artist’s childhood farm home, where it grew freely; it is also an object in Symonds’ studio. Perhaps with a touch of unconscious humor, its particular placement extends the iconographic reference. In the painting, it seems to lift itself upward and lean aggressively toward the sculpture to which we were first introduced in Prologue. Consigned to a small sliver of space at the left edge, the sculpture looks to have been chased away by the “real” African -- the euphorbia. With it, Symonds simultaneously chastises both Matisse (in his sculptural self-reference) and Picasso (in the Demoiselles) in one post-colonial swoop.

Political references are also invoked in Impala Lily. Symonds began this work from a photograph of Matisse seated in his studio with a vase of flowers on a table in front of him. Both this photograph and Matisse’s studio captured and reflected his particular weave of Euro-African influences. Regarded very differently in the first half of the 20th century, it may nonetheless have put Symonds in mind of contemporary colonialist concerns. He writes, “At the top edge of the painting are some remnants of patterns which are taken from the sketches made by Paul Gauguin of local Maori artifacts in the Auckland museum when on his way to Tahiti for the last time. (He spent three days in Auckland.) The real artifacts still exist and are on display in the museum.” Symonds hoped this inclusion might stimulate productive discussion, but ultimately, he decided that he “did not like the patterns sufficiently.“ These now exist only as referential marks at the top of the painting. This was the fate, too, of the photographic image of Matisse in his studio. What is left of it is at the bottom left margin: a portion of the circle of Matisse’s table with its flowers. The “germ of an idea,” the rest has been overpainted. The impala lily for which this painting is named, native to Africa and flowering in Symonds studio, occupies near center of the composition.

If The Piano Lesson is “considered and abandoned” in Euphorbia, it is more considered there, and virtually abandoned here in Impala Lily. Any scaffolding from Matisse is virtually gone. Connections to Matisse’s palette and his geometricization could be made, but they are unnecessary to an understanding or appreciation of the piece. This work is a turning point, perhaps even a rupture in Symonds’ dialog with The Piano Lesson. Moreover, he has now begun to shift the soul and spirit of The Piano Lesson. Joy is reintroduced into the painting, and Symonds does so primarily through painterly process. More than any previous work in the series, Symonds’ touch is wholly his own and within his own tradition, creating a startlingly lively, satisfying, and autonomous calligraphy of surface mark.

In the final two paintings, The Piano Lesson Considered and Abandoned IV and V, Symonds is now almost entirely self-referential. To arrive at these last works, he applies the same systematic redactive procedure to Impala Lily as he did to the Matisse. By V, he has even sloughed off the reference to Matisse’s canvas proportions, enlarging his canvas size significantly, and turning to a horizontal format. It is here, in particular, that high-keyed color, rhythmic shape, and autonomous mark explode off the surface. There is a sureness of handling and confidence of touch that evidences not only the culmination of the evolution of the series, but years of artistic experience and maturity: it is the jewel in the crown. Nonetheless, Symonds has said that “the source once again is the Matisse.” More like Matisse is Symonds’ fearlessness with regard to color, of being decorative or beautiful, but doing so with a definitiveness of purpose that assures its logic and its success.

“The objects I surrounded myself with reminded me of lives and worlds outside of the one I was immediately living or often the items included in my work were tributes to particular people or places I valued as part of my personal history and experience. At the same time, in an almost contradictory way, the objects or even the subject of the works became incidental as one was drawn into the business of what paint can do and the wonderfully intricate and delicate business of working within a space and bringing all the elements into an harmonious whole.“ Henry Symonds, 2013

The years 1917–30 are known in Matisse’s oeuvre as his early Nice period, when his paintings are infused with southern light, bright colors, and a profusion of decorative motifs. His studio spilled over with Persian carpets, finely-worked Arab embroideries, richly-hued African wall hangings, and any number of colorful, patterned textiles, screens, and backcloths. The works which emerged from this environment emanate an exotic hothouse atmosphere suggestive of the “non-West” and their decorative patterning, fluid line, and pure harmonies of color have, in our time, come to define Matisse more than any other period in his work. Rather than The Piano Lesson, it is these works with which Symonds’ final paintings share an affinity.

The Piano Lesson came at a point in Matisse’s life when he was trying to introduce a level of formal discipline under Picasso’s influence. Ironically, in turning to Matisse in 2009, Symonds was trying to loosen a level of formal discipline with which he had grown uncomfortable. In other words, The Piano Lesson could be said to have offered Symonds an example of precisely what he was trying not to do. Matisse began The Piano Lesson with a naturalistic drawing, but he eliminated detail as he worked, scraping down areas and rebuilding them in broad fields of color. It is Matisse’s process, the inner workings, that Symonds’ replicates, rather than The Piano Lesson, itself. Through the series exhibited here, Symonds “scrapes down” The Piano Lesson, eliminating and rebuilding. In so doing, he returns Matisse to Matisse.

Deborah Johnson
Providence College
Providence, RI