Henri Matisse had taken a look into Morocco in 1913 and 1914. The complexity, the busyness, perhaps the strangeness of the place confused him. He talked about the light but did little about it. Already on the road to Fauvism, he proceeded to drop any attempt that he might have been making toward realism. His solution was to simplify — lazily, almost sloppily — faceless forms and simple fields of colour. He was trying his new stuff in a new place. Other artists had been here before, of course, including Delacroix in 1832, near the beginning of what came to be called “Orientalism.”
The 19th century artistic imagination saw the Orient as a land inhabited by folks in fez or turban who spent their time reclining on luxurious couches in clouds of incense, surrounded by semi-naked slaves and languid odalisques. Overlying this were ideas of swift justice, intrigue and cruelty. This was the mythical world of the Orient as depicted by Western art. Many notable artists had a go at it. Examples of a few of my favourites from some of the more evolved practitioners: Henri Regnault, James Tissot, Adam Styka, John Singer Sargent, and others can be found in the letters archive.
As I’m stumbling here and there in Morocco I’m thinking of those early painters of this land. These interiors particularly, with their tiles, plaster carvings and pillars, grabbed at their imaginations. Some painters came and really had a look around. This often required staying put. Others only “glanced” — as Matisse the tourist seemed to do — to try to catch an essence and see what the creative imagination might do with it. Both systems are valid. For all of us, every one of our new environments presents this challenge and this choice. Most of the Orientalists chose to take it home and run it through a sort of 19th century Photoshop. The great tradition was the studio — indeed this is where most of the works of this genre were produced — back in Europe and often with “Arabized” models.
The competent, often brilliant work that resulted has fired the imagination of generations and influenced our perceptions of the area and its people. It may be sentimental and false to some, but to me it’s simply “good work.” By this I mean it has quality, craftsmanship, facility, and composition.
PS: “We have rented a little Moorish house. . .and we expect to enjoy a month or two in it. Writers have launched forth poetic, and with a fair degree of latitude, but certainly the aspect of this place is striking, the costumes grand, and the Arabs often magnificent.” (John Singer Sargent, January 1880)
Esoterica: The Victorians wrestled with the idea of “harem.” Okay for “down there” but not “up here.” The undraped figure was always fair game for artists. Excellent Victorians jumped into the harem with relish. It was to be but a peek into a fantasy that is not understood to this day.
Deeper relationships needed
by Paul Klemperer, Austin, TX, USA
Your observations (and the responses of subscribers) on the economics behind the Moroccan leather trade was timely food for thought. As an entertainer I have seen various aspects of the global tourism industry and have been discussing with others for some time its economic, environmental and humanistic contradictions. I saw one of these contradictions woven through the discussions of Moroccan leather, European fascination with harem imagery, and the Orientalist movement. Humans are drawn to new and exotic experiences, from both our need for fantasy and our instinctive desire to build social relationships. It is easier to play out our fantasies with superficial experiences of the “exotic other” than to build deeper (and more satisfying) relationships with people from other cultures. Global tourism is built largely on catering to the superficial fantasy, and travelers often find themselves buying mementos from wage-slave artisans, when they would rather come away with a more meaningful experience. To go beyond touristic fantasy means transforming the global tourism industry, a philosophical as much as economic transformation.
by Holly Friesen, Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada
Paul Klee was another artist who “fell in love with colour” after a visit to Tunisia in the early 1900s. Temple Gardens is one of my favourite watercolours done by him. Your journey sounds fascinating and I am enjoying following along with you as you write your letters.
Travel promotes understanding
by Lida van Bers, Vancouver Island, Canada
It is a delight to read all your impressions of your travels. Most of all your personal thoughts. Maybe if we were all able to visit those countries we do not understand we might be more tolerant. A little comment on Matisse. His blue painting, although very simple, had a definite feeling of the “East.” Simplicity is often more revealing. It is, in a way, similar to Chinese and Japanese paintings. The colours in the John Singer Sargent painting make you feel the heat of the stones.
by Deloris A Haddow, California, USA
I have enjoyed your letters from Morocco and it is easy for me to put myself there since I have been there, too. What an exotic atmosphere. When can we visit you in your little Moorish home?
(RG note) That mention of the “little Moorish home” caused some confusion in some artists minds. It was in a quote from J S Sargent from 1880. We did not rent a home in Morocco, but kept moving. As I write this Im back in my studio in Canada.
Enjoy the now
by Lennart Osterlind
Enjoy the mystic of the Arabian countries. I had the fortune to live in Egypt, then in Lebanon where I worked as a graphic designer. It was a wonderful time for three years. I was to meet with the most wonderful friendship by the locals. Now it feels like a dream. That is life… you have to enjoy it in the “now.”
by J. Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA
Key to my work are intense geometric designs that at a young age I found reference to in Islamic tile work. After being away from my childhood home for more than 15 years, I was surprised to see fabric I picked for bedroom curtains: an Arabic scene of a turbaned Master Teacher with a male student, flying through the air on Magic Carpets, the second in tow, minarets in the background. The textile was cobalt blue, so we painted the furniture to match.
Being a teenager during the 1960s was a kind of heaven, geometric patterns being natural to my thinking and feeling Self. Creatively I can simply say I am open to receive them. Working in a fabric medium allows me to access an unbelievable amount of surface patterning, and I love way too much surface patterning, because it makes the eye and mind vibrate uncontrollably, and I’m evil.
I have known for a while that I spent more than one lifetime working with Arabic calligraphy and creating Islamic tile work. In an odd twist, I’m currently residing with three pieces of intensely inlaid Moroccan wood furniture. And it’s my opinion that it takes insane craftsmen to do this kind of work (me included).
Listening to your tales of adventure, your visions of landscape and color and your thoughts about the people and their environments have brought to the surface powerful feelings of recognition. Seeing the art reflecting this reality from various time periods has been wonderful. Refocusing on the color cobalt blue has been perfect.
by David Lloyd Glover, Hollywood, CA, USA
The Impressionists, among other artists around the turn of the century, were also fascinated by the “Japonaise.” The art, designs and culture of the Far East with Japan in particular, inspired many a new view on composition and color. Even van Gogh directly copied a Japanese woman in traditional kimono garb.
Nowadays, the Japanese are fascinated by western culture including art. It is interesting that their fascination is often for the banal commercial art that we see in all our own tourist town galleries. Their own artists copy the styles of western art yet their own cultural bias tends to seep through. The cross-cultural influences in art can sometimes create wonderful hybrids but in many cases, with respect to Asian art it can be less than successful.
As an artist who spends a lot of time in Japan, I enjoy the art of both ancient and contemporary artists that work within their own cultural sensibilities. The public and private galleries in Japan can be inspiring in that their artists have such astonishing ability to create from their own heritage. A commercial gallery tends to be a disappointment as their attempts at creating art as influenced by the western culture are a result of bad choices. Perhaps that is how they perceive us and to them it is of significance.
by Jurate Macnoriute, Vilnius, Lithuania
At most the art of (California artist) Caroline Putnam is pleasing to buyers, that is yclept kitsch art. Kitsch art for buyers who are not educated in art and have no good taste. This not good taste is adopted by artists themselves, pierces them, and crisis of art and spirit life of society unavoidable. I do not say that artists should have no work for sale. Life is hard, and everybody have to eat bread and to buy materials and means for work. But artist must preserve his/her conscience clear in any case.
Caroline Putnam is very industrious and technical painter wielding depiction of space and illusory representation of things manfully. She as if competes with nature and often reaches fine effect. You agree that she is eminently zappy and festal. Yes, zap is needful, but if zap becomes single purpose of art, it is not deep and valuable enough. It needs perhaps to recoil upon old masters for confirmation of own attitude. Trying too much to be manlike in some pictures she becomes too gruff. Sometimes her images become too sweet. Working with some paintings she could be more to think about arranging of picture details, about composition. Against all the odds, Putnam is a catchy and fine painter. Her pictures raise optimism and aspiration of life for what she is loved.
by Heather Pottinger, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada
Our Painter’s Guild is presently having a lot of discussion regarding copyright. Do you have any information on artists’ copyright — both from our own art point of view and from the point of view of an artist copying someone’s photograph or picture in a magazine? There seem to be many opinions, but we would like to know something concrete. Also, if someone or a company wants to use an artist’s image, what sort of remuneration should be paid?
(RG note) My previous letter Protecting your copyright sheds some light on part of your group’s concerns. Excellent responses to this letter are here, too.
Also, artists representation groups tend to keep up with the latest information — which is a bit different for each country. In Canada, where you are, CARFAC (Canadian Artists’ Representation) will be useful. This organization informs artists about artists’ rights, copyright legislation, cross-border shipping, and makes further networking possible. It also informs artists of competitions, shows, arts employment, and other opportunities. Various regions publish online newsletters. I’m a member in the BC region of CARFAC. Canadian visual artists should take a look at www.carfac.ca/ There are also many excellent regional commercial artist representation sites. For example, Arizona commission on the arts: artistsregister.com/arizona/ British artists should take a look at www.britisharts.co.uk/
The remuneration for the use of artwork question comes up fairly often. I like to look at the end use. If it’s for a charitable fundraiser I charge nothing. For an ongoing Mercedes Benz campaign — with multiple use — I’d go for as much as the traffic will bear. For more average, one-use situations a general rule these days is to sell the reproduction rights for 50 to 100% of the normal retail value of the work if sold through the gallery system. The artist continues to own the original. Having said that, sometimes it’s fun to simply give copyright to a special friend or loyal collector. Goodwill and friendship — without being a patsy — are great commodities in our business.
With regard to copying work from a publication — I don’t believe in it, and I discourage such copies in shows and competitions. In theory and in law you must change an image by ten percent in order to call it your own. It’s best to learn to work from your own reference. Don’t have your integrity or your self-esteem challenged.
Doctors for art taste
by Yaroslaw RozputnyakMoscow, Russia
The undraped figure in nature has a beautiful outlook. It is the important task of artist to save the world. To defend art from pornography means to defend art model from offensive image. Pornography offends the model, art — never. Art respects, arises, loves model. This is main difference between art and pornography. The artist and doctor have right to be present with undraped model, but artist have additional duty to be also doctor for art taste, for healthy imagination of people — creating beautiful pictures of model. Not laws, not religions, priests, psychiatrist cannot save World from pornography — only artist can. And must.
The Internet helps to keep material and makes it available for all the world. The Twice-Weekly Letter and your books being so valuable for artists, possibly must be ensured to be kept in future — CDs or free and independent from servers that may eventually charge a fee.
by Bernard Pracko, Broomfield, CO, USA
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