Matisse: "Looking at Life with the Eyes of a Child"

Creation is the artist’s true function; where there is no creation there is no art. But it would be a mistake to ascribe this creative power to an inborn talent. In art, the genuine creator is not just a gifted being, but a man who has succeeded in arranging for their appointed end a complex of activities, of which the work of art is the outcome.

Thus, for the artist creation begins with vision. To see is itself a creative operation, requiring an effort. Everything that we see in our daily life is more or less distorted by acquired habits, and this is perhaps more evident in an age like ours when the cinema posters and magazines present us every day with a flood of ready-made images which are to the eye what the prejudices are to the mind.

The effort needed to see things without distortion takes something very like courage; and this courage is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he saw it for the first time: he has to look at life as he did when he was a child and, if he loses that faculty, he cannot express himself in an original, that is, a personal way.

To take an example: Nothing, I think, is more difficult for a true painter than to paint a rose because, before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted. I have often asked visitors who came to see me at Vence whether they had noticed the thistles by the side of the road. Nobody had seen them; they would all have recognised the leaf of an acanthus on a Corinthian capital, but the memory of the capital prevented them from seeing the thistle in nature. The first step towards creation is to see everything as it really is, and that demands a constant effort. To create is to express what we have within ourselves. Every creative effort comes from within. We have also to nourish our feeling, and we can do so only with materials derived from the world about us. This is the process whereby the artist incorporates and gradually assimilates the external world within himself, until the object of his drawing has become like a part of his being, until he has it within him and can project it on to the canvas as his own creation.

When I paint a portrait, I come back again and again to my sketch, and every time it is a new portrait that I am painting: not one that I am improving, but a quite different one that I am beginning over again; and every time I extract from the same person a different being. In order to make my study more complete I have often had recourse to photographs of the same person at different ages; the final portrait may show that person younger or under a different aspect from that which he or she presents at the time of sitting, and the reason is that that is the aspect which seemed to me the truest, the one which revealed most of the sitter’s real personality.

Thus a work of art is the climax of a long work of preparation. The artist takes from his surroundings everything that can nourish his internal vision, either directly, when the object he is drawing is to appear in his composition, or by analogy. In this way he puts himself into a position where he can create. He enriches himself internally with all the forms he has mastered and which he will one day set to a new rhythm.

It is in the expression of this rhythm that the artist’s work becomes really creative. To achieve it, he will have to sift rather than accumulate details, selecting, for example, from all possible combinations, the line that expresses most and gives life to the drawing; he will have to seek the equivalent terms by which the facts of nature are transposed into art.

In my Still Life with Magnolia, I painted a green marble table red; in another place I had to use black to suggest the reflection of the sun on the sea; all these transpositions were not in the least matters of chance or whim, but were the result of a series of investigations, following which these colours seemed to me to be necessary, because of their relation to the rest of the composition, in order to give the impression I wanted. Colours and lines are forces, and the secret of creation lies in the play and balance of those forces.

In the chapel at Vence, which is the outcome of earlier researches of mine, I have tried to achieve that balance of forces; the blues, greens and yellows of the windows compose a light within the chapel, which is not strictly any of the colours used, but is the living product of their mutual blending; this light made up of colours is intended to play upon the white and black-stencilled surface of the wall facing the windows, on which the lines are purposely set wide apart. The contrast allows me to give the light its maximum vitalising value, to make it the essential element, colouring, warming and animating the whole structure, to which it is desired to give an impression of boundless space despite its small dimensions. Throughout the chapel every line and every detail contributes to that impression.

That is the sense, so it seems to me, in which art may be said to imitate nature, namely, by the life that the creative worker infuses into the work of art. The work will then appear as fertile and as possessed of the same power to thrill, the same resplendent beauty as we find in works of nature.

Great love is needed to achieve this effect, a love capable of inspiring and sustaining that patient striving towards truth, that glowing warmth and that analytic profundity that accompany the birth of any work of art. But is not love the origin of all creation?

Henri Matisse

February 1954 Art News and Review

Charles Darwin: '...free scope given to the imagination'

"In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains 

of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these

plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless. They can be

described only by negative characters; without habitations,

without water, without trees, without mountains, they support

merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar

to myself, have those arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my

memory? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile

Pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal

impression? I can scarcely analyze these feelings; but it must

be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination.

The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely

passable, and hence unknown; they bear the stamp of having lasted,

as they are now, for ages, and there appears to be no limit to

their duration during future time. If, as the ancients supposed,

the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water,

or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look

at these last boundaries to man's knowledge with deep but

ill-defined feelings?"

Charles Darwin.

The Economist, 17 December 2011: 'In praise of particle physics'

In this week of economic turbulence in Europe and the glimmer of the prospect of discovering the Higgs particle, this quite beautifully written leader article in The Economist voiced my thoughts...

Higgs ahoy!

The elusive boson has probably been found.  That is a triumph for the predictive power of physics.

IN PHYSICS, the trick is often to ask a question so obvious no one else would have thought of posing it. Apples have fallen to the ground since time immemorial. It took the genius of Sir Isaac Newton to ask why. Of course, it helps if you have the mental clout to work out the answer. Fortunately, Newton did.

It was in this spirit, almost 50 years ago, that a few insightful physicists asked themselves where mass comes from. Like the tendency of apples to fall to the ground, the existence of mass is so quotidian that the idea it needs a formal explanation would never occur to most people. But it did occur to Peter Higgs, then a young researcher at Edinburgh University, and to five other scientists whom the quirks of celebrity have not treated so kindly. They, too, had the necessary mental clout. They got out their pencils and papers and scribbled down equations whose upshot was a prediction.

The reason that fundamental particles have mass, the researchers calculated, is their interaction with a previously unknown field that permeates space. This field came to be named (with no disrespect to the losers in the celebrity race) the Higgs field. Technically, it is needed to explain a phenomenon called electroweak symmetry breaking, which divides two of the fundamental forces of nature, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. When that division happens, a bit of leftover mathematics manifests itself as a particle. This putative particle has become known as the Higgs boson, whose possible discovery was announced to the world on December 13th (see article).

Physicists demand a level of proof that would in any other human activity (including other scientific ones) be seen as ludicrously high—that a result has only one chance in 3.5m of being wrong. The new results—from experiments done at CERN, the world’s premier particle-physics laboratory, using its multi-billion-dollar Large Hadron Collider, the LHC—do not individually come close to that threshold. What has excited physicists, though, is that they have got essentially identical results from two experiments attached to the LHC, which work in completely different ways. This coincidence makes it much more likely that they have discovered the real deal.

If they have, it would be a wonderful thing, and not just for science. Though nations no longer tremble at the feet of particle physicists—the men, and a few women, who once delivered the destructive power of the atom bomb—physics still has the power to produce awe in another way, by revealing the basic truths that underpin reality.

Model behaviour

Finding the Higgs would mark the closing of one chapter in this story. The elusive boson rounds off what has become known as the Standard Model of physics—an explanation that relies on 17 fundamental particles and three physical forces (though it stubbornly refuses to accommodate a fourth force, gravity, which is separately explained by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity). Much more intriguingly, the Higgs also opens another chapter of physics.

The physicists’ plan is to use the Standard Model as the foundation of a larger and more beautiful edifice called Supersymmetry. This predicts a further set of particles, the heavier partners of those already found. How much heavier, though, depends on how heavy the Higgs itself is. The results just announced suggest it is light enough for some of the predicted supersymmetric particles to be made in the LHC too.

That is a great relief to those at CERN. If the Higgs had proved much heavier than this week’s announcement implies they might have found themselves with a lot of redundant kit on their hands. Now they can start looking for the bricks of Supersymmetry, to see if it, too, resembles the physicists’ predictions. In particular, in a crossover between particle physics and cosmology, they will be trying to find out if (as the maths suggest) the lightest of the supersymmetric partner particles are the stuff of the hitherto mysterious “dark matter” whose gravity holds galaxies together.

A critique of pure reason

One of the most extraordinary things about the universe is this predictability—that it is possible to write down equations which describe what is seen, and extrapolate from them to the unseen. Newton was able to go from the behaviour of bodies falling to Earth to the mechanism that holds planets in orbit. James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, derived in the mid-19th century, predicted the existence of radio waves. The atom bomb began with Einstein’s famous equation, 

E=mc

2

, which was a result derived by asking how objects would behave when travelling near the speed of light. The search for antimatter, that staple of science fiction, was the consequence of an equation about electrons which has two sets of solutions, one positive and one negative.

Eugene Wigner, one of the physicists responsible for showing, in the 1920s, the importance of symmetry to the universe (and who was thus a progenitor of Supersymmetry), described this as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Not all such predictions come true, of course. But the predictive power of mathematical physics—as opposed to the after-the-fact explanatory power of maths in other fields—is still extraordinary.

Some might see the hand of God in such predictability. The Higgs boson is, indeed, known to headline writers as the God particle (though the sobriquet was actually first given by a bowdlerising editor, who shortened an author’s reference to “that goddamn particle”). Others will prefer to stand in awe of a universe that they suspect began as a quantum fluctuation in pre-existing nothingness. And yes, there are calculations explaining how that could have happened, too.

Both sides, though, should be in awe not merely of the universe, but also of the men and women who have stripped, and continue to strip, that universe of its mystery—and do so without diminishing the wonder of it all. So, at a time when the future of human affairs seems particularly uncertain, a Christmas toast to the predictability of physics.