A Comparison of Henri Matisse` “Harmony in Red” and Kara Walker`s “Insurrection”

Kara Walker and Henri Matisse are two painters who both revolutionized the world but from two opposite perspectives. The degree of similarity between their two work of arts: Red Room “Harmony in Red” in 1908 and “Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On)” in 2000 falls within simple categories which one will find appealing, interesting, and intriguing.
Henri Matisse focused on flattening the forms in his paintings. Near the end of his life as he was confined to a wheelchair, he created large paper cut outs that he attached to the wall using a long pole. The result was a collage with different shapes, sizes, and colours which become animated, playful, and whimsical. Walker also uses flat shapes but this time used in relationship with each other to tell a story. She utilizes large size placements on the wall to make the subject matter stands stark in contrast to the idea of silhouette portrait (Lamp, Vol. 1).
Red Room (Harmony in Red) was made by Matisse using his unique Fauve style. This style involves the use of bright colours and simple forms. What makes the Red Room special was Matisse`s use of `feeling` and its constant check until he `feels` that the piece is already finished (Cowart et. al., 1912). The wonder of it all is that his first painting “Blue Naked” was very similar to the cut out images of Kara Walker who popularized silhouettes. In the Blue Naked, Matisse basically used the colour blue with a white background. The image of a distorted half-kneeling person can be seen which can be translated into many different ideas and thought depending on the set of experiences of a person. One striking similarity between Red Room and Insurrection is the use of 2D images (Holzwarth, 489).
Two-dimensional images are quite popular in the early part of the arts. Most paintings before were rendered in 2D. when one begins to compare Walker` and Matisse` paintings, 2D images can be easily spotted. The absence of inner lines in the Red Room makes the images flat. There was no shadow effect in the lighting either. What would be noted is the distinct use of the colour red in the entire piece as the title suggests. Even the perspectives and lines are not mechanical as they are not measured to show any technical aspect of the painting. As stated earlier, Matisse relied heavily on his feeling when he painted not from any mechanical means to provide substance, form, or meaning. For him, it was the feeling that was most important (Leymerie et. al., 19). As for Insurrection, Walker`s images are all cut outs pasted on translucent panels or walls. There is no additional material or colour added to the cut outs. The main vehicle to convey the message of the painting is its reliance on lighting, spacing, and the contour of the images. This proves that both paintings are 2D (Wilson, 18).
Matisse used ordinary life as his topic in the Red Room. There was nothing controversial in it except that it gives a serene feeling while looking at the woman seeming to enjoy her errand getting the dining table ready. Bright red colour serves as the solid background of the painting as stated in the title. The image shows something very natural that a woman at that particular era would be doing. It is very natural as what can be expected from a common dining room from a proper woman. The Insurrection, however, has much strong emotions. It touches on critical issues about slavery, prejudice, and injustice of black people. What Matisse portrayed in the Red Room as the role of a proper `white` woman is in stark contrast with Walker`s image of the black woman (Holzwarth, 491 – 493).
The Insurrection is a three wall panoramic story painting showing the social dilemma facing black women long time ago. It depicts in silhouette the issue on slavery, lynching of a slave woman, and slave defiance. The images are cut out black papers pasted on translucent panels or backdrop making the projected light show contrasting dimness and brightness (Wilson, 31 – 32). The elements used are quite different from the Red Room as all images are all cut outs. What makes it little reflective of the Red Room is the use of solid colours. The images in Insurrection however, possess no details but only mere contour. Technical wise, the Insurrection uses more presentation technique such as lighting, projection, shading, and wider, bigger panels as backdrops of the presentation. While the Red Room is fixed in a frame, the Insurrection`s images seem to come out from their panels and tell a morbid story of the past.
Similar to what Walker used in the Insurrection, Cezanne “has taken the visual elements of line, space, and texture, and has deliberately manipulated them as part of his composition, the way he has chosen to organize the canvas.” Notice that Walker uses the walls as her canvas, the lines to show the emotion, and the spacing or distances between characters in her work to show movement thus giving it a theatrical effect. In contrast with Gaudier-Brzeska`s drawing using contour lines, Walker`s images never had inner contours which do not show any attempt to give it a three-dimensional view. However, the solid lines of the contour or images suggest the end of our imagination or limitations of our vision. In a different perspective, lines in the Insurrection may show the activation of spaces around a particular image such that of Giacometti`s “Man Pointing.” This explains the continuation of actions in the images of Insurrection even without the use of lines drawn inside the images (Lamp, Vol. 1). The line of the images show the direction activates the spaces around them linking images together forming a visceral movement thereby giving life, substance, and story to the work. This is the power of implied lines and contour lines.
Equally important in giving space meaning in painting by the use of two elements: light and colour. Using light and /or colour can manipulate the perspective systems in an art work. Light has the ability to create shadows and its brightness and dimness can set the mood while colour helps in defining shape and mass (Holzwarth, 512 ). In the case of the Red Room, even without the presence of lighting perspective, the red dominant colour set as the background of the piece helps us to identify the other images such as the field and trees outside the window, the woman in the dining table, etc (Spurling, 4). As for Walker`s work, the manual states that “interior spaces demand lighting, either natural or artificial, and our experience of a given space can be deeply affected by the quality of its light.” (Wilson, 46).This explains why people understand and feel what the Insurrection suggests even if the black cut out images does not possess inner lines or are not in 3D. The artificial interior lights used in the Insurrection set the atmosphere, activate the spaces between images thanks to the contours and outer lines, allow viewers to reach inside their buckets of memory, and match anything resembling that of what the images suggest. Clarity, precision, and contrast between light and darkness create the needed effect and perspective in Walker`s work to tap on the emotions and experiences of people. “Colours, on the other hand according to German poet and dramatist Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe, have moral and religious significance existing halfway between the goodness of pure light and the damnation of pure blackness.” (Holzwarth, 526). Using this principle, we can say that the colour black used by Walker for her cut out images is a deliberately powerful choice among all other colours considering that her Insurrection deal with sensitive political and social issues in the past.
Both paintings tell stories. Red Room is more of an informative approach to show what and how the white women before were expected to do or perform in the house. Similarly, the roles of the black women were shown in the Insurrection. The difference between the two lies in the nature of expectations. White middle class women in Matisse`s work were expected to remain faithful and perform their duties of preparing the dining table for a meal, Walker`s work shows the abusive political system in past when black women were abused and disregarded as equals with their counterparts (Spurling, 5). Matisse`s focus on the painting may be considered static since there was no sense of movement in the image. The woman was just seen as earnestly fixing a meal as shown with her closed eye (Shiff, Vol.3). Walker`s images although void of details but mere contour to convey the message pack much emotion. This can be attributed to the three part segment of the art work which gives a sense of movement and development of a storyline. The three panels can be seen interchangeably to create different variations of the story whereas in the Red Room the absence of other panels or images can only show a small spectrum of meanings and perspectives (Wilson, 54). Clearly, the three sets of images in Walker`s work offer more and wider perspectives for people to understand, appreciate, reason, sympathize, and empathize with.
Having a strange bond with a work of art can only come from feeling. The lighting of the Insurrection gives the images a feeling of motion thus making the characters more lifelike even if there was much absence of facial and bodily details. Walker admitted that she incorporated the lighting and projections to facilitate a theatrical sense. Her main goal was not just to create a fixed imagery but a play using cut out images which will be projected on walls. The varying highness and lowness of lighting coupled with the rotation of the projections on the walls will give movement and progression of stories among the black colour cut our images. This is quite revolutionary but Walker admits that her works were a combination of imagination and an exaggeration of stories thus told by her image stories (Holzwarth, 520 – 522).
Some researchers who have tried knowing how Matisse and Walker have acquired the inspiration to paint in their own unique ways found that their respective previous environments and experiences help shaped their desire to paint their work of art. Matisse lived near a textile factory which researchers believe had a great influence in his focus on colour in his paintings (Cowart et. al., 1913). Walker drew from her ethnicity and heritage as a black person. Both painters used their experience and environment as their individual source of motivation (Wilson, 19). In the end, each has left a distinct mark in the world of the arts by utilizing that which was very common to each (textile colours for Matisse and black heritage for Walker) . In a nutshell, each has become the person they have always wanted to be through factors which have shaped them.
Works Cited
Cowart, J Schneider, P Elderfield, J. Matisse in Morocco: The Paintings and Drawings, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, Print.
Holzwarth, H. ed. “Art Now:” A cutting-edge selection of today`s most exciting artists. Taschen Vol. 3. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2008. 488 – 526. Print.
Lamp, L. “Elements of Art: Shape.” (2009). Microsoft Corporation Inc. Retrieved from: < http://www.sophia.org/tutorials/elements-of-art-shape>
Leymarie, Jean Read, Herbert Lieberman, William S. “Henri Matisse.” New York: UCLA Art Council, 1966. Print.
Shiff, R. “Henri Matisse.” Encarta Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corporation Inc., Vol. 3, 2008.
Spurling, H. The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869 – 1908. USA: University of California Press, 2000. Print.
Wilson, F. “On Walls and the Walkers,” The International Review of African American Art. USA: California Press. 20.3: 2010, 17 – 19, 34 – 56. Print.