Bailin Studio


Free Press Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc

Chasing Matisse

James Morgan

A Year in France • Living My Dream

We, too, had planned to head back to Paris the next day, but as I made my I notes I realized that hadn't seen Bohain and Le Cateau well enough, and Saint-Quentin hardly at all. David Bailin, my art teacher that summer at the Arkansas Arts Center, had told me a story before we left. He had been stumped by one particular large drawing he'd been working on, one in a series of biblical themes. "For years,” he said, "I would drive down Cantrell Road in Little Rock and see people in their yards trimming, pruning, preparing for the summer. None of it had particular significance to me. Then when I was working on this piece–I had Abraham over here on the [right], startled, and then I had Sarah and their son, Isaac, over here. Abraham was going to be working in a vineyard. But I couldn't figure out what to do with the rest of the picture. So I was driving down Cantrell and saw this man pruning his crepe myrtles way back, and I saw I all these knobs. Wow! I thought. That's it! I went from having the vineyard lush and full to being all this dead stuff, like the sacrifice of Isaac. It wasn't that I hadn't seen extremely pruned bushes before; it was that now they had a significance within a structure that I was working with." From that story, I understood that it's sometimes making art that causes you to see like an artist, rather than the other way around. I needed to look at Picardy, alone, with a sketch pad in my hand.

I wanted to know why this painting appealed to me so, very much in the way that Matisse's works do. The summer before we left Little Rock, my old teacher, David Bailin, had invited me to sit in on a weekly "artists lunch," a loose bull session that I first attended at a downtown pizza place on a scorching day in July. Bailin, Warren Criswell, Sammy Peters, and a couple of other guys talked about everything from George W. and terrorism to whether it was better to destroy your bad works so your spouse won't ruin your reputation by selling the stuff after you're dead. There was a lot of laughing.

In the afternoon, I got out my sketchpad and made some drawings from the balcony. One was a crisp clean view of the modern hotel stair-stepping down from the hills to the sea. Another was of a small red fishing boat that bobbed in the turquoise water like a Derain painting. The colors were so beautiful that I almost felt guilty just drawing. It was an internal debate that had been going on for eons. "Poussin and Rubens had this general fight," my old art teacher, David Bailin, had told me the previous summer. "It's color versus line. Rubens was the colorist, Poussin the linear guy. The line tends to be the real classical approach. In fact, Poussin established some of the issues of the French academy, in which artists would train according to an incredible hierarchy: historical and religious paintings at the top, portraits next, then landscapes, and finally still lifes. "Of course," Bailin said, "this gave younger artists something to rebel against. For example, the Impressionists-consciously or not-took the lowest end of the scale of the classical academy and made their paintings of landscapes and still lifes. It was an art of negation."

The written material presented on this page is the intellectual property of James Morgan © 2005 (Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY).
1: Rock [Abraham] • 1995 • Charcoal on paper
Chasing Matisse cover image
Rock drawing image