January 11, 2013 Repository 45: On Matisse’s Art Genes Posted In: contemporary art, perspective

I’ve been reading some essays on Henri Matisse lately, and was excited to read his quote, which I whole heartedly agree – as artists we are very much influenced by whom we admire and surround ourselves with – the good, the bad, and the ugly. His words:

I have never avoided the influence of others…I believe that the personality of the artist develops and asserts itself through the struggles it has to go through when pitted against other personalities. If the fight is fatal and the personality succumbs, it is a matter of destiny. – Matisse

So how would Matisse feel to learn that the Internet has pitted him against the likes of John Singer Sargent and Jake & Dinos Chapman? The former a society portraitist and the latter a multimedia artist duo that explores contemporary issues in the most perverse and confrontational ways.

These are examples of the results yielded from two new “art tools” designed with the best intentions. The first is the new tool on the Tate’s web site – if you look up an artist and select a singular work of the artist, the Tate’s algorithm then spits out “other works of art you might be interested in”. The works that come out in those searches are generally related to style, subject or other works by the artist. There is a list of about 10 or so categories, all referencing tagged objects and artworks from the Tate’s collection. It’s actually really neat, and I’m super impressed by the amount of work that must have been behind this.

That said I wonder which intern tagged a drawing after William Blake of The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins – a tumultuous, sad and stormy scene as “serene”? I found this in a search for their collection of Agnes Martin paintings. I’m reminded of the time when I was volunteering at the Achenbach Foundation at the San Francisco De Young Museum (the museum’s works on paper collection). They had just put their entire collection into a database, and I was helping out with quality assurance – basically doing searches to check for errors. Searches for “Pierrot” would yield porcelain tea cups and saucers. This I’m sure has been fixed, but there was something about the serendipity of these errors which I quite enjoy.

The second tool is a new web site whose noble mission is to educate future art patrons using The Art Genome Project, which tags visual art with over 1,211 characteristics they call “genes”. Kind of like what Pandora did to music, but for visual art instead.

For a web site built as a resource for new art lovers and hopefully collectors, expecting that audience to draw the connection between Jake & Dinos Chapman and Matisse is questionable. They even have a quote from the master painter at the top of the Matisse page stating “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter…” scroll down to “Related Contemporary Art” and you have an image of When My Cunt Stops Living, a collaboration between Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin. A dangerous liason for Matisse if I could ever dream of one.

While I really do like these online resources, I still prefer the wild card that is the google image search. A word of caution though – if you really admire Matisse or any other artist, please go to the deep cuts – their writings or some older catalogs with random essays. You could never learn from google that not only did Matisse believe in the influence of others, but that he had an obsession with Romanian blouses and spent a Summer in Saint-Tropez with Paul Signac (!).

Henri Matisse, The Inattentive Reader 1919, courtesy of the Tate Museum

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