The upside (?) of chicken sitting for my parents for the last week was having access to a television. I caught part of a programme on the history of art on the French Riviera. It transported me back to the days I spent working as a Tour Manager and the time I spent with coaches full of American high school students as we followed in the footsteps of artists like Monet, Cézanne and Matisse.
In the summer of 1904, Matisse arrived on the Côte d’Azur by boat from Saint-Raphaël. At 34, he was still making his way as an artist but managed to swing an invitation to stay with the already well established Paul Signac, in his villa set into the hills behind the coast.
It’s said they spent the entire summer arguing about art. Whilst Matisse took great interest in Signac’s work and loved the Pointillism technique he employed, he was also keen to experiment with it in his own way. To quote the programme:
“Matisse was looking for ideas, not tuition.”
As the summer rolled on, Matisse’s paintings deviated more and more from Signac’s own work and Signac, having become set in his ways, grew increasingly frustrated with Matisse’s refusal to follow instruction.
The result of that summer was Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté, a painting that radically moved art on towards abstraction. Whilst he still employed Pointillism, Matisse strayed from the typical use of colour to represent the world as it is and instead chose bold, lively colours to evoke not what we see when we look out at the world, but what we feel.
In 1905, the painting was exhibited in Paris, at the Salon des Indépendants where it met almost universal rejection and criticism. Too chaotic. Too wild. Unrefined. Today we call it one of the great works of art of the 20th Century.
A few short years later, in 1908, Georges Braque arrived on the scene, taking art on the Riviera once more in a new direction. His painting, Houses at l’Estaque, moved away from colour and light and towards a world of pure geometry and shadow.
He submitted the painting to the Salon d’Automne in Paris where, again, his work was met with universal rejection and criticism. Interestingly, it’s said that the main opposition came from Matisse himself, who had several pieces of his own work exhibited at the salon that year. To Matisse, Braque’s new style and way of seeing the world was a threat.
These wildly different painters and many others besides, each brought something unique and beautiful to our world. Without their willingness to deviate from the accepted styles and techniques of their time, the rich history of art we’re now able to look back on may not have been quite so rich at all.
All of us, over the course of our lives, will feel the call to deviate from the more common path. Something inside of us will be called upon to go left, when it seems that everyone else is going right.
It might arrive as a creative urge, to create something different, in a way that’s different, to what the masses around you are creating. Or it might arrive in a deeply felt sense of the “right” thing to do in a particular situation, when the powerful pull of the majority would have you keep quiet and toe the line.
To disrupt the status quo isn’t necessarily an easy thing. The pressure to conform, to behave and do as others do can be a powerful force indeed. And we needn’t disrupt the status quo just for the sake of it, to somehow satisfy a need inside ourselves to do something different.
But if the call, the feeling, or the sense is there inside you, we need you to trust that. Rejection and criticism may be what await you. Perhaps your ideas, creations, or way of being in the world will never be understood or accepted in your lifetime. But to my mind, it seems a small price to pay to live in accordance with your heart and to experience the aliveness and alignment we can know only when we follow our own path, and not the one dictated to us by others.
And besides, the world doesn’t need another Signac, Matisse or Braque. It needs you – in whatever unique and wonderful way that shows up in the world. So when you’re feeling the call to stray from the common path and the pressure to conform weighs heavy on your shoulders, remember Signac, Matisse and Braque and what a far less rich world we’d live in if they’d have chosen to keep the peace instead of allowing us to see the world as it appears through their eyes.
Love and courage,