‘Mediocre art is simply a reflection of a culture. Great art transcends it.’
A Conversation With Painter Philosopher – Matthew James Collins
Matthew and I haven’t met yet but we did. I only got in touch with him recently almost by accident. His images had met me before and they lingered somewhere in my mind. I live in London. He lives in Italy. I am single. He is married with kids. I am involved with the contemporary art world. He is a humanist perfecting his art as it used to be done three centuries ago. I find him fascinating and his art speaks for himself. There is something of those conversations between Nicholas Poussin (le Peintre Philosophe)* and the Chevalier de Chantelou that I want to convey (or maybe participate in) in this ongoing conversation that I am planning (if Matthew agrees) to establish as a feature of this blog.
Rodrigo Cañete: In the first part of this dialogue I was particularly moved by your interest in the ‘other’ (person) as a via of self discovery as the ‘engine’ of your artistic production. You said: ‘a curiosity about another’s experience to help us come to grips with our own is pretty universal.’ This might sound too Freudian but actually it is not just that for it is at the core of the humanist Early Modern experience. The other as a ‘mirror’ (or an example) to perfect ourselves. Recently I did group therapy and understood the ‘visual’ clarity of this. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Matthew James Collins: The painted image as mirror is a very interesting idea. A quality work of art functions on many levels. It is the sensibility, accumulated culture and bravura of the artist that determines how rich a work of art can be. In addition to ‘being a mirror’ hopefully a good work of art is a catalyst. Obviously the preparation of the viewer is fundamental as well. Instead of showing us only ourselves, it reveals how we relate to others.
RC: You described your move from the US to Italy in terms of the (in your own words) ‘oversimplified metaphor that describes Anglo-Saxon as Masculine and the Latin as Feminine.’ According to you, the Anglo-Saxon is that which gives form and the Latin is the matter that needs from that external agent to be shaped. The North as (cold) intellect and the South as (warm) Nature. Do you understand the self delusion in this way of structuring artistic reality? In other words, aren’t you just a poshed up gringo?
MJC: It is more useful to our discussion to build upon the idea Masculine and Feminine with the added attributes of Conscious and Unconscious. They seem on the surface to be opposites but are actually integral parts of a single whole. Creating a dualistic or Manichean model is usually not very satisfying when applied to life or art. And that is not to say that everything is ‘grey’ either or completely amoral. There are strong primal forces at work within our lives, like Eros and Thanatos, and they should be investigated.
RC: This question has two parts. Firstly, isn’t there a contradiction between identifying oneself with the observant gentleman and actually intervening in nature so as to modify it to produce (as you say) a ‘product’’? Secondly, you said: ‘I am on a sort of Grand Tour but instead of acquiring cultural and aesthetic symbols that reaffirm a social order, I am researching the symbols themselves.’ How do you do that? How is your ‘gentlemanly’ art an instrument for social change?
MJC: I should have been a bit more specific. I definitely don’t identify with the ‘Bamboccianti’ (note: ‘he refers to my original question where I associated with the group of Transalpine commercial artists that used to work in Rome during the XVII century and specialised on vedute and landscapes) as I am not a genre painter and my work is not very commercial. The sort of Grand Tour that I am on is similar to what many artists have done in the last 600 years: coming to Italy to understand art. You are completely correct about the difference between artist and the ‘gentleman’ patron. My motivations and experience are more related to that of Reynolds, Giambologna, Velazquez, and numerous other foreign artists that made the pilgrimage to Italy to study its patrimony.
Art for social change doesn’t interest me as much as its potential for personal reflection and growth. My research into the symbols that I use is essentially rendering them relevant in a contemporary context. That involves, in my opinion, overcoming the 19th century imposition on art, symbols, and culture in general.
You mentioned Freud in your first question and that is a perfect example how the 19th century point of view influences how see the present and past. He has appropriated Greek mythology to validate his Victorian ideas. Not that he was wrong with his observations. But they set parameters that definitely limit our perspective on the myths. Jung and the comparative mythologists are more useful to look at.
RC: Let’s talk about light. Why is that artists coming from a place where is barely any shadow appear to be obsessed with chiaroscuro and a somber palette? Velazquez from Seville, Salvatore Rosa from Naples, Caravaggio, you?
MJC: Light as an allegorical element was a very important aspect of Baroque period painting. It carried philosophical, psychological and often moral meaning. But power of light and dark imagery is not limited to just painting of the 17th century, Shakespeare uses it as well. It is true that interrelationship between light and dark fascinates me. It gives form to our visual world.
RC: Now let’s get back to Bacchus. Referring to him you said that ‘Melancholy is a self imposed emotion that acknowledges the past, present and future.’ ‘Dionysus/Bacchus leans on a representation of a future self symbolized by the male figures that he has already encountered. Also one can sense a real empathy in Dionysus that is evident in acceptance of the abandoned Ariadne.’ I am struggling to see the ‘melancholic’ side of Bacchus and its ’empathic’ side. Aren’t you just projecting your own expectations of a fallen humanity onto him?
MJC: It is the artist’s prerogative to interpret. So of course I am projecting. But isn’t that what Euripides did as well?
Dionysus/Bacchus was the only god born of a mortal mother. He traveled widely to share his gift to help humanity. That makes him completely different that the other Gods of the Greek pantheon with the exception of Demeter. Within melancholy there is always at least a bit of hope. That is what differentiates it from depression. Melancholy is a meditative state that assesses the world as it is. Both Dionysus and Demeter are active in the life cycle of the world and partake in the happiness and unavoidably the sadness that naturally occur. Recognizing the positive and negative emotions as natural parts of our existence empower us not to be completely controlled by them.
RC: I will take issue and demand more evidence of your assertion of ‘Early Greek images of Dionysus as a bearded man.’ As you know the issues of identification when unearthing sculptures prevent us from referring to them with any certainty. The drunken bearded man is usually Silenus, one of Bacchus’ Bachantes. Having said this, it is an open debate.
MJC: Attribution and identification has always been a tricky business regarding artifacts of the antique world. However there is little risk to my assertion. There are numerous examples of greek black figure and red figure vase painting with a bearded Dionysus. Very often to avoid confusion the figures are labeled by the painter.
Silenus is an interesting character as was a sort of foster father for Dionysus.
RC: I am interested however in your need to shape Bacchus to your ‘own personal needs.’ You want to bring him closer to you through mimesis. Bacchus is represented in the middle ages and Roman times as a baby and as an ephebe whatever you say. But through you, the archeological allusion is manipulated to transform him into YOU. I wonder what is the place of art in your life in relation with your ‘Melancholic’ present and your (probably depressive) American past…
MJC: Another problem of the 19th century that we have inherited is its ‘literalism.’ This has resulted in inflexible ideas based on reason. The representation of Dionysus/ Bacchus a baby, ephebe or as bearded man is completely justified depending upon the original intention of the work of art. A particular physical manifestation of Dionysus should be relevant to the meaning of the specific work of art. The common stereotypical depiction of Dionysus/Bacchus is of the ‘party god’ and that of wine. I feel that he is much more complex. Creating works with him as the primary subject is one way of studying him.
Art consoles me in this ephemeral life as the truly great works have the power to communicate universally and reveal the best elements of our collective selves. It is the ‘beautiful’ that usually speaks to me. Melancholy is not negative per se when beauty is present. Art is so important that it is a responsibility. It demands study, commitment and sensibility. That brings to mind what my father, who is an architect, says about art. ‘Mediocre art is a simply a reflection of a culture, Great art transcends it.’ That is a sentiment that is easily laughed off in the cynical environment of academic art of today. So it is not surprising that much of today’s art production will be simply disregarded in the future.
My relationship with my ‘patria’ is becoming more even positive the longer I live abroad. Experiencing contemporary life in Italy and its social state has been very disappointing. The cultural life there in general has suffered greatly.
To be continued
* For more on Nicholas Poussin and ‘le peintre philosophe’ you might find interesting Anthony Blunt’s Nicholas Poussin (Washington, 1967)
Blog from http://www.loveartnotpeople.com/