Inside Matisse’s Chapel of Cut-Outs

henri matisseAt the end of his life, Henri Matisse made art for a chapel. It was a strange thing for an atheist to do. That Matisse would make religious art was especially annoying to his friend Picasso. In one exchange, Picasso asked Matisse, sarcastically, why he didn’t just make art for a brothel.

“Because nobody asked me,” was Matisse’s reply.

You could take this answer as pure cynicism. The artist as gun for hire. “I make art wherever people pay me to make art. A church, a brothel, it doesn’t really matter.” Perhaps, in answering this way, Matisse was playing the tough guy in front of his friend and sometimes rival.

But there is another way to read Matisse’s answer. It is to take seriously that the asking matters. Matisse was asked to make art for a chapel, not for a brothel. He was—to raise the tempo of the language—called to do it.

Matisse seems to have seen it that way too. He always called the chapel his “masterpiece.” He said he was “fated” to do the work.

[Read more...]

Pasternak: Artist and Holy Fool

tumblr_lz6uc9ddzz1r4t46jo1_500As I read the essay “The Writer and the Valet” in my latest issue of the London Review of Books, an image came to mind of a T-shirt I saw in one of the random catalogs that come in the mail. It was a simple black shirt with the sentence, “Artists make bad slaves” printed on it.

The essay by Frances Stoner Saunders is about how Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago came to publication, and it is a story filled with Cold War suspense and intrigue. It also parallels the novel itself—the story of an individual artist whose life and living are wrecked by revolution in his homeland.

Pasternak was born in 1890 into the home of an artist father and pianist mother. Artists and musicians frequented his parents’ home, including the likes of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Pasternak himself started his studies in music, switched to philosophy, and then found his calling with poetry. He was a poet who loved botany, and was, according to Alan Furst in his review of The Zhivago Affair, “above all else, a poet of the human spirit, a poet in love with a world of weather, landscapes, romance and the Russian soul.” [Read more...]

Fiction is Truer than Fact

img_4595In Jill Lepore’s extraordinary biography of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane, Book of Ages, a short chapter near the end sketches the rise of the novel as a genre. Prior to the eighteenth century, “history” was the genre for telling the stories of lives, and they were always the stories of famous men. Then in the eighteenth century, novels began to be written, but at first they called themselves “histories”: Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy are two that Lepore names. Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela also purported to be real letters that Fielding had discovered.

Soon, though, novelists dropped pretense of writing history, because they were convinced that their new genre was truer than history. It was a new kind of biography—of ordinary people—and its truth was founded not in documentary evidence but in human nature.

I was reminded of this while recently reading Kent Haruf’s novels Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, all set in his fictional town of Holt, Colorado, on the high dusty plains east of Denver. The small events of very ordinary lives are Haruf’s subject. In a spare, understated style, Haruf creates characters who surprise themselves with a generous gesture, who suffer from depression or loss or the meanness of others, who settle into habits of sadness or of gratitude.

Reading along, I would often stop and think: “this is life as it really is.”

Lepore’s terms helped me understand why I keep reading fiction: because fiction connects me with the truth of other lives. And so with the truth of my own. [Read more...]

Susan Sontag, Simon Weil, and the Pursuit of Seriousness

Susan SontagI could stare for many hours at that famous 1975 picture of Susan Sontag lying on her bed. She’s wearing a turtleneck sweater and her arms are tucked behind her head. She is thinking. Her eyes are open, slightly dreamy, but fixed.

She looks serious. How else could she look? By God, that woman was serious. It is her main contribution as a belletrist, the idea that seriousness itself is a goal, that in the collapse of all other values, we can be serious about being serious.

There is also a picture of Simone Weil at age thirteen, before she got those round glasses you see in the later photos. Weil is laughing and pretty and resting her left arm casually on her neck. It seems impossible that this is the woman who later refused treatment for her tuberculosis and who more or less starved herself to death out of spiritual solidarity with those suffering under German occupation during WWII.

Susan Sontag wrote a review of a collection of Weil’s essays for the New York Review of Books in 1963. Sontag used the publication of Weil’s essays as an excuse to talk about her favorite subject: being serious. Sontag loved Weil’s harshness, her unrelenting, unremitting commitment to seeing her thoughts through wherever they lead. [Read more...]

What Now?

Guest Post

By Scott Cairns

Image has just published its 25th anniversary issue (#80). We’re pleased today to run an excerpt from a symposium in that issue entitled “The Road Behind Us: Image’s Founding Generation,” in which we asked several writers and artists who have been part of Image’s community from its beginnings what they see as having changed over the years, whether there’s still a need for a venue like Image, and what our new calling might be.

Yes, the cultural landscape in America has changed dramatically since the 1980s. And building upon the previous brilliant, pioneering successes of a relative handful of remarkable writers—among them, John Updike, Annie Dillard, Denise Levertov, and Larry Woiwode come to mind—Image journal has been key to effecting dramatic change in the three decades of interim.

I believe that it was sometime in the fall of 1993 that I first learned of Image. I was gigging a Texas writers’ conference in San Angelo, and I met up with Virginia Stem Owens and her husband David who were also presenting their work. We hit it off, and—between readings, panel discussions, and other typical conference fare—struck up a series of conversations that led to what has been a continuing friendship. It was during that long weekend that Ginger first told me about this newish “Journal of the Arts and Religion,” suggesting I might send some work to Greg Wolfe, her then colleague at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, and the editor and publisher of the magazine.

To be honest, I didn’t think I would be sending anything to Greg anytime soon. I had by then seen more than my share of literary journals attempting to bridge the chasm between art and faith, and in no previous case had I witnessed anything other than an acute diminishment of art, more often than not coupled with a cartoonish take on faith, to boot. That is to say, I was not expecting anything different along those lines.

Then I saw a copy of the new journal, Image Number 3, published the previous spring.

[Read more...]


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