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For the Love of Cheese Plants: the unsung heroes of modern art

Matisse and his Dog. Photo credit: Tate Archives

A decade ago my grandfather gave me Jack D. Flam’s Matisse on Art. Age nineteen and love-drunk on the Italian Renaissance, I shunned the book. I refused at that time to value anything post-seventeenth century, and even before if it lacked cherubs.

It is only now, on a snow-soft Oxford afternoon, that I have opened the book’s pages for the first time. Why? Because of cheese plants. Cheese plants are the unsung heroes of modern art. Along with banana leaves, palm trees, philodendron and all manner of succulents. The rich dark greens that impossibly exist both in the tropics and desert are rife in the art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I have just returned from a week in North Tenerife, where the paths to the black sand beaches wind through banana plantations. For the entire duration of my stay, the sharp cut of the leaves against the sky led my mind to Rousseau, to Matisse, Picasso and Gaugin. (To be honest, it is not so hard to lead my mind to the plants and jungles these artists depict. Being a city-dwelling millennial with a salary that cannot stretch to dog ownership, I suffice with a small collection of succulents. I love them in a way only a mother could. They are just so god-darn ugly.)

The Dream, Henri Rosseau (1910). Photo Credit: MOMA archives.

What is it in these organic shapes that lends itself so well to modern art? The flat, slick plants seem so easily complimented by the bold brushstrokes of the modern painters. Their shapes fall into a pattern without as much as a whisper of force. This ease with which these recumbent leaves can be incorporated into a highly stylistic and patterned way of painting is highlighted in Matisse’s La Gerbe.

Bizarrely, for a creation of nature, the colour-block leaves allow a level of abstraction that does not veer too far from the truth. They are the perfect natural object for the modern artist. Matisse sought the two-dimensional and found it on the surface of these plants. He marched into the twentieth-century, bearing his own palm leaves, and hailing the beauty of flatness.

La Gerbe, Henri Matisse (1953). Photo credit: Wikiart

‘I turn to nature to find the essence of each thing.’

Throughout his career, Matisse consistently looked to the natural world to provide inspiration. He was an enthusiastic amateur botanist. Ill and largely housebound in later life, he surrounded himself by the most beautiful elements of nature. One room in his lodgings in Nice as a conservatory, another he kept birds in. It is more to the point though to mention here that while seeking inspiration through the natural world, he was also seeking a truth, a kind of factual relevance to the simplistic shapes he found to put down on paper and canvas. It is an honesty and sincerity in perception. I believe this adherence to truth in simplicity is one of the pivotal reasons these plants crop up so often in the artist’s works. You see, unlike a face or a body or the sheer breadth and depth of a space, these plants already have the artistic simplicity, that essence that he was after. However an academic painter, whatever experience or thought processes or age, a cheese plant is just a cheese plant. A child’s drawing or an ill and frail man’s cut out of a cheese plant is not going to be far wrong from what it actually looks like. And this immediate recognition, in turn, allows the forms to become the viewers’ gateway into the works. These instantly recognisable forms are our life raft on a discombobulated ocean, giving an immediate comfort to whomsoever the spectator.

Jaguar Attacking a Horse, Henri Rousseau (1910). wikiart

The plants in fact, allow Matisse to realise his ambition in creating;

‘…an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind…’

Interior with an Etruscan Vase, Henri Matisse (1940). Photo credit: ARTnews.

The human figure for Matisse was held in the highest esteem in his art. The foliage had little academic importance, even less so symbolism, nor does it take up a large amount of space in his writings. But these lush green leaves are pivotal in grounding these paintings into a kind of reality. However disjointed, whatever their colour, perspective or form.

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