Timeless, unlike technology

Exposure to Matisse's dancing forms led Peter Hill to a eureka moment: it is art, not science, that truly evokes the future

November 11, 2010



Credit: Yadid Levy/Alamy
A painting that carries on ‘giving’ - Matisse’s Dance seemed ahead of its time when it was created in 1910: it continues to inspire and please


A few months ago, I was standing in front of Henri Matisse's great painting Dance at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It is a shockingly beautiful and sensual work, large in scale and ambition. Have we caught up with it yet, I wondered? In common with any late Picasso, I felt that this work, painted in 1910, was way ahead not only of its time, but also of our time, too. I'm willing to bet that by the year 2050, it will still seem that way - enticing us into the future.

Aware that our guide was eager to move us on to other delights, I underwent a sort of eureka moment as I tried to linger. Half of my mind, and my emotions, was trying to drink in the painting for as long as possible. The other half was already brooding about the speed with which new technology looks so dated and so clumsy so quickly. By contrast, great art becomes distilled within our collective consciousness over not decades, but centuries.

I thought of the iPhone's fourth incarnation, which had just been released. In today's possessive culture, it is the coolest object on the planet. But how will it and its "apps" appear by 2050? How will it then stack up against Dance, 140 years after Matisse painted it in a world just getting used to radio transmissions and Henry Ford's beetle-black automobiles?

When trying to explain to students the differences between Modernism and PostModernism, I often ask them to visualise an early telephone from the late 19th century - an upright affair, invariably black, with a detachable mouthpiece that looks like a giant thimble. Today, it is literally a museum piece. It hasn't changed. It is physically the same as the day it was made. But our perceptions of it have altered dramatically.

It once was an object that hinted at the future, the way today's iPhone does. At the time, Alexander Graham Bell's invention seemed like an object of telepathy, as magical to the ordinary person as the ability today to hold one iPhone against another and wirelessly swap photographs through a gentle kissing of screens. How quaint this will all seem in 40 years' time.

Yet we will still be trying to understand Matisse's Dance. We will still be drawn back to it through curiosity. It will still be "giving", while today's technologies will have become objects of nostalgia.

The irony, of course, is that much of the art and technology of any given age springs from the same place. While creativity is the visual arts' equivalent of the "disciplined methodology" that drives science, the greatest scientific discoveries, as Albert Einstein often said, also require a creative leap into the void of unknowing.

And it was no coincidence, I mused from within my eureka moment, that Pablo Picasso's invention of Cubism happened at the same time as Einstein's formulation of the general theory of relativity, both roughly around 1907. Both dealt with a reimagining of our long-held notions of time and space. Each was a paradigm shift in the true sense of Thomas Kuhn's term in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). One overturned Newtonian mechanics, while the other did the same for the whole history of Western art by sidelining single-point perspective and ushering in multiple viewpoints.

Perhaps this is the way that our two cultures work together best, occasionally intertwining like two strands of DNA.

But by now I was rushing to keep up with our guide. We hurried past rooms filled with Gauguin paintings and Impressionist landscapes, down marble staircases and through crowds of Chinese tourists pressing towards a Rembrandt self-portrait, then a few seconds later an El Greco Annunciation (and few painters have been quite as ahead of their time as he - the original Expressionist nomad).

In my head, as we raced around the Hermitage, I was already trying to build a story told with pictures rather than words. I saw Andy Warhol's portrait of Marilyn Monroe, and next to it a cassette recorder the size of a big city phone book - one fresh as a cowpat, the other as dated as your grandad's flares. An early mobile phone, larger than a brick, was quickly paired with a sumptuous Sean Scully abstraction. A Francis Bacon portrait fared well next to a first-generation black-and-white television set, which I imagined in a veneered cabinet.

I flashed back to an image of an early camera from the 19th century, and beside it, Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise (1872). And they said painting was dead then. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Photography freed painting to become the wonderfully transformative medium that Matisse championed and others today - Brice Marden, Marlene Dumas, Peter Doig, Aboriginal desert painters - still advance.

In my imagination, Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night (1889) fared pretty well next to an early gramophone player with its shell-like horn. And strangely, a David Hockney Polaroid collage looked more contemporary than the camera with which it was taken.

Out on the streets of St Petersburg, having sampled hundreds of years of Greco-Roman artefacts in less than half an hour, we stumbled into a Korean bridal party emerging from the largest stretch limousine I have ever seen. It was a photo opportunity on the steps of the Hermitage.

Once more, Warhol came to mind - perhaps one of his car crash images? But no, the limousine had more of a 1950s feel about it, like the entry of Frank Sinatra into Vegas. I settled on a Jackson Pollock - one of the striated painted-flat-on-the-ground drip paintings that echoed (and again, was it just a coincidence?) the emerging science of chaos theory.

My head was buzzing. But isn't that exactly what higher education should be about?

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