An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc.—Henri Matisse
We become prisoners easily. We bind ourselves to a specific style, to the rules of that style, to the marketing necessities of a medium, to the limits of what displays well online, to whatever might be commercially appealing, to the opinions of our friends and colleagues, to the demands of family, to the strictures of a specific religion, to the censorship of an art association or publication, to the expectations of a specific genre, to the desires of models, to the demands of publishers and editors, and on and on until we have so thoroughly imprisoned ourselves that we might as well be wearing jail stripes, or at least place them over our work.
Not that we ever intend to become a prisoner. I’ve known of no one with an artistic bent who started out saying they would do nothing that did not follow the rules. I suppose, given the immensity of humanity that such a person exists, but most artists claim they want to become rule breakers, to stretch the boundaries of their chosen medium, or of art in general. Artists desire to be anarchists in some sense, to upset society in such a way as to overturn the present hierarchy. Yet, so few actually accomplish that feat. At the first sign of resistance, we play along and become a prisoner.
It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.
Indeed, even from the very beginning, the artist refused to conform to the “rules” of art. He failed the exam for the first art school to which he applied. He was fiercely criticized and derided his entire career. His works were often hung in poor locations where they would be least likely to be noticed, and allegedly were even hung upside down on more than one occasion. When Matisse’s first Fauvist works were exhibited in Paris, people actually laughed while standing in front of the paintings. Not being a prisoner often means not giving in to popularity.
Even one of his closest friends and frequent house guests, Pablo Picasso, was critical of Matisse’s work. Picasso and his friends actually threw suction-cup darts at Matisse’s Portrait of Marguerite (which Picasso had obtained in a trade for his own Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon). When Matisse was contracted for the stained glass windows at Chapelle du Rosaire, Picasso allegedly said that it would have been more appropriate for Matisse to have designed a brothel.
Not being a prisoner sometimes comes at a severe price. If there is a lesson to be learned from this week of discussing Matisse it is that one must be true only to their own artistic vision; everything and everyone else is a sideline spectator who distracts and detracts from the art. As surely as we imprison ourselves, we can also break ourselves free. Do not be a prisoner.