Thoughts on Craftsmanship and Deep Feeling: Matisse and Alexander

10 July 2010

[Thoughts from “Notes of a Painter” by Henri Matisse, and “Deep Feeling” by Christopher Alexander, with an eye to what it takes to make something with true life in it, starting off with an enigmatic sentence from Matisse]:


“What I am after, above all, is expression.  […]

Sorrows of the King, by Matisse

Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement.  The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share. […]

In a picture every part will be visible and will play its appointed role, whether it be principal or secondary.  Everything that is not useful in this picture is, it follows, harmful.  A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety: any superfluous detail would replace some other essential detail…”

George House, by Christopher Alexander


“[I]n our era… the word ‘feeling’ has been contaminated.  It is confused with emotions — with feelings (in the plural) such as wonder, sadness, anger — which confuse rather than help because they make us ask ourselves, which kind of feeling should I follow [when building]?  The feeling I am talking about is unitary.  It is feeling in the singular, which comes from the whole.  It arises in us, but it originates in the wholeness which is actually there.  The process of respecting and extending and creating the whole, and the process of using feeling, are one and the same.  Real feeling, true feeling, is the experience of the whole.”

Linz Cafe, by Christopher Alexander


“I want to reach that state of condensation of sensations which makes a painting.  I might be satisfied with a work done at one sitting, but I would soon tire of it; therefore, I prefer to rework it so that later I may recognize it as representative of my state of mind.  There was a time when I never left my paintings hanging on the wall because they reminded me of moments of over-excitement and I did not like to see them again when I was calm.  Nowadays I try to put serenity into my pictures and rework them as long as I have not succeeded. […] I will condense the meaning…by seeking [the painting’s] essential lines. The charm will be less apparent at first glance, but it must eventually emerge from the new image which will have a broader meaning, one more fully human.”

Harmony in Red, by Henri Matisse. Spring, 1908


“What matters is that the building — the room, the canyon, the painting, the ornament, the garden — as they are created, send profound feeling back towards us.  It means that if I am the builder I set out to produce a neighborhood, or a landscape, or a building, or a window as if it was an instrument…which will work back on me or any other person and create feeling in me or in that person.  The feeling comes from the object back to me after it is made, does not go from me to the object while I am making it.  Here the question all the time is: Within the step that I am taking now, can I take the step in such that way that the evolving work has its deep feeling increased the most?  What step, of all possible steps, will add the most to the feeling we experience when we are in or near that place?”

Pedestrian street at the Eishin Campus designed by Christopher Alexander


“If I put a black dot on a sheet of white paper, the dot will be visible no matter how far away I hold it: it is a clear notation. But beside this dot I place another one, and then a third, and already there is confusion. In order for the first dot to maintain its value I must enlarge it as I put other marks on the paper. […]

It is necessary that the various marks I use be balanced so that they do not destroy each other. To do this I must organize my ideas; the relationship between the tones must be such that it will sustain and not destroy them… I am forced to transpose until finally my picture may seem completely changed… I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I am forced to interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture. …

There must result a living harmony… If there is order and clarity in the picture, it means that from the outset this same order and clarity existed in the mind of the painter, or that the painter was conscious of their necessity.”

Woman in Russian Blouse II, by Matisse


“The feeling which steers us…is a vision — but it is not an arbitrarily invented vision.

Animal panels executed in marble dust and two colors of cement, by Christopher Alexander

It is a vision of something we may call the emotional substance of the coming work, a feeling which arises in us, as a response to the wholeness which exists. It is therefore reasonably accurate, reliable, and stable. We can get it, and then keep on coming back to it. It evolves, as the project does, and as our concrete understanding evolves. Thus, as the geometry develops, the feeling is kept intact, but becomes more and more solid — provided we do not depart from the feeling that existed in us at the beginning. So, this feeling which guides us is our response to the wholeness — first to that wholeness which existed at the beginning. Subsequently it is our response to the wholeness as it evolves and emerges from our actions. It is our knowledge of what kind of thing is needed to complete that wholeness, and make it more alive.”

roof edge of a house by Christopher Alexander

I believe Matisse and Alexander, in the passages above, are talking about the same thing: what it is to make a thing that will last — a thing that is lasting or eternal, that never gets old. I am thinking in terms of its human value.

It happens — human value (wholeness) becomes living artifact — in the place where craftsmanship and deep feeling overlap so as to be one. Craftsmanship as the execution of deep feeling in a medium. And deep feeling as what rises, even from the beginning, in the creation of a work. It could be any work.

And I believe, too, they are both saying it happens when we pay attention to a feeling that is deeper than what is on the surface.  It is deeper than all of our passions, deeper than spontaneous expression. It is what persists beneath (and also transcends, and envelops, or holds) everything on the surface. A beautiful work — again, any beautiful work — is the ground for everything on the surface, and gives what is on the surface a home.

Arch through window. An Alexandrian space.

Chapel windows, by Matisse

On that note, here is a final and absolutely inspired passage from Alexander, explaining just what he means when he says that following deep feeling penetrates every aspect of a work:

[T]he essential nature of each step is exactly the same. It has only one purpose: to allow the wholeness to unfold correctly…

[Y]ou first hear about the job…you visit the place, meet the people…; you get an idea about the building…; a rough idea about the plan…, the treatment of the site…; you work out the building volumes…; you see the first vision of color and materials; when you have to pay attention to the codes…; you start working out movement, structure, and the placing of individual rooms. … [Y]ou prepare drawings, and submit them to the building department…; you make mockups of the various kinds of construction which will be used in the building; working out what kind of building details you will use. […]

It goes on when we start forming foundations; continues as we pour foundations; continues in the cutting and planing of every piece of wood; goes on while we decide details during construction: move walls, place windows, decide details of a seat here, an ornament there. It continues while we paint, place colors, on the building — and it continues in all the years after that while you, or others, add to the building, change it, improve it, and take care of it.

During this process, we make hundreds of thousands of individual decisions. Some of them take no more than a second: It may be an instinctive placing of a line — here instead of here. Others may take months of discussion… Others are brief. I include the way your pencil travels along a line while you are drawing. I include even the time it takes to move the plane in a single stroke on a piece of wood you are planing — or the time it takes to take a loaded paint brush, and place one brushful of paint on the wall. …I even include the way you look at something, when you are trying to decide a question…

Even if there are a million steps, and a million wholenesses which I pass through on my way to making something, I still use the same fundamental process, the same operation, for every one of these million steps. In every step, I try to increase the feeling in the thing.

The San Jose Homeless Shelter, by Christopher Alexander


A photo of mine as a postlude. A simple, almost melancholy image — but there is a calmness in it that touches me more deeply than its melancholy.


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