Last updated: April 14, 2012 12:17 am

Drawn to distraction

We have long-standing assumptions about drawing, but Matisse sought to break these concepts with his works

Going round the quietly wonderful Matisse: Paires et Séries show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris I entertained a blasphemous idea: maybe I could try drawing again. You might think this was a naive and foolish notion, connected to the apparent ease and simplicity of some of the drawings on display, especially the nudes and flowers of the series Thèmes et Variations made while Matisse was convalescing in Nice in 1941-1943. That would be a bit like looking at Matisse’s gouache cut-outs (represented here by the Blue Nude series, one of the late culminations of his career) and thinking it would be fun to take up a pair of scissors. I hope I realise that the economy of line and gesture in these works is the result of an immense, lifelong effort of concentration and reduction, of getting to the essence of something.

I remembered that I used to draw – not so much as a child, more in my late teens – and this activity was triggered not by artistic ambition but by romantic yearning. I drew many versions of the face of a princesse lointaine; I also copied, very carefully, a Toulouse-Lautrec sketch of a horse’s head and took it round, rather as a family cat offers a dead or dying mouse, to a house in Chalk Farm one snowy Christmas afternoon.

My experience, if it is at all typical, suggests that drawing is not just drawing; it is an attempt to capture something or to make it one’s own; or it is an approximation to something, a way of getting to know it better. The reasons why children draw, or our cave-painting ancestors drew, have or had little to do with Walter Pater’s idea of art for art’s sake.

Even Matisse said that for him drawing had to do with feeling. In a fascinating letter to his son Pierre, written to explain the Thèmes et Variations, Matisse said the pen drawings, issuing from a charcoal sketch, however varied, were “united by my emotion in the moment. I mean to say that having been warmed by the effort I made with the charcoal I did the pen drawings.”

We tend to assume, in the west, that drawing is a more intellectual or analytical branch of art and colour is more instinctive and emotional. But Matisse devoted his long career to proving the interconnectedness of line and colour. When he writes, “As soon as my animated line has moulded the light of the empty sheet of paper, without affecting its tender whiteness, I can no longer add or change”, it is hard to say where line begins and colour, or light, ends. At the end of his career, Matisse produced the gouache cut-outs which, as the art critic Raoul-Jean Moulin has said, are “drawings made with scissors and cut directly from colour”.

Although of course no child could possibly have made Matisse’s late cut-outs, or his deceptively easy-looking drawings, it is a fact that children are drawn to and appreciate these late masterpieces. I remember my youngest nephew’s eyes lighting up (he must have been seven or so) when he saw the great “The Snail” in Tate Modern. Matisse’s cut-outs and drawings are in the best sense encouraging.

So if you wanted to go back to drawing, where would you go to learn? I recently visited a drawing school that seemed exemplary. The Prince’s Drawing School in Shoreditch, east London, comes out of the Prince of Wales’s enthusiasm as an accomplished amateur artist but it does not suffer at all from the reactionary tendencies that have been noted in the prince’s interventions in the field of architecture.

“We set up the school in 2000 as a serious place for people to draw from observation, on the street, in the studio and from art,” Catherine Goodman, the artistic director, told me as we went round the impressive Drawing Year (postgraduate) show. “We don’t see drawing as an academic language but as a perceptual language that develops through people’s lives.”

Programmes for children at state primary and secondary schools, starting at 10 (an age when, sadly, children all too often stop drawing), are an important part of this, and the Prince’s School runs 20 children’s drawing clubs around London. Then there are clubs for ages 15+ but the idea is that drawing is “something to do throughout life”.

I was struck both by the individuality – the sense of a personal, subjective language – and the vitality of the work, especially the London street scenes done under the tutelage of the artist and writer Timothy Hyman. Hyman is a passionate believer in the kind of fast drawing done by Bonnard (about whom he has written a fine monograph) and Kirchner, which is still somewhat suspect in high academic circles. It seems to work especially well at night – perhaps because there is less pressure to get down on paper a mass of information and more emphasis on what Bonnard called “the transcription of the adventures of the optic nerve”.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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