Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Lightning and Rain: Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis and Matisse’s Hand Involuntary Drawing

A celebrated sequence of slow-motion footage of Matisse’s working hand fascinated philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This paper explores how their analyses figure broader tensions between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, and how this bears upon interpretations of drawings by Matisse and of the graphic trace in the work of Mary Kelly and Susan Morris.

A 1946 documentary film entitled Henri Matisse features a celebrated sequence in which the artist’s working hand is captured in its wayward wanderings between strokes.1 On watching the film Matisse relayed his startled reaction:

There was a passage showing me drawing in slow motion … Before my pencil ever touched the paper, my hand made a strange journey of its own. I never realized before that I did this. I suddenly felt as if I were shown naked – that everyone could see this – it made me feel deeply embarrassed. You must understand, this was not hesitation. I was unconsciously establishing the relationship between the subject I was about to draw and the size of my paper.2

Matisse’s statements concerning his drawing practice waver between assertions of total control and uncomprehending blindness. In 1939 he would liken himself to ‘a dancer or tightrope walker who begins his day with several hours of numerous limbering exercises so that every part of his body obeys him’.3 At the same time he compared his drawing to ‘the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness’.4 What is at stake, then, in these strange movements of the hand? What of the artist do they obey, from what do they play truant, and what forms of control do they place in abeyance? What function does the hand have within scopic, psychic and corporeal economies, and what is the relationship between its work and the completed picture?

In the extended theoretical introduction to his 1952 essay, ‘Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence’, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty discussed this footage in the context of his probing of the relationship between painting and verbal language.5 For Merleau-Ponty, Matisse was working beneath or beyond the deliberations of analytic reflection, lending his body to the world and to painting to arrive at aesthetic solutions not formulable prior to that creative labour. For the philosopher, watching Matisse’s hand in slow motion (meditating in a ‘solemn expanding time’) gave the misleading impression that the artist had consciously decided between possible options before ‘crash[ing] down finally like a lightning stroke upon the one line necessary’:

Of course, Matisse would be wrong if, putting his faith in the film, he believed that he really chose [opté] between all possible lines that day … He was not a demiurge; he was a human being. He did not have in his mind’s eye all the gestures possible, and in making his choice [choix] he did not have to eliminate all but one … Everything happened in the human world of perception and gesture; and the camera gives us a fascinating version of the event only by making us believe that the painter’s hand operated in the physical world where an infinity of options is possible. And yet, Matisse’s hand did hesitate. Consequently, there was a choice, and the chosen line was chosen in such a way as to observe, scattered out over the painting, twenty conditions which were unformulated and even informulable for anyone but Matisse, since they were only defined and imposed by the intention of executing that particular painting which did not yet exist.6

For Merleau-Ponty this ‘originating operation’, fully embedded in the material fabric of things, is not fundamentally different from the genesis of creative (as opposed to what he calls ‘empirical’ or ‘prosaic’) language.7 Just as the painter’s final mark can be seen against a backdrop of corporeal wanderings and a field of possibilities not taken, Merleau-Ponty argued that the ‘expressive word’ can better be appreciated when those not selected, those that ‘might have touched and shaken the chain of language in another manner’ are considered.8 Merleau-Ponty follows the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in insisting upon the opacity of language, but unlike Saussure he stresses the generative role of the utterance in signification, and argues that language only yields its meaning when we lend ourselves to its life, ‘to its movements of differentiation and articulation, and to its eloquent gestures’.9 ‘We must consider the word before it is spoken,’ he urges, ‘the background of silence which does not cease to surround it and without which it would say nothing. Or to put the matter another way, we must uncover the threads of silence with which speech is intertwined.’10

Merleau-Ponty conceives of ‘creative’ language as dealing not with pre-given significations but with the contingent wresting of new expressive forms from a fabric that is ‘more like a way of being than a means’.11 The writer ‘gropes around a significative intention’, just as the hand ranges over its paper arena before striking down to place its mark.12 The slow-motion footage of Matisse, then, reveals the hand as an envoy from a bodily system unharnessed from the clarity of reflective thought, and at the service of a more ‘global’, embodied expressive agency. In 1934 art historian Henri Focillon advanced an analogous conception of the hand’s work in drawing:

Such an alchemy does not, as is commonly supposed, merely develop the stereotyped form of an inner vision; it constructs the vision itself, gives it body and enlarges its perspectives. The hand is not the mind’s docile slave. It searches and experiments for its master’s benefit; it has all sorts of adventures; it tries its chance.13

The body, encompassing a whole perceptual apparatus immersed in and lent to the world, produces solutions of which the mind alone would not be capable: ‘There is in all expression a spontaneity which will not take orders,’ Merleau-Ponty asserts, ‘not even those which I would like to give to myself.’14 This spontaneity is placed at some distance from surrealist automatism, of which Merleau-Ponty is rather dismissive.15 For the philosopher, what the painter puts into the work is not a latent content locked up in subjective life, but his style, which arises from the threshold of contact with the world, in a ‘fecund moment when [it] germinated at the surface of the artist’s experience’.16 He argues, in alignment with Matisse’s own statements on the matter, that style is only achieved by way of sustained labour, by active engagement with a symbolic tradition (the painting of others), and by open perceptual encounters with the world.17 Style is a ‘mode of formulation’ that allows the painter to go beyond the ‘little anguishes or local joys’ with which the painting is sown, which are only ‘components of a total meaning which is less moving, more legible, and more enduring’.18

In his celebrated 1964 seminars, ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, having recently read Merleau-Ponty’s posthumously published unfinished book, The Visible and the Invisible, revisited the footage of Matisse:

Maurice Merleau-Ponty draws attention to the paradox of this gesture which, enlarged by the distension of time, enables us to imagine the most perfect deliberation in each of these brush strokes. This is an illusion, he says. What occurs as these strokes, which go to make up the miracle of the picture, fall like rain from the painter’s brush is not choice, but something else. Can we not try to formulate what this something else is?

Should not the question be brought closer to what I called the rain of the brush? If a bird were to paint would it not be by letting fall its feathers, a snake by casting off its scales, a tree by letting fall its leaves? What it amounts to is the first act in the laying down of the gaze. A sovereign act, no doubt, since it passes into something that is materialized and which, from this sovereignty, will render obsolete, excluded, inoperant, whatever, coming from elsewhere, will be presented before this product.19

Before unravelling these suggestive sentences, it is necessary to situate this passage within Lacan’s theory of vision, desire and human subjectivity more broadly.

Lacan celebrated the way in which Merleau-Ponty was led to ‘overthrow the relation, which has always been made by thought, between the eye and the mind’.20 At the same time he veered away decisively from the philosopher in his formulation of an invisible dimension within the visible.21 In his last writings Merleau-Ponty had outlined a conception of reversibility in vision – the sense of the visible world looking back at the seer – which he framed in ontological terms, as indicating a reciprocity in perception between the seer and a pre-reflective Being, which he designated flesh, ‘a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being’.22 For him, the lines of such artists as Paul Klee and Matisse were able to deliver ‘a blueprint of a genesis of things’.23 Quoting Klee, Merleau-Ponty asserted:

Vision is the meeting, as at a crossroads, of all the aspects of Being. ‘A certain fire wills to live; it wakes. Working its way along the hand’s conductor, it reaches the canvas and invades it; then, a leaping spark, it arcs the gap in the circle it was to trace: the return to the eye, and beyond.’ There is no break at all in this circuit; it is impossible to say that here nature ends and the human being or expression begins. It is, then, silent Being that itself comes to show forth its own meaning.24

For Lacan, Merleau-Ponty’s late work had attained ‘a beauty that is also its limit’.25 The ontology of flesh, articulating a dynamic inseparability of subject and world, attempted to restore what for Lacan was in fact a decisive and irrevocable break.26 For him, the loss of the maternal object, of the experience of self as indissolubly wedded to a world of plenitude and pleasure, stands behind the subject’s entry into language and meaning. Indeed, that entry involves the cutting out of significant parts of the subject: drives and pleasures now rendered both inaccessible and prohibited. This is a ‘symbolic castration’ necessary for the constitution of the properly socialised self installed within the Symbolic Order.27 The excised pieces, inassimilable to symbolically structured reality, are consigned to the Real, conceived by Lacan as immovable and traumatic.28

For Lacan, it is this loss of undivided experience, of pleasurable, sustaining, unbroken union that produces desire as such.29 As the object once capable of delivering full satisfaction is repeatedly experienced as absent, it begins to be symbolised by the infant, constituted as an external object. Once this symbolisation grows in strength and coherence, and especially once it becomes articulated within a formalised system of signifiers, there is no going back to a pre-symbolic stage in which that undivided satisfaction is possible. Lacan designates the remainder (which is also a reminder) of that lost plenitude as objet a, the object cause of desire (which, given its origins in lack and castration, will be attended by anxiety). As the psychoanalyst Bruce Fink writes, ‘Object (a) is the leftover of that process of constituting an object, the scrap that evades the grasp of symbolization. It is a reminder that there is something else, something perhaps lost, perhaps yet to be found’.30 As rem(a)inder, objet a is both fascinating and threatening, offering the promise of a lost unity, but also serving to remind the subject of castration, and of the prohibited drives and pleasures cut out by the process of ego-formation and assimilation to the Nom-du-Père – both the name and the ‘No!’ of the Father. Objet a does not designate any particular object, but rather the aspect of fascination attributed to (substitutable) objects by the desiring subject.

For Lacan, this radical split has its necessary effects upon visual experience. As the subject that constitutes the image is inevitably in it, claims for what the image contains will depend upon the model of the seeing subject in operation. Opposing Merleau-Ponty’s stress upon the relationship between eye and world, Lacan states that ‘The objet a in the field of the visible is the gaze’.31 While Merleau-Ponty suggestively describes vision as ‘voracious’, his ontological emphases, for Lacan, do not accommodate the specifically human structure of desire and lack that are crucial in (dis)organising the scopic field.32 (It is these moments when the visual field is warped by desire and anxiety that most interest Lacan.) The gaze displaces the (physiological) eye in favour of an inassimilable and threatening agency: ‘the gaze as such, in its pulsative, dazzling and spread out function.’33 The gaze is the point in the visual field which corresponds to the blind spots within the subject – and which looks back at the subject with all the fascination and force of these lost, prohibited and excised contents.

To shield itself from the menacing power of the gaze, Lacan argues, the subject constructs screens, and here the question of the picture re-enters. While Lacan insists, following the radical French intellectual Roger Caillois, that animals also don masks, they are captivated by this performance in a way that humans are not:

Only the subject – the human subject, the subject of desire that is the essence of man – is not, unlike the animal, entirely caught up in this imaginary capture. He maps himself in it. How? In so far as he isolates the function of the screen and plays with it. Man, in effect, knows how to play with the masks as that beyond which there is the gaze. The screen is here the locus of mediation.34

Under the pressure of the gaze the subject turns itself into a picture (it is ‘photo-graphed’); it constructs ‘image screens’ which mediate between the subject and the gaze. Artworks, for Lacan, form a part of this mediating Imaginary register.

What does Lacan mean, then, when he describes the ‘rain’ of the artist’s brush as ‘the first act in the laying down of the gaze’? While he does not offer a sustained discussion of Matisse’s gesture (his emphasis is rather on the picture which constitutes its terminal point), he suggestively describes it as a ‘sovereign act’.35 The sovereign is that which is above or beyond the law. So this gesture, comparable to the falling of feathers or the shedding of skins in animals, is of a different order from the regulated fabric of Symbolic representations and Imaginary identifications. Here the body approaches the spontaneity of the instinctual life of animals. The image resulting from this activity, for Lacan, will constitute a ‘fascinating game’, composed by way of ‘the lines dividing the surfaces created by the painter, vanishing traces, lines of force’,36 before which the viewer is invited to relinquish their gaze:

The painter gives something for the eye to feed on, but he invites the person to whom the picture is presented to lay down his gaze there as one lays down ones weapons. This is the pacifying, Apollonian effect of painting. Something is given not so much to the gaze but to the eye, something that involves the abandonment, the laying down, of the gaze.37

So for Merleau-Ponty the slow motion footage of Matisse’s hand presents a misleading sense of reflective deliberation where in fact analytic, predictive faculties are placed in abeyance. Rather, creative labour involves both the abandonment of self to world, and the structuring force of a hard-won style that is proper to the expressive body. From this action is wrested a contingent yet coherent ‘deformation’ of language and, by the time of ‘Eye and Mind’, a presentation of the very ‘structural filaments’ of Being.38 For Lacan, Matisse’s gesture is a sovereign act, the precipitation of which will set in play a fascinating game that has to do not primarily with a perceptual encounter, but with the task of pacifying the gaze, the invisible and menacing hole within the visual field. For him, the picture functions something like the Gorgoneion in Greek mythology, the shield crafted by Athena that inherits and transforms the deadly power of the Medusa’s petrifying stare.39 But how does this debate bear upon a reading of specific drawings by Matisse?


Reclining Nude in the Studio 1935 (fig.1), forms part of a series of drawings Matisse made of the nude between 1935 and 1937 in which he explicitly inscribes his own presence within the scene.40 A supine, luminous female body arcs across the page, spilling downwards and outwards with the face coming to rest close to the picture plane at the bottom left. The swelling curves of the model’s form, foreshortened and distended, are rendered by a fine black line that combines spare consistency with desiring extravagance. The pervasive sensuality is not only a question of the depicted body (the prominent breasts, abdomen and thighs opened out at the centre of the image), but also of the libidinous progress of the line that continues its fluent play across the sheet. Looping and weaving around the female nude, Matisse’s line is eloquent of the pleasures of the hand as it modulates the surface in a rhythm of dispersion, integration and expansion. It does not so much fix forms in clear spatial positions as thread them into an undulating graphic fabric articulated by line alone, creating a pictorial space of equivalence that Matisse described as ‘a perspective of feeling’.41 Within this field, the artist institutes a complex game of self-reference. At the top left of the drawing is a rapidly treated mirror image of this nude body, headless and abbreviated.42 To the bottom right, he inserts the rectangular frame of his drawing board: a drawing within a drawing that contains a schematic rendering of the image in progress. And inside this frame is a second smaller drawing, a further move in a game producing a kind of conceptual vertigo, a ‘veritable mise-en-abîme akin to Russian dolls’.43 Finally, Matisse renders his own working hand floating over these images-in-progress, figuring his own role as both weaver and prey of this graphic web.44

Henri Matisse Reclining Nude in the Studio 1935

Henri Matisse
Reclining Nude in the Studio 1935
Pen and ink on paper
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2005

Before returning to the drawings themselves, it is worth considering the charged scenario in which the encounter between artist and model took place. From the 1920s Matisse moved between a sequence of comfortable apartments in Nice, constructing in each an other-worldly space of sensual reverie.45 The model took her place within rooms filled with wonderful and exotic objects, beautiful plants, birds and fantastic decorations, as well as examples of his own and other artists’ work. These were places of voluptuousness and sensual reverie, insulating the artist from the banal and troubling realities of everyday living. Visiting the artist in 1942, in the midst of the Occupation, Louis Aragon, displaying his own investments in the oneiric as a prominent surrealist, named Matisse’s studio La Grande Songerie: the storehouse of dreams, a ‘harem of forms and colours’, that is ‘both the place where the songe, the dream, takes place and the materials it uses’.46

Within this setting, Matisse’s encounter with the model was characterised by intense physical proximity. Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse’s secretary and model, writes of how he would work at arm’s length, or even with his board resting on her knee: ‘His easel almost on top of his subject, he generally painted seated within two metres of the latter as if to be immersed in its atmosphere.’47 This intense physical proximity between artist and model is evidenced particularly dramatically by another drawing from the same series, Artist and Model Reflected in a Mirror 1935 (fig.2). In this image, the model looms arrestingly close in the right foreground, her face lost in introspective withdrawal even as her foot is perched on the support of the artist’s board.  The composition arcs round to a reflection of the scene in a full-length mirror to the centre and left. Here we see the artist, seated with pen to paper, with the model to the right, sitting on a stool, her legs straddling two others. Her head rests on her left knee, so close to the artist (and by inference to us also), that we might feel we would hear her breath, even feel the heat from her body and smell her skin.

Henri Matisse Artist and Model Reflected in a Mirror 1935

Henri Matisse
Artist and Model Reflected in a Mirror 1935
Pen and ink on paper
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2005

For his part, Matisse described his engagement with the model in terms of identification and a felt dissolution of subjective boundaries. As early as 1908 he asserted that, ‘From a certain moment on, what takes place is a kind of revelation – it is no longer me. I no longer know what I’m doing, I identify with the model’;48 and, talking to Aragon in 1942: ‘I shan’t get free of my emotion by copying the tree faithfully or by drawing its leaves one by one in the common language, but only after identifying myself with it.’49 Indeed, in 1939 Matisse claimed that his work provided profound human access in two directions: to the quality and force of his own feeling (‘My line drawing is the clearest and most direct translation of my emotion’),50 and to the fundamental being of the model (‘my plastic signs probably express their souls’).51

While the term ‘identification’ plays a crucial role in psychoanalytic theory, Matisse’s usage more closely resembles the philosopher Henri Bergson’s notion of ‘intuition’, an orientation to tendency rather than an act of projection and misrecognition.52 Matisse’s rhetoric regarding expressive directness and ontological connection aligns in some respects with Merleau-Ponty’s later formulations of the ‘chiasmic’ meeting of self and world. Referring to Matisse’s line specifically, he ventured that the artist had ‘put into a single line both the prosaic, identifying characteristics of the entity and the hidden operation which combines such indolence or inertia and such force in it as required to constitute it as nude, as face, as flower’.53 Painting is not the description of the appearance of phenomena, but a diagramming of the invisible structuring axes within the visible.

The erotics of the studio encounter might invite a different comportment towards these drawings, however; one perhaps more familiarly fleshy than fleshly. The desire invested in this charged scenario was evoked by Delectorskaya as she reported Matisse’s words: ‘A cake seen through a store window doesn’t make your mouth water as much as when you enter and it’s right under your nose.’54 The transactions between ageing bourgeois artist and young, naked, immigrant model is both loaded and familiar, and has its established place within an economy of personal and collective fantasies about art, desire, gender and creativity. One way of thinking of Matisse’s studio is as a carefully constructed stage on which the coordinates of his desire could be mapped. The series of drawings, in which Matisse often depicts his own mirror image caught up within a matrix of lines, inscribe the psychic investments at play in this ‘materialized day-dream’.55

Nevertheless, it would be unhelpful to reduce the complex corporeal, perceptual and aesthetic stakes of Matisse’s drawings to the erotic economy of the studio. Art historian Yve-Alain Bois has been the most forceful in insisting upon this caveat: ‘Let there be no mistake concerning the object of [Matisse’s] desire: it is not the model (at the very most a stimulant that the painter frequently said he would like to be able to dispense with); it is painting itself.’56 Bois diminishes the role of the eroticised encounter between artist and model for the sake of a rigorous exploration of the aesthetic effects of Matisse’s formal system. This system is, for Bois, characterised by the calibration of forces of circulation, tension and expansion, which he describes as imposing ‘an absent-minded, peripheral gaze on us, dispossessed of its concentrative strength, an eye that loses its way, unable to focus’.57

While this emphasis upon the autonomy of pictorial elements is hostile to psycho-biographical approaches to artworks (the account of poet and art critic Marcelin Pleynet is given short shrift), Bois by no means dismisses the relevance of psychoanalysis for thinking about painting’s relationship to vision and subjectivity.58 While sympathetically disposed in some respects to art historian Margaret Werth’s exploration of the psychosexual stakes of the mutation of depicted bodies in The Joy of Life 1905–6 (Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia), Bois is characteristically dissatisfied with her concentration upon representational questions.59 (Indeed, on the level of iconography, the drawings with which my paper has been concerned do little but reinforce dominant ideological constructions of a supine, passive, sexualised, ‘Daphneified’ femininity available for the expressive deformations of the artist: the ‘sovereign act’ quickly partakes in an ideological signifying structure.60 ) Nevertheless, Bois argues, psychoanalysis is relevant in the broad sense that ‘The principal nodes of psychic life … constitutive of human beings as a species are operative in [Matisse’s] painting’.61

Indeed, although Bois’s analysis seems to be angled towards the address of Matisse’s work to the eye of the viewer, the language he uses to describe its effects is redolent of Lacan’s discussion of the picture as lure for the gaze. Matisse’s work ‘renders the diffusion of the gaze’; it sets out to ‘blind us, to anagrammatize the visual, to work below the threshold of perception and move into the subliminal’.62 Matisse ‘wants either to dissolve our gaze by distracting it, or place it in a hypnotic state through the saturation of the vast fields of colour’.63 Articulated with explicit reference to Sigmund Freud’s ‘Wolf Man’ case study and to castration anxiety, Matisse’s aesthetic system is placed in opposition to the effects of terrorised paralysis imposed upon the viewer by Pablo Picasso in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).64 By way of a pneumatic tension maintained across the picture surface, the mobile rhythm of the arabesque, and by the ‘scattering of the colored and luminous accents’, Bois imagines Matisse saying to Picasso, ‘I will be able to mesmerize you as spectator without doing you violence, and at the same time, without your noticing, make it impossible for you to focus’.65

Matisse spoke of the ‘intensity of emotional shock’ that he felt in front of the model, and which he sought to regain in each working session.66 In the 1935–7 suite, one might think of these heightened affects being transposed into a spare and condensed visual language, which Matisse, as its artificer, could compose, manipulate, and master. The most resolved of those drawings have an aesthetic coherence that combines the kind of fascination and mobility that Bois sees as characteristic of his most powerful work in general. The rolling, stretching, shimmying line reconfigures and organises a luminous, equalised field. The tension of the surface is kept intact both by the consistency of the line and the way in which stable spatial placement is disrupted as forms and frames are promiscuously opened out. In Artist and Model Reflected in a Mirror, for example, the reflected scene in the full-length mirror bleeds into the ‘real’ depicted space of the model. Bodies, objects and decorative patterns are taken up in an energetic play that both activates and integrates the image, the ink line enticing the eye to continue its explorations across the sheet. The specificity of each object is dissolved into a unified, mobile texture (a ‘Matisse-atmosphere’).67 Indeed, line drawing has its own way of composing forces. Combined with the power to generate seductive aesthetic effects, it goes further in the direction of writing than the painted mark. Referring to his drawings as ‘plastic signs’, it was the graphic economy of line that would enable Matisse to draw his restless desire towards the systematisation and iterability of signs.


Matisse pushed drawing closest to the condition of writing in his Dessins: Thèmes et Variations, produced between 1941 and 1942 and published by Fabiani the following year.68 Comprising 158 sheets organised into seventeen alphabetised series, the majority of the drawings depict a single female model although there are also some still life studies. All but five groups begin with a ‘theme’ drawing executed in charcoal over several sessions.69 Matisse wrote of the relaxed nature of these sittings in which, erasing and redrawing, he carried out, as he put it, ‘a banal conversation’ with his model.70 The theme was then succeeded by a sequence of fast, spare ‘variations’; pure line drawings made in either black conté, crayon or pen and ink. Here Matisse said that he had the confidence to give ‘free rein’ to his pen.71 He produced several sheets in bursts of concentrated effort, which required absolute silence and stillness.72 In comparison with the 1935–7 suite, here the hand is less at the service of compositional construction as it darts across the page, precipitating the most abbreviated and condensed signs. ‘I distinctly feel’, Matisse wrote, ‘that my emotion is expressed by means of plastic writing.’73

In 1949 Matisse remarked how he had come to know Lydia ‘like the alphabet’,74 and in his essay that accompanied the Fabiani editions, Aragon asserts that Matisse ‘has come to know [the model’s mouth] so well that now he writes it rather than drawing it. The mouth, this particular mouth, has become a hieroglyph’.75 Indeed, it is in his rendering of the model’s mouth that his drawings most closely approach a species of writing. In a letter to Aragon dated 16 February 1942, Matisse elaborates explicitly: ‘Search for a theme, or rather a formula, of a sign for each thing.’76 Around the letter’s text is an array of pictographic mouth signs; Matisse explains: ‘The mouth, the lower lip touches the upper lip – a continual kiss perfectly expressed in the figure sign for the number 3.’77 Although Matisse crosses the word out, body parts do become figures; he compared the lines necessary to draw a mouth with numbers 3 and 8. The sign that Matisse arrives at, and that he deploys repeatedly in the variation drawings, is a little more elaborate: it begins at the top left, curves down slightly, and rises and fluctuates to describe the ripple of the upper lip. From the right it then returns to describe the separation of the lips, then takes a generous sweep from left to right to delineate the bounds of the lower lip.78 The sign’s basic form is repeated in numerous variation drawings (for example, B5, E5, F9, I8, L7 and N6), although in each context its specific form was subject to deformation and variation for singular expressive effect.79

Aragon reports how Matisse had engaged him in similar discussions around other ‘feminine signs’: for breasts, hands and eyes, for example.80 Variation L7 (fig.3) not only contains one of the most distilled ‘mouth signs’, it also presents Matisse playing with the equivalence and substitutability of other graphic figures. The fizzing scrawl that describes the floral motifs of the model’s headscarf, for example, migrates to also signify the model’s eyes, which shine rather maniacally from a luminous schematic face. In variation D5 (fig.4), the reclining model is composed by way of a small number of sinuous, rolling lines, the ink spilling from the pen to punctuate the ‘script’ with heavier accents, independent of forms represented. Here, again, Matisse is playing games with the equalising function of the pure line: similar zig-zagging lines describe both interlocking fingers and the folds of the model’s bracelet.81

Talking to Aragon, Matisse asserted that ‘The importance of the artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language’.82 That is, Matisse was looking for a language that he could claim as his own, and that would do the work, in condensed and distilled form, of conveying something of the singularity of his experience, but that would also approach the systematisation of language. ‘The residuum of another’s expression can never be related to one’s own feeling’, he said.83 So the production of plastic signs was a way for the artist to intervene within a living tradition of picture making, a means of inscribing his own achievement into that symbolic and aesthetic language; a ‘coherent deformation’ of an artistic tradition the coordinates of which have been so thoroughly elaborated by Bois and others. Taken as such, one might regard Matisse’s drawing as participating in what Lacan called ‘phallic pleasure’, which has to do with the mastery of language, rules and games, and being under the total sway by the signifier.84 But there is also something more unruly at work in the production of these drawings; the mysterious wanderings of the working hand speak of a bodily register not incorporated into such symbolic fabric.85

In 1978 Mary Kelly, an artist immersed in Lacanian thought, made the final ‘Documentation’ of her canonical Post-Partum Document 1973–9.86 The work as a whole, in which Kelly subversively explored separation anxiety from the mother’s point of view, is too complex to be properly treated here, but the final section, in which the work is brought to a close when the son is able to write his own name, has a particular resonance in the context of Matisse’s ‘plastic writing’. ‘Documentation VI’ comprises fifteen slates onto which the child’s wayward efforts to reproduce the letters of the alphabet are transferred in white resin (fig.5). Below these strange glyphs are partially nonsensical and alliterative accounts of intimate bedtime ‘ABC’ learning sessions enjoyed between mother and child; and below that are more ordered (and anxious) reflections by the artist on the child’s entry into the discursive spaces of the school system in a disadvantaged area of London. The three levels of language on each slate (proto-writing, adult handwriting, typescript) deliberately evoke the Rosetta Stone.

Mary Kelly Post-Partum Document: Documentation VI, Pre-Writing Alphabet, Exergue and Diary 1978

Mary Kelly
Post-Partum Document: Documentation VI, Pre-Writing Alphabet, Exergue and Diary 1978
Perspex unit, white card, resin, slate
Courtesy the artist

The appearance of the son’s enigmatic marks (‘his incipient agraphia’87 ) coincides with a time when his Oedipal sexual researches, explored in the previous section of the Post-Partum Document, are repressed. The child’s proto-writing does not constitute a full alphabet but begins with the fundamental opposition between X and O – between the straight and the round. From this basic differential pairing spins off a sequence of reversed and combined variations: open and closed, complete and incomplete, symmetrical and asymmetrical. His glyphs are replete with doublings, inversions, fragmentations and distortions. Kelly interprets ‘The hieroglyphic residues of the child’s letter-shapes’88 in terms of a resistance to the repressions demanded by accession to the Name of the Father:

Insofar as the child’s sexual researches are repressed by the Law of the Father, they are sublimated in the body of the letter … For the mother, the child’s text is a fetish object; it desires her. The polymorphous perversity of the letter explores the body beyond the limit of the look. The breast (e), the hook (r), the lack (c), the eye (i), the snake (s); forbidden anatomies, incestuous morphologies; the child’s alphabet is an anagram of the maternal body.89

Kelly stages the child’s fraught initiation to the symbolic order (and her own equally riven comportment towards that process). Matisse’s efforts travel in an opposite direction: with the traditions of painting and drawing assimilated, he elaborates a coherent deformation structured by a style that, as Merleau-Ponty argues, ‘concentrates the still scattered meaning of his perception and makes it exist expressly’.90 Yet within that structure there is a body and a psyche pressed towards but never fully assimilated: a kind of infantile register. By way of the hand’s pleasurable deformations, residual desire is written across a luminous surface.

The hand’s unruly work arrives within a powerful aesthetic synthesis, which organises this bodily production into an integrated whole. An effort to reconcile such infantile dimensions of poetic or artistic production with the necessity of a skilled manipulation of the form of language employed, was provided by philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in her 1974 essay, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’.91 In dialogue with both phenomenological and psychoanalytic theories of language, and in particular with Lacan himself, Kristeva re-introduces a concern with the process of sign production that is so prominent in Merleau-Ponty. Kristeva posits a distinction between the Symbolic dimension of language, which constitutes a network of positions, identities, and discrete units enabling communication between socialised subjects, and the Semiotic, which issues from another place altogether. The Semiotic operates as the destructive antithesis to the thesis of the Symbolic, the former carrying the force of drive energies unsublated by the Oedipal stage. The Semiotic maintains contact with what Kristeva (borrowing from Plato) calls the chora – a ‘non-expressive totality formed by the drives and their stases … [A]n essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation’ characterised by rhythm that has ‘no thesis and no position’.92 Poetic language constitutes a ‘resumption of the functioning of the semiotic chora within the signifying device of language’.93 However, Kristeva insists that assimilation of the form and articulation of language is crucial if any genuine poetic contribution is to be made; the Symbolic Order must be introjected, worked through and not disavowed. In order to hold together as a text, she argues, poetic works require ‘a completion, a structuration, a kind of totalization of semiotic motility’:

This completion constitutes a synthesis that requires the thesis of language in order to come about, and the semiotic pulverises it only to make it a new device – for us, this is precisely what distinguishes a text as signifying practice from the ‘drifting-into-non-sense’ that characterises the neurotic discourse.94

Matisse’s plastic writing presents a rhythmic unruliness that is nevertheless brought under the sway of the artist’s (contingent, spontaneous) compositional organisation and, indeed, of the iterability of the signifier. The lightning and the rain of the hand, then, fall through the matrices of structured systems and at the same time remain eloquent of a bodily logic that exceeds these orders.


Reflecting on the role of artistic production in social and psychic life, Lacan followed Freud in linking it with sublimation. Works of art comfort people, he argues, ‘by showing them that at least some of them can live from the exploitation of their desire’.95 Lacan’s conception of art was of course more complex than this remark might suggest, and this idea of artistic practice could not maintain a secure foothold in the ambitious discourse of twentieth-century art. Matisse’s work in particular, with its abundant aesthetic rewards borne so explicitly from the heady erotic atmosphere of the studio, could not weather either Duchampian critiques of the art object (and painting in particular), or feminist critiques of the representational economies on which much of the artist’s work depended.

Although motivated by artistic priorities very far removed from those of Matisse, it is with the recent work of British artist Susan Morris that this paper ends. Cancelling any fetishism of the artist’s hand, Morris’s Motion Capture Drawings 2012 (fig.6) isolate and diagram the involuntary movements of the working body. While engaged in a compulsively repetitive activity in a high-tech motion capture studio, the artist wore sensors on different parts of her body. The activity was captured as data files, transcoded into line and printed like a photograph onto archive inkjet paper. The web of fine white lines is formed negatively by printing a matte black ground. Organised in sets of three, the Motion Capture Drawings diagram Morris’s movements as ‘seen’ from the front, from the side and from above. The resulting spidery skeins are the mysterious product of involuntary bodily dynamics, sampled and materialised by way of digital data conversion and image production. The matrices of white lines, endlessly looping back and forth, up and down, to and fro, hang within an impenetrable black field, unanchored from any secure spatial or temporal coordinates.

Susan Morris ERSD: View from Above 2012

Susan Morris
ERSD: View from Above 2012
Archive inkjet on Hahnemühle paper
Courtesy the artist and FRAC, Alsace © Susan Morris

If Matisse can be understood as elaborating the mobility of desire set in train by the objet a and its chain of representatives, then it is Lacan’s conception of the Freudian ‘Thing’ that gets us closer to the unsymbolisable object of Susan Morris’s compulsive returns.96 Bruce Fink argues that desire structured around the objet a ultimately reinforces the power of the symbolic order: ‘Men’s fantasies are tied to that aspect of the real that under-writes, as it were, the symbolic order: object (a). Object (a) keeps the symbolic moving in the same circuitous paths, in constant avoidance of the real.’97 While objet a can manifest itself in many varied and substitutable objects, the Thing is unsymbolisable and unimaginable: the object of loss itself. ‘In reality, desire through the object … [is only] the Thing, of which he neither has nor ever will have any representation, which is not a goal because it will never be reached, but around which all our representations, all our affects never stop gravitating.’98

The Motion Capture Drawings offer a kind of zero degree of visibility to a body taken up in its compulsive, ‘creaturely’ dimension.99 The white lines arise from a non-place and fall outside intentionality, language or imaginary presentation. The body becomes something ungrounded, virtual, and the fine web of ‘inscribed’ lines are not even indexical in the sense of being an imprint of a thing now departed.100 Their referent – the compulsive movements of the body – is ungraspable, enigmatic: this is a body, to borrow Kristeva’s language, with ‘no thesis and no position’.101 In one sense, Morris’s involuntary body is both the subject and object of these works. Yet what the Motion Capture Drawings makes visible is the subject beneath the ‘I’, the subject as excised from representation and imaginary projection. It is also a body subjected to psychic and social forces that are beyond its control, and which nevertheless condition and propel it.102 And the body is an object here only insofar as one accepts that it is a virtual object, which is never properly located anywhere.103 Rather, it is a body that objects, that protests. Morris’s webs of involuntary marks give coherent, potent visibility to a compulsive dimension of the body, which makes contact with Matisse’s drawings, however far away they are in almost every other respect. It then becomes possible to think of Morris’s involuntary clouds as figuring the kind of charged field from which the rain of Matisse’s hand has issued.

See also