Three Levels of Psychological Development – Living, Withdrawal and Dedication to Understand Life/Living

Matisse - Girls On Bright Meadow, Dark River, and Multi-tonal sky backdrops
Henri Matisse, “Bathers with a Turtle” (1908)

Approaching Matisse’s painting we see a three-layered background (green, dense blue and rarefied blue) that emphasizes three-part setting of the painting. What can this combination of colors trigger in us the viewers? May be, it refers to the natural environment – the world of nature consisting of land/grass, the river/current of time and the sky/eternity? If so, then we should also add on to this landscape the living bodies of the three protagonists of the painting. Then what we’ll have here is the land, the river, the sky and the bodies into which life/living incarnates itself using Matisse’s intuition as mediation and his brush as a tool.
But, why the surrounding – the land in grass plus the dark river and the enigmatic sky, corresponds to the quantity of girls? – Three backdrops and three girls? Perhaps, because these three stages have something but not much to do with the natural scene of life we see here, and so we ought to part with the “realistic” level of perception of the work of art and proceed farther with the understanding that not only the content of the work of art can refer to reality but that its very form is not just “how” in contrast to ”what” but it addresses a reality much more complex and including than the one we see around us with our eyes.

What if the area (seemingly covered by grass) where the bathers are either preparing for a swim or drying afterwards, is not earth at all (is much more than earth)? What if it is the area of physical existence – that of the body, blood circulation, muscle tone and the senses and blind passions, the natural womb where we are living/dying/growing)? This area completely engulfs the squatting girl, envelops her; she completely belongs to it, not only physically but in her emotional and mental state. Her posture reminds us of an embryo in the mother’s womb. She sits close to earth. She is blond like a dandelion. And she is occupied with a pet turtle: life is always sharing living, mutuality (collaborative or hostile). It is an inter-psychological process. Sitting girl’s head is where her body is (according to Matisse, she is without a face and eyes – she doesn’t need them yet: her relation to life is rather visceral and tactile, she didn’t get enough internality yet to build distance from the world that having a gaze implies). And her interest in playing with the turtle is just an extension of her body, but this is not the case with the other two girls.

The second girl who is also located by Matisse on the same ground where the “existential” girl is occupied with her pet, is somehow above her (the proportion between horizontality and verticality of the space here is problematized – Matisse distorts the space to make a point about the difference between the first and the second girl who is sitting on the ground as if on a chair; it is her melancholic strain that makes her posture so “unnatural”. Matisse positions the second girl’s head not inside the “green zone” but above it, in front of the dense blue background. Why? – Probably, to emphasize that the second girl perceives life in a different way from the first one. What is the difference? Take a look at the neck of the second girl. While the first girl’s neck is as if absent – as if not needed (like her face and eyes): her interest is fixed on what is on the ground (not just inside life but on the bottom of it), the second girl’s neck is unnaturally long and tormentedly bended. This girl is as if trying to be as far as possible from the turtle and the first girl’s occupation with it, and simultaneously is not able to turn away her gaze. Why such a torment? – Perhaps, she perceives her friend‘s occupation symbolically (she grasps its connotation), and she doesn’t want to be occupied with anything like this. She doesn’t even want to look at it because looking invites identification, but on the other hand she is not able to dis-identify from the pleasure of the spectacle either. What doesn’t she want to be occupied, to look at and identify with? We have to come to the symbolic meaning of the existential girl’s playing with the turtle.

The girl’s bio-psychological growth implies getting the capability of dealing with “strange” creatures which are not identical with her body, and doing this with attention, care and love in spite of the otherness of these objects to her existence. That’s why girls are especially prone to love pets with all unconditional positivity. The girls have the capacity to love two kinds of “creatures” that are so different from them – their future babies, men and men’s reproductive organ. That’s what the second girl’s unconscious sees and feels behind the cute play with the turtle. That’s why the muscles of her neck are so strained. That’s why her gaze is so melancholic – she unconsciously cannot allow herself to enjoy a simple innocent game because of its symbolic meaning. Coming to the next level of psychological development (to the ability to accept what was forbidden before) is not an easy task – you have to overcome your own resistances to your desires. Matisse has positioned the second girl’s head on the dark blue – a melancholic, impregnated by psychological conflicts, background. Let’s call this girl melancholic in comparison with the “existential” one.

Contrary to the existential girl, the melancholic girl does have a face but only in profile: she, as if, is turning away from what she sees even when she is facing it. The fact that Matisse shows this girl to viewers in profile (while in this moment she is exactly facing the turtle) means that it s her general psychological position toward the world. She faces the world (including the turtle) in profile (while turning away from it). According to Matisse’s characterization, she is a profile girl, not a frontal-face girl.

The third girl is at the farthest distance from the spectacle of the existential girl with the rose-red pet. Physically, “realistically” she is even closer to it than the melancholic girl, and her body is as “bodily” as the bodies of the other two girls. But her maximal distance from the existential girl with the pet-turtle is provided by her upstanding posture (with all the anthropological connotations of the difference between animal and the vertical postures, Matisse utilizes here quite humorously) balanced by her overwhelming curiosity. This standing posture symbolizes an emotional and mental development. The third girl’s head is positioned before the rarefied blue – light, easy, but mysterious and not reliable, suggesting the riskiness of freedom from matter. This girl has successfully overcome a depressive reaction to her female destiny. Now it is not so much her heart but her mind that is occupied with it. She is curious toward the mystery of giving life. Her self-repression is transformed into a positive curiosity. The maturity of being able to meet life with concentration of mind is signified by the fact that she is black-haired (the metaphor of the tormenting experience of losing what is habitual and gaining what is new), while the melancholic girl’s hair is brown (and reflects the meadow-womb she only is in the process of outgrowing). Between life (the first girl), soul (the second one) and mind (the third one) the degree of freedom from biology grows and expands. The existential girl is engulfed in destiny, the melancholic girl is resisting it, and the intellectual girl is curious and wants to better understand life.

The point of the painting, it seems, is that the standing girl is not occupied with eternity, immortality, with god’s abode, destiny written in the stars. For her the most intriguing cosmic miracle is to be present here and now – life, the mystery of touch, the trembling of blood, love towards love and life. If the world could follow the evolution of the human intelligence as it is depicted by Matisse in this painting we could have less wars, less absurdities in the construction and behavior of our societies, and more reverie towards life and the universe.

Matisse - Blue Dominates Greeness: the Doomed Paradise of Childhood

Matisse - Prosaic Meadow and Violet Perspective: "Pessimistic" View on Development
Can the change in the tonality in different versions of the painting necessitate a change of or modifications in our interpretation?

Matisse - Overlit Scene: "Optimistic" View on Development
Here is a question for readers/viewers: How to understand the position of “intellectual” girl’s hands?