Competitive Drive as a Basis of and Resistance to Psychological Development

Matisse - Boys on the Bright Meadow, Dense River, and Multi-tonal Sky Backdrops
Henri Matisse, “Game of Balls” (1908)

Matisse’s “Game of Balls” is, semantically, the twin of his the “Bathers with a Turtle” (the article on this painting was posted on Sept.1, 2010). If in “Bathers…” Matisse comments about the problems of psychological development in female adolescents, “The Game of Balls” is the application of similar inspiration to the development of adolescents of male gender.

Like the number of girls in “Bathers…” corresponds to the quantity of backdrops, here also the three boys depicted match the three backdrops, and for the same reason – the backgrounds represent the same three levels of psychological development we described for “Bathers…” and named as existential, melancholic and intellectual. But in the “Game…” the situation is not exclusively based on figure-background correspondence. Here we see one more correlation – between quantity of boys and quantity of balls in the game. If Matisse’s girls realize themselves inside their life, for boys it is the situation of competition that becomes the setting for their self-realization and development (or regression). According to Matisse, girls live inside life while boys are in two environments: life plus competitive games.

Another curious dissimilarity between the two worlds (of girls and boys) in two paintings is different hair colors of girls’ versus an identical color of boys’ hair – the existential girl is blond, the melancholic is brown-haired, and the intellectual has black hair, while all the three boys are black-haired. Why such a difference? Blondness of the girl, who belongs only to living, signifies the innocent vitality. Brownness of the melancholic girl’s hair symbolizes the problematization of this vitality under the power of self-repression and the drive toward self-overcoming. And the black hair of the intellectual girl refers to the ability to accumulate experience without too much self-repression and for this reason to develop toward maturity: to shift from acting-out level of living through emotionally reacting on life level to the mental level of actively perceiving herself and the world and its enigmas. Why Matisse makes all three boys black-haired? Can’t boys also be innocently vital, or melancholic? Because of “testosterone” factor boys are more aggressively accumulating experiences although this doesn’t mean that they are able to go to the next level of development quicker than girls. Conversely, many boys tend to get stuck on acting-out level (which we metaphorically call existential) longer than some girls (emotionally aggressive penetration of the world can create extra-self-repression). But even if boys sometimes tend to get stuck in their development they tend to take their experiences more intensely and calculate their status vis-à-vis other boys more dramatically. It seems Matisse has expressed exactly this particularity of boys in comparison with girls by making them all black-haired independently of their level of psychological development. Their black hair symbolizes the more intense burning of experiences rather than their developmental result, like it is the case with the intellectual girl in “Bathers…”

Proneness to compete is almost an organic part of boys’ psycho-sexual development in a competitive culture. This makes rivalry a very difficult point in relation to their intellectual growth. It is very easy to be stuck there, and we recognize in Matisse’s boy throwing the ball with such a super-concentration many American politicians and generals today. How the balls are positioned in the painting suggests that the boy throwing the ball rivals not only with the boy receiving it but also with the boy who is observing the match.

The positions of the boys’ heads in relation to backdrops are, basically correspond to the positions of the girls’ heads. But the presence of the game adds to the situation a dynamism that is able to translate itself into boys’ different psychological positions connected with their winning/losing status in the game. While in “Bathers” all three girls are nude, here only two boys are naked – the existential one (acting inside the space of life) and the intellectual one (reached the mental level of observing and thinking – his head is located right in front of the background of the versatile: spotted, blue). The boy in melancholic position (with his head on the dense blue background) is covered with a brownish-red towel (of the color of flesh and blood mixed – the internalization of competitive excitement). Why is there this difference between the melancholic boy and his peers? Probably, because the boy actually playing ball and the one observing (assessing the game) are more self-confident than the melancholic boy who is shyer according to his second level of development.

Not only the boys’ heads are black-haired, but the balls are black too. The balls in the painting are the very culmination, the very exclamation of the experience of rivalry and competition that is so important for boys’ self-assertion and self-realization. Boys are balls (each ball in the painting represents one player) – and competitive game is the very apogee of how they experience life in the culture that stimulates rivalry.

Like the three girls in “Bathers…” are of the same age but each is on a different stage of personality development, the boys in “Game…” are also of the same age group and differing in their personality development level. Could Matisse be so celebrated as an exceptional painter if he couldn’t be simultaneously a master of psychological insight through the very form of his art? It is human wholeness, not just a mastering of a particular craft, what makes an artist.

Farther questions for readers/viewers:

Why area of life in relation to emotional self-awareness space and to mental alertness space in “Game…” is larger than in “Bathers…”?
Why the sited observing boy is positioned as if on the back of the boy throwing ball?

Matisse - Boys On Grassy Meadow, Violet River, and Multi-violet Sky Backdrops (Melancholic and Intellectual Phases are Touched by the Tonal Sadness)
If the acting and the observing boys might grow into the future generals, then who can become in future the “melancholic” boy?