A dumb young man

Have you been trying to solve the riddle about Matisse’s Snail from my previous post? While, as I hope, you are at it, here’s an entertaining piece about his Icarus.

The legend of Icarus was meant to teach young people the value of advice their seniors can offer. Teachers across the globe also used it as a graphic depiction of the dangers of playing hookey on physics class.

The fact that adults still get killed trying to poke an electric socket with scissors attests to the fact the legend’s potential has not yet been exhausted.

Art, for most of its history, has been serving the illustrative role here.

It was either showing a healthy young person being warned off the heights by his father at the start of the flight, or a falling/fallen Icarus to shock the viewer by the deadly force of gravitation emphasising the gravity of disregarding parental wisdom, at the journey’s end.

Matisse did something very different. He showed his middle finger to the Icarus tradition.

I mapped out some most famous paintings of Icarus on a ballistic trajectory line.


Matisse – unlike other great artists who were merely illustrating the story – invented his own myth of Icarus who WANTED to reach the stars with all his heart; who reached them, and perished, but died a happy man nonetheless. Oh, and one more thing: once he reaches the stars, he doesn’t fall down.


Icarus is shown hanging there in zero gravity, among the stars. Matisse wants us to realise that Icarus’ speed of ascent has just slowed down to zero.

He has just reached the summit of his trajectory and his life.

He can touch the stars now.

Note the gap between his hand and the nearest star. The touch-down has not yet happened.

Red colour can only mean something alive when shown against a black background. It would be seen as spilled blood against white or gray (and dull against most other colours).

Here, Matisse not just wants to show Icarus alive, but he wants to say that it was Icarus’s inner spirit that drove him to the stars: it was his heart. Thus, the heart has to be shown and there’s no way around using red. Hence, the body must be black.

In the next version of Icarus, the choice of colours is different.

The_Fall_of_Icarus_1943Icarus has just touched a star (like God the Father touches Adam’s hand in Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel).

And at this moment Icarus’s heart explodes. It is now spilled blood against the white background of his lifeless body.

But does the body start falling back?

Matisse doesn’t think so.

The black stripe is narrowing towards the bottom, preventing the fall. The blue skies now take hold of Icarus. His body is transformed: now it resembles a cross between a bird (arms become wings) and a fish (legs become a fin). And, certainly, his heart becomes one of the stars. A fish is the standard symbol of Christ. The Holy Spirit is always represented as a dove. Did Matisse want us to realise that Icarus became an angel when he sacrificed his life? Or did Matisse view this body transformation as a sign Icarus was now one with the stars: sailing and flying through space? Or, perhaps, both ideas were intended? Each observer can create his own story, I guess. A genius work of art is not meant to give answers, it is intended to never stop asking questions.

In any case, for Matisse, the legend of Icarus is not about a bold rise and deadly fall. It is all about a rise.

And, frankly, I can’t think of a better representation of this idea, especially coming from an artist who’d never stopped rising, regardless of his pains, illnesses, or public opinion.

Tate should have used these Icaruses to introduce visitors to their Matisse exhibition, because this idea is what Matisse was about.

Charles Baudelaire (Lament of an Icarus)

Lovers of whores don’t care,
happy, calm and replete:
But my arms are incomplete,
grasping the empty air.
Thanks to stars, incomparable ones,
that blaze in the depths of the skies,
all my destroyed eyes
see, are the memories of suns.
I look, in vain, for beginning and end
of the heavens’ slow revolve:
Under an unknown eye of fire, I ascend
feeling my wings dissolve.
And, scorched by desire for the beautiful,
I will not know the bliss,
of giving my name to that abyss,
that knows my tomb and funeral. 

To sample this blog, click on About at the top. It has links to some of my best or typical posts. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh.


  1. I love your deconstruction of the piece. I rarely partake in modern/cubist/abstract art, and this blog is pretty much the only place I enjoy it, bc of the analysis 🙂

    1. Thank you – that’s exactly what I am trying to do )) When you “suddenly” love a modern/cubist/abstract artwork without me deconstructing it – let me know! I am sure that is bound to happen )

  2. I’d argue the Bruegel piece is also not “mere illustration” to the story, but also a piece that makes one wonder, think, and ask questions. Of course, it’s a very different take than Matisse’s.

    1. You are right. Bruegel not just illustrates the fall of Icarus but shows the world’s indifference to Icarus’s rise and death, paving multiple roads for personal reflection on the issue. Yet Bruegel does not change the myth – it is Matisse who does.

      1. True! And it’s interesting, because it underlines just how different artists and art as well have been in different times.
        Thinking about these pieces also has reminded me how clear their artistic vision must have been – even after all this time, we can strongly sense what they set out to do, what choices they made, and what they had to eliminate (like in Bruegel’s case, as you say, the view on the Icarus legend itself isn’t particularly deep), but it’s still not “obvious” or dull to look at. Something very hard to do.

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