Nigel Whiteley and the Green Line

green line matisse

above: painting madame Matisse – the Green Line 1905 – Henri Matisse

Nigel Whiteley – Phd F.R.S.A. (1953-2010)
with the Green Line

the untold story of how an Art Historian, writer and Art Professor,
came face to face with one of his favourite Matisse paintings

This is a story about a painting, a painter and a friend that was my privilege to have known.
The painting is the Green Line by Matisse (1905), the painter is myself and the good Friend was an Art Historian, a writer and a renown lecturer Professor Nigel Whiteley.

This story began in 1998 when I was commissioned to curate an exhibition for the Swedish Governments Estonian Trust Fund and the International Support Group (DIS) Sweden. It was a challenging commission, and for me [as an artist] it became a labour of love, one that spanned over four years. From the very beginning I realised I would need quality ‘back-up’ support which took the form of a number of fellow dedicated artists. One of the most important of those artists was a fellow that I had known ‘remotely’ for many years. His articles, written for the Art Review, was always a ‘must-read’ for me with each new issue published. The writer was Nigel Whiteley, who was also a Professor of Art at Lancaster University and headed up the Art Department. He was also an accomplished author who had a number of books behind him [when I first met him in person in the winter of 1998. i.e. Pop Design – Modernism to Mod-Pop Theory and Design 1952 -1972. and Design For Society- 1994 ]. (see. note i.)

Our first face to face meeting was in Manchester in an Art Café. From the onset we were totally in tune with each others viewpoint on contemporary art. And how painting as an art form, had suffered from the bias towards ‘post-modernism’ installationism, helped along by sensationalism tendencies of those shows, and whipped up by the media. For the Estonia Benefire Exhibition, an art philosophy based on a solid art ethic and what we perceived as an artists need to accept responsibility for their art, would be the cornerstone on which we would select the art to be would be exhibited at the Heart 2 Art Exhibition, [held at Steninge Palace, Stockholm, Sweden].

As the project progressed Nigel and I had a number of meeting in the UK.  And as spring arrived in the year 2000 it was looking as though the exhibition would be mounted by the autumn of that year (note ii.). I had arranged for the Swedish media to meet both myself and Nigel at my studios in Sweden to gain their interest and publicise the exhibition by discussing its aims and objectives with the journalists. The meeting went well and even the weather proved to be on our side with beautiful blue skies and sunshine. So, drinks in the garden was a must and enabled further constructive planning for the exhibition.

At that time I was very interested in Emil Nolde’s work who had some great examples in the Statens Museum in Copenhagen, which luckily for me, was only and hour and half from my studio. I suggested to Nigel’s that his first visit to Studio 5 should be crowned off with a visit to Copenhagen and the Museum. He was delighted. He told me about a painting by Matisse that he had been in admiration for many decades, but had never had the opportunity to see the real thing. For Nigel this was more than a great painting by the French master – it represented something far more profound for contemporary art of the 20th century.

Nigel admired ‘the Green Line’ by Matisse so much that I had to ask why he believed it was so important. It’s only a small canvas (16 inches x 12.75 inches – 407mm x 324mm) after all, but with a massive part in the progression of the art of a 20th century master. Madame Matisse – the Green Line, was painted in 1905 and it represented something of a new beginning for Matisse. His paintings had been based in the more accepted art school figuration, modelled in light and dark tones before this work. Although Matisse had toyed with the new thinking of pointillism, a style of image making which was more concerned with separation, analysis and the organisation of colour (originally initiated by Seurat around 1880 and carried further by Signac through to 1899). Which he experimented with in the ‘Woman with the Hat’ the painting created immediately before the Green Line. With the Green Line Matisse had created a work that combined tradition of formal construction with modern colour thinking, but with a totally original and authentic colour scheme. One that probably looked very strange to the audience of 1905, but now is seen as an exciting figurative work that is outstanding in originality and application of pigments on canvas. It is probable that the ‘African Masks’ that were stirring up immense interest with other artists [of the time] played an important part in the composition. (Picasso in particular was so inspired by the masks he repainted a canvas which became the basis for Cubism developed by himself and Georges Braque).

With that in mind I began to understand the reason why my good friend was so excited to actually stand in front of the Green Line – It’s place in Art history was huge and for Nigel with his art historian specialist knowledge, the physical experience would be truly marvellous.

Madamme Matisse- The Green Line portrait of Nigel whiteley
Many years later I resolved to paint a portrait of him in the same way that Matisse painted the Green Line. Photo: portrait of Nigel Whiteley phd F.R.S.A. Denis Taylor at studio 5 Sweden 07.09.2019

We travelled to Copenhagen via a ferry for the short hop from Helsingborg to Helsingør in Denmark and from there jumped on a train down the coast to the centre of Copenhagen. It wasn’t very long before we were climbing the stairs to the impressive entrance of the Danish Staten Museum. A superb building which is a mix of Greek classic architecture and modern glass and steel. At the entry point to the various galleries we made our separate way to see what we had come to see – for me it was Emil Nolde ‘Young Woman’ painting (c.1947) and for Nigel – Madame Matisse- the Green Line. (c.1905) – On meeting at the museums café after we had both had our fill of the paintings, I recall Nigel smiling broadly when I asked him if the painting lived up to his expectation – of course, it did his smile confirmed that without speaking. After returning to my Studio back in Sweden we talked art for the rest of his stay. The week passed quickly and before long he was back at the airport and flying home to England.

Over the coming years we linked up many times with me travelling back and forth to the UK. After the Heart 2 Art exhibition, which Nigel attended along with the other 27 artists that were selected to exhibit, we began to  plan another [exhibition] project – Second Nature – In 2005, I was diagnosed with Cancer which caused a major delay – And despite Nigel and I meeting up numerous times we barely got out of the initial planning stage. I recovered slowly and by 2007, things changed for the worse. This time it was Nigel who was diagnosed with a life threatening illness –  Leukaemia – It was a terrible shock to everyone, but typically Nigel faced up to the problem with stoic bravery, he eventually succumbed to the illness in 2010 – I survived.

The story of Nigel and the Green Line has stayed with me for many many years, long after he had passed as an outstanding moment of shared joy in our friendship. And our efforts to bring emotional intelligence as well as visual intelligence back to contemporary art.

In part we did succeed, I wish we could have done more. And so, in memory of Nigel I am now embarking on taking the ‘Second Nature Project’ to a reality after years of thinking if I could mount the project on my own  – possibly with the help of the new artists friends that I have been lucky to make over the last 5 years. I decided I could do exactly that in 2019.

It seemed only fitting that the first painting which will have been created expecially for the Second Nature Project Exhibition  should be dedicated to Nigel – And that it must be my take on the Green Line painting with my friend as the model.

Portrait of Nigel Whiteley
portrait of Nigel Whiteley after Matisse – Denis Taylor at studio 5 sweden 10.10.2019

I think the painting is as done as far I can take it – I signed the work on the 10th October as it is nine years since we said goodbyeto Nigel for the last time. I decided at the start of the painting to include a small pastiche of the original ‘Green Line’ – for which I make no apologies – I’m fairly sure Nigel would have smiled and probably approved of the painting [of himself as the model] with a Green Line –  on the same canvas as my transcription of the original Green Line by (one) of his favourite 20th century artists.

Portrait of Nigel Whiteley with the Green Line
painting title: ‘Painting of Nigel Whiteley Phd F.R.S.A. with the Green Line.’
painted By Denis Taylor from September 23 to October 10th 2019.
600mm x 800mm oil on canvas ©Denis2019

note:i Nigel wrote several book up to his death in 2010 all available on Amazon and from the Lancaster University Link here: Books and Articles by Nigel Whiteley Phd. F.R.S.A
note.ii – The exhibition was postponed twice due to issues surrounding the unsavoury behaviour of private journalists sensationalistic video making of the Ferry resting at the bottom of the Baltic sea. Heart 2 Art Exhibition was opened Jan 11th 2002. Photographs of Studio 5 Sweden ©painterstubesmagazine – paintings shown – The Green Line and [on the wall] a work in progress – “Homage to Pontormo” ©Denis-2019-2020