Matisse at the Met

Matisse at the Met

I remember being told to color within the lines when I was a child. The command was spoken with regard to an actual coloring book, but I expect my preschool teacher also meant the phrase to apply to life at large. You know—because four-year-olds are so good with metaphors. Shortly thereafter, however, I remember looking past my mother’s elbow (being too short to look over her shoulder) while she was painting. Her brush strokes, as I noticed at once, did not conform to lines. The colors they brought to the canvas often didn’t even fill the spaces allotted for them. Young me was confused, bordering on unduly upset.She admitted that there were lines, and that she had not colored within them. But, as she told me with a smile, that was okay. If anyone knew how to color outside of the lines, it was Henri Matisse. A friend and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week, and we were fortunate enough to catch one of the last few days of the exhibit, Matisse: In Search of True Painting. Had I seen the exhibit at a younger age, I would have been baffled that anyone considered him an artist. Thankfully, I have evolved artistically since the age of four, and now I would find fault with anyone who didn’t consider him such. His work is simplistic, but emotionally charged. He said that one of his aims was to “condense the meaning of (a) body by seeking its essential lines.” I, as well as most children, can draw a haphazard stick figure with some such essential lines, but Matisse knew how to communicate life and motion with just a few brush-strokes. I fear my stick-man falls worlds short of that. I think it is this quality of his work, as well as his brilliantly unorthodox use of color, that make Matisse stand out an as artist.Goldfish and Palette (1914, above) shows a still-life scene, and much of the color in the piece is true to reality. Shafts of sunlight cut across the other parts, but rather than just appearing brighter, these sections are washed in unexpected colors. Whole sections of black or grey are transformed to brilliant white and blue, giving the sunlit parts an almost otherworldly appearance. Interior in Yellow and Blue (1946, right) ventures even further away from the world’s conventional coloration. The piece is partitioned into three huge chunks of color, with the whole canvas swathed only in the two mentioned in the title. An evidently transparent chair lets through the yellow of the floor and the blue of the window behind. The scene is bleached of the usual palette of reality, replacing the usual dichotomy of black and white with vibrant blue and yellow. Matisse himself said, “seek the strongest color effect possible. The content is of no importance.” He surely took his own advice, often blatantly abandoning the actual colors of objects or scenes in favor of something more impactful. An artist may aim to represent reality, but by neglecting parts of it, he or she can deliver a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Matisse accomplishes exactly that, over and over.Some of that comes from his practice of painting not just the same scene or object, but the same painting several times over. Each iteration is slightly different from the one before it, every time getting closer to Matisse’s vision. One section of the exhibit showed several of his completed paintings, surrounded by their previous drafts, taking the museum-goer through Matisse’s creative process, step by strangely-colored step. Over the last few years, art history lectures in auditoriums with stadium seating sadly comprised most of my art consumption. Each lecture attempted to cram several decades of art into a single hour. This exhibit allowed me to dive into one artist’s work, and stay there for quite some time, which I found particularly refreshing. Matisse said, “it has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.” Given how crowded his exhibit at the Met was, it appears he was the only one bothered.

Photos: Henri Matisse, “Goldfish and Palette” and “Interior in Yellow and Blue,” © 2012 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.