Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why I like Modern Art

The new Matisse exhibit at MoMA, the one called "Radical Invention, 1913-1917," has me thinking once again about why I find modern and contemporary art so satisfying and invigorating. In a way, all art is energizing, as the act of viewing artistic work demands that we focus our attention on the elements that make art so arresting. Those elements include line, color, and shape, but also such things as the arabesque design, which along with line, Matisse believed gave a special vitality to art. These are the things that catch our eye, that wake us up in a sense and that bring to vivid consciousness our craving for aesthetic satisfaction.

But Matisse, more than most artists, brings these feelings to a new height of excitement and creative delight. For me, anyway, this is in part because he was such a master of the line. Karen and I are the proud owners of a Matisse line drawing of a female face that seems incredibly simple, and yet because of Matisse's mastery conveys a sense of humanity that is striking. Hardly a masterpiece, this modest drawing is nevertheless a reminder that Matisse could accomplish a great deal with just a few strong lines. My absolutely favorite example of this ability is the painting that Matisse finished in 1905 that was a portrait of his wife but is often called "The Green Line" because it is marked by a strange green line that cuts across the middle of her face. This line, which seems bizarre and yet works as part of this portrait, divides his subject's face into two sections, one dark, one light; one calm and the other just a bit ominous.

This same painting also demonstrates Matisse's remarkable and famous use of color. At the time he finished this painting, he was regarded as the leader of the Fauve movement, which was marked by a brilliant and unnatural use of color. In the Green line, the very use of the color green to separate the two parts of his wife's face is startling, but I also think the background colors - the purples, the reds, the sea greens - are both beautiful and an outstanding example of how background color can be used to present a subject more arrestingly. This is only a small example, however, as Matisse's amazing color sense can be experienced repeatedly in so many of his greatest works.

The painting, though, that is part of this special exhibit currently at MoMA and that haunts me relentlessly is "The Piano Lesson," completed in 1916. Others have commented on it extensively and I can't begin to add to what they have said, but this picture of Matisse's son Pierre sitting unhappily at the piano, under the apparent tutelage of a stern teacher and with the late afternoon sun fading rapidly, offers a study in light, mood, color, and line that stops me in my tracks every time I see it. The most shocking thing about it is the way in which Matisse has arranged the room in which Pierre sits at the piano and the manner in which the sun casts shadows, especially on Pierre's face, so that his right eye and much of the right side of his face seems to disappear. That shadowy triangle that effaces Pierre's eye and cheek matches neatly the window opening that receives the lowering sun and the outside greenery and which emphasizes and introduces a series of angled lines echoed by the piano, the metronome and the window's thrown-open shutter. Despite Matisse's great mastery of color, this work is dominated by gray, which establishes the depressing mood of the painting (consider Emily Dickinson's lines "There's a certain Slant of Light,/Winter Afternoons/That oppresses like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes -) and that causes the green of the window and the pink of the piano to stand out that much more. While never a cubist, Matisse brilliantly combines his love of line and color with a cubist sensibility that shakes us out of our complacency and makes us want to look and look again with wonder and surprise.

I think exhibits like the one on Matisse at MoMA give us an opportunity to look in penetrating and absorbing ways. Really, they offer us practice at putting our own lives on hold for just a little while and to devote ourselves without thoughts of anything else to the mystery and the magic of the most masterful of human-made creations.

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