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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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"Color is the Key": Reading "Le Bonheur de vivre"


Amy Martin

"Color is the key. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically."- Wassily Kandinsky


I had first seen the painting in a black and white photo copy in a reading for an art history class last semester. Though I have always loved Matisse, I barely gave the piece passing notice- concentrating on memorizing its title, and date. So on our first visit to the Barnes, out of its Xeroxed banality, "Le Bonheur de vivre" emerged in all its hued beauty. Standing there I am totally and completely absorbed. Like some magnetic field, I can't leave without turning around and looking back to make sure it still exists. Matisse's "Le Bonheur de vivre" (1905-1906) has caught me in its web of beauty and I am truly stuck. The Joy of Life has taken an inanimate form in the vibrant sensuality of the painting. In this pastoral paradisiacal scene, the good in life is boiled down to lounging nudes, nudes frolicking through nature, and nudes who are content to play their instruments in the sun. Yet, to describe the painting just for its actions does it no justice.

What first grabs you are the colors, unjustly reproduced in every reproduction- no slide, postcard, or print can effectively convey the life of the colors. Sherbet oranges, pale frothy sea foam green, a nude skin of pinkish lilac, the crispest red, fresh Kelly green, summer sun and sand yellow- they "set my soul vibrating". Each reaches to the viewer, moving the eye into the pictorial plane- inviting me to the paradise behind the frame. Emanating with energy, in a psychedelic dream the colors meld together, bringing cohesion and coherence to the isolated figures pasted in this paradise.


Just when I think I've soaked in the beauty of the colors, the movement of the line takes me on the journey all over again. The huge green tree on the left of the painting is the anchor, the curtain parted, and each echoed curving line thereafter dances about the painting ad my eye tries to keep up. The whole vibrates with movement and energy, as curving women echo the asymmetrical shapes of sky. Within this wave of shape and color movement, this overall energy and dance- a true song and dance is happening. The circle of dancers stretch and struggle, feeling the gravity, as the flute pipers play in the background. Though in a stuffy institution, a museum in the middle of a suburb, on the landing on a neo-classical staircase, some small iota of me has been swept up in the dancer's dance.


Of course the joy of life is more than dancing and singing. What would life be without love? Matisse has four groupings of dual figures. In their different configurations, each pair is the symbol of interconnectedness. The figures literally melt into, meld into one another. On the leftist side of the painting, the woman with the flowers melds into the squatting figure picking the grass. In their positioning there is gratitude for the gifts of nature. The woman with the flower garland arches her back in the feline way of advertising her fertile body. Matisse's simple, crisp thin red lines exalt the inherent beauty of the female body. Her crouching partner, another song of beauty in the simplicity of form, embodies awe in nature- the beauty in the individual blade of grass. The next coupling is also melded together, becoming one another. Like the flower garland woman, Matisse's red line highlights the grace and elegance of the body's aesthetic. Next, we arrive at the true heart of "Le Bonheur de vivre", two women lounge alongside one another, their bodies becoming shape. Their sensual rest echoes the feeling of the entire piece, as energy flows from them in waves of color. The black haired figure on the right stares at her body- clearly loving herself. The final coupling in the lower right hand corner epitomized the beauty of the interconnected. Rather than two distinct figures, these two have become a shape- a sexual, sensuous blob of body. Although there are four distinct couplings, the dancing circle and the two separate flute players never interact within the painting, oblivious to the other figures existence; in his placement of the figures Matisse has created a compositional harmony that creates the rhythm of the movement of the piece. Coupled with color and line this composition lends to the overall balance and beauty of the piece. Although one can be taken aback by any of the elements of the painting, it is in their supreme equality, the way each factors together to create a masterpiece that Matisse has built a visual beauty. This visual beauty then leads to the emotional and intellectual beauty of the work.


Art historians have theorized that "Le Bonheur de Vivre" is an allegorical piece alluding to classical mythological themes, in particular the idea of Arcadia. They find evidence for this theory in the Pan like figure playing to the goats on the right of the piece, and the lounging naked women as nymphs. Other art historians have found parallels in the work to the contemporary trend of tourists vacationing in Southern France, where Matisse was when he painted the work. They see the women as lounging swimmers, the yellow setting of the foreground as an allusion to sand, and the background as the sea and the sky. Both notions carry ideas of a primordial paradise, a suspension of current existence into a mythic ideal of the idyll. Whatever meaning one makes from the piece, the overarching theme that makes it so beautiful is this idea of paradisiacal freedom - the transport in time to a place that distances itself from the complications and banalities of modern society. In its depiction, the painting was literally escaping artistic conventions of the beginning of the 20th century. Matisse's style was coalescing and the flattened space and vibrant colors that are now commonly associated with Matisse were beginning to appear in his works (as we see here in his trees). Fauvism emerged at this time, with Matisse as one of its prime players. The movement was characterized by vibrancy of color as an emotional source. Through its colors and its simple, sensual vibrancy "Le Bonheur de vivre" exoticizes a fantasy ideal of the good in life. Unlike so many other paintings that seem stuck within their frames, their subjects frozen in their depictions, the life energy of the "Le Bonheur de vivre" radiates. I like to imagine Matisse's loosely defined figures as happily confined to their paradise, stuck in an orgy like sensual state.


The first time I saw the painting up close the sun was streaming through the skylight above it- the colors were alive. I wanted to be there within the painting- naked, rejoicing in my body, dancing and frolicking, free and warmed by Matisse's colors. The beauty of the painting is that captive trance over the viewer the total experience of energy, movement, color, dance, song, love. The second visit to the Barnes the light filtering in from the skylight was cloudy and murky- "Le Bonheur de vivre" did not grab me into its fantasy realm right away. But I stuck with it, determined to once again find a way into that magical amorphous quality we call beauty. So I waited, and took notes, and found a beauty truer than I had the first time I saw the painting. Here on a second visit, the beauty was in the return. Slowly, the painting became all it had been to me the first time I saw it. As a portal to the joys of life, it removed me from the mundane- reminding me that I don't have to go to the South of France, be on the beach, or in front of a Matisse painting to evoke all the feelings of freedom, sexuality and energy it brought to me. I could find them within myself if I looked hard enough.


This connection to a painting- Matisse's ability to capture the emotions of escape, of longing, of an unobtainable beauty, within line and shape is the beauty. Though Matisse is long dead, the painting connects with its viewers. I am not the only one to vicariously live within the painting, to find it achingly beautiful. Thus, ultimately the painting has come to represent the most beautiful thing that life offers us- the interconnectedness between ourselves and other humans, the universality of the human condition and how we share that condition with each other. And so a painting can quite accurately tell the story of beauty.




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