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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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Lilly pads

Catherine Davidson

I find "reading" a painting to be an odd concept. It assumes that every painting has a story behind, or with it and although I am not saying that is an incorrect assumption to make, it is odd. It moves the art into a more universal sphere and makes it more dimensional. I wonder how many people go to an art gallery and try to create a story behind the painting without using the artist's story to apply to the painting. A painting is flat. The way the subject is arranged in the painting doesn't make sense. What does the artist or some qualified art critic have to say about this painting? Where is the story? Is there really a story? Can't we just enjoy a painting for what the author says it is and leave it at that? Why mess with abstract forms? How is that art? It doesn't mean anything? This is an idea Barnes plays with. Barnes allows the observer to create her own story around the painting. He attempts to create a setting where each person can develop their own relationship to the paintings. I found a relationship the first day at the Barnes, with an unknown woman who taught me a lot about myself.

I wanted Monet. I adored his paintings and I wanted more. It started in Giverny when I was 17 years old. The interior of his house was glorious; humble and beautiful. His gardens were indescribable. Do they look the way he depicted them in his work? Yes, but they do not feel the same. There is a certain sweet spring smell that floated around the light spring air that I will never forget. The sound of the people around me, speaking more languages than I will ever have the time to learn will rest tucked away in my memory. The way I had to move in a line around Monet's pond, and past a bamboo garden bizarrely, before I could see the Lilly pads and bridge that are subjects of many of his paintings. There is much more than what can be presented on a flat canvas. What is beautiful about Monet's art is that it embodies the impressionist ideal that calls for using light and color to accurately recreate a natural scene on canvas. However, he leaves limited room for the observer to independently relate to his art. My feelings for Monet's art are not personal; they apply to all art of his genre. I feel bound to certain ideas when presented with a Monet, which puts up a barrier in the level of appreciation that is possible when the observer feels no room for interaction with artist's art.

When I walked into the Barnes for the first time, I was not aware of the transition I had made in art appreciation until I stepped before Matisse. His work, Madame Matisse: madras rouge was the first to hit me and the most effective at doing so, to the point that I found myself leaving the room a few times, only to turn around while I was halfway through the door and return to this painting. Something about this painting totally captivated me. It made sense to me; I could feel the presence of the woman it portrayed.
I was not familiar with Mme Matisse before I saw her at the Barnes. I stood before her and stared. My eyes followed the shaded outline of her form, and traced the outlines of the few details the artist added to her form. The lively colors and roughly defined form make her dance off canvas, almost like a cartoon, but her rosy cheeks give her a healthy glow, and the mysterious expression given through her large dark eyes, and red semi smile add a human touch. I wanted to reach across and touch her form, to discover the texture that would enhance my experience but I knew that I was confined by the black line. Not wanting to put Bryn Mawr College to shame, I resisted and imagined what she would be like as a person. The style and color of her dress appeared exotic to me. I imagined her and me, new friends sitting out together for tea, teaching each other about different experiences in different parts of the world. Her look gives her an intelligent, mysterious expression that I can confirm only by talking with her. The exotic colors painting her garb add a tinge of eccentricity to her character because I do believe she is European or American. Her form is not defined, and her character is still developing, as Matisse's usage of color is vibrant detail is limited. She is simple. This woman absorbs her environment, learning not only through what she hears, but through her settings and her feelings. She challenges her surroundings and questions herself and everyone. We're good friends, this woman and I, and I have continued to develop this relationship with her over time but she is very independent. Notice how her arms are sort of folded in front of her, and draped over the chair? She is not quick to disclose her inner workings, and stubbornly stands on her own. This is not to suggest that she is not kind. Her soft skin tone indicates that she is very generous and opens her arms to many, but her trust is not accessible to everyone. How do I know so much about this woman vibrantly painted across this canvas? Could it be true that I see a bit of myself in Mme Matisse?

Monet is a talented artist although his paintings are confining. You cannot dispute the fact that a Lilly pad in one of his Lilly pad paintings is a Lilly pad and that the colors and light are true to what it is like in real life. There is no message to be interpreted, no thinking to be done. A blue/green/white Lilly pad is a blue/green/white Lilly pad. Enough said. This idea is not wrong. This style of art is acceptable but it is very different from Matisse. Throughout childhood, until one leaves the house, and maybe even until one is out of school, financially independent from one's family, there are rules, family rules, school rules, societal rules and expectations all round. This also applies to a certain extent as an adult but I feel in my life, I became most aware of these pressures during the formative years between the ages of 14-17. I was told what to do, how to do it. Free thought and action was acceptable but there was a very fine limit. I wanted to explore more controversial ideas, but did not do so to a great extent, not openly anyway, I worried about how my or my family's image might be compromised, or how my students and teachers might react if I were to propose a more unconventional perspective. The feelings that steamed from this rigidity and stagnancy are my Monet, who was beautiful when he was all I knew, a Lilly pad is a Lilly pad, is a Lilly pad. I held back until I left high school and my home and came to college.

At college I have begun to learn how to think, and explore some controversial, radical, maybe ridiculous ideas that many embrace, the same way Matisse makes an effort not to define his subject too much. He outlines only enough so the observer may vaguely get acquainted with the subject. I am not forced into seeing a certain image the "right" way. His usage of color and detail is not enough so as to be imposing but enough to provide security, assurance in knowing that there is a particular form present. He encourages creativity and free interpretation. Mme Matisse's story has become my own. Matisse has helped define my personal progress toward the willingness to explore more diverse and creative ideas and interests.

Is Mme Matisse really European or American? Has she traveled the world? Is her dress really exotic? What was Matisse really writing about when he created this painting? I don't know. Maybe some day I will explore the detailed story behind this woman's mystery. Today I am satisfied with not knowing.

Mme Matisse: madras rouge can be viewed at the following webpage:

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