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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Matisse and Motel Art

Flora Shepherd

The last class visit to the Barnes had been my first, and I felt I had to make the most of it. One by one, I concentrated on each piece, memorizing every part of it. I felt I could stand in front of each individual work for hours and still I would not be able to recall the feeling of being in this grand place. However, the second time I walked through the entryway of the Barnes, I felt comfortable. I no longer felt rushed to get through everything or pressured to appreciate the mastery of famous artists. Instead, I began examining the way Barnes chose to display the works and became completely overwhelmed. Symmetry, irony, dissonance...there were just too many patterns and relationships within each wall and between walls and galleries and just all throughout the place. I was hugely drawn to this sense of order. (I suppose Anne would say that this is the scientist in me finding the greater beauty in relations between things than the individual things themselves.) In order to be able to complete the assignment of reading a painting, I had to force myself to think back to my experiences of the first visit.

What specific piece affected me more than all the others? I wandered the mazes of interrelated pictures, seeing nothing but relationships. Then, in a corner on the second floor, I saw it: a Matisse oil painting, Woman at Dressing Table Browsing through the gift shop in the first visit, I learned that I must not be the only person who felt drawn to this particular corner. There were a wide variety of prints of Woman readily available: framed, unframed, postcard-size, printed on envelopes, etc. Being the graduate of a snobby arts high school that I am, my kitsch instinct warned me to pull away from something so mainstream. Wasn't there a underappreciated work in a dark corner somewhere I should be evaluating instead? After all, I read enough about art to know that plenty has already been written about Matisse. What could I say new? But something very deep attracted me to this painting and I wanted to know why.

At first glance, the painting looked very serene. Framed by a window behind her and a large mirror to her left, a young woman in a robe is sitting at her dressing table, reading. Her body is turned toward us, but her face is looking down at the book. Behind her, outside of the window, there is a beach with indistinct human figures and the royal blue ocean. Gray and purple curtains hang around the window. On the table, there are small vials, a filled glass pitcher and an empty glass. All of the colors are pale and all of the lines are curved. Because of Matisse's loose brushstrokes, the whole scene looks a little hazy. Light seems to be everywhere in this scene, but in many different variations: shadow, sunlight, light in glass (window and mirror), light filtered through different curtains, collected in her clothes, reflected on the beach. Like the pattern of the paintings in the Barnes, I did not notice Matisse's genius with light at first, but once I noticed the first detail, I became overwhelmed and saw it everywhere.

This piece first caused feelings of nostalgia in me. Masterpiece or not, I immediately felt that I could have found a print of this painting hanging on the wall of a rural Louisiana motel room. After spending almost all of my childhood summers on the road with my parents' puppet troupe, I feel I am something of an expert on motel art. I can remember my RISD mother making fun of the vague framed shapes that looked more like anthills than anything else and the endless pastoral scenes with pigs that looked as big as the cows next to them. This print would fit more in the category of the generic summer housewife scene. The colors are the same soft pleasing hues seen in the palette of motel art, and motels would definitely want to be associated with themes of domesticity, femininity and idyllic vacations. Of course, since Matisse is formally placed in the category of "high art," I highly doubt that Holiday Inn is about to franchise this, but a similar scene would not surprise me.

But this piece evokes more than recollection of childhood art experiences. The woman portrayed has a traditional Western feminine beauty. Her hair is long and dark, her figure slim and her face smooth and well proportioned. Since she is not fully dressed and appears to be alone in what is probably her bedroom, the scene is very personal. The feel of the scene is very familiar to me. Granted, I haven't had a bedroom in a beach house lately, but the feeling of sitting alone in a room reading while other people are outside enjoying the weather is a familiar one to most Mawters.

Thinking about how natural, calm and almost boring this painting looked caused me to feel a strong surge of anger. After all, why was something so important to me, such as a woman reading in her room, placed in a category of almost benign beauty? Why would a figure of a woman reading in her room be considered pretty and put on stationery? Why weren't there paintings of men framed at their most vulnerable, perhaps looking exhausted, in semi-dress, reading a book in their chambers without looking stately? I couldn't help thinking of how early twentieth century British suffragettes smuggled axes and knives into galleries to ax paintings. What a powerful statement that was! I could understand why someone would want to destroy a painting that depicted a woman almost trapped in her room. Why was she beautiful sitting in this position? What was it about this scene that may have pleased others but so disquieted me?

I have so many unanswered questions about this woman. It is impossible to tell from the context of the piece what she is thinking about or reading. You can see that the pitcher is full, but of water? or something more menacing? Her glass is empty, does that mean she has or has not had anything to drink from the pitcher? And what is in the vials? One could assume due to historical context that the vials contained perfume or some similar domestic substance, but who's to know? I do not know if Matisse intended for the viewer to ask herself these questions, but they are what most affected me, so I include them in my "reading" of the painting.

There is so much unseen. Everything important about this woman: her thoughts, her dreams, and her struggles are not there. You can't see them in this artificial depiction of life. It is just a snapshot that tells you nothing about her but her appearance, and that, I think, is one of the reasons why I found this piece so terrifying. This woman is just reduced to a two-dimensional paper doll. All of the beauty I can see in this painting is aesthetic. The colors and shapes are pleasing, but the deeper issues, the relations between things that I use to make meaning, all of that is not there.. There is no greater message or beauty for me to learn here, no overbearing theory to link everything together: just the image of one woman in one room, alone. And that is not enough for me.

There were many other paintings in the Barnes of women in domestic situations that stayed stuck in the pattern of the museum. Few images stuck with me like Woman. And I think that is because but in this painting I saw myself portrayed as I think others may see me. She is sitting in a corner, looking normal and yet one can only think that because there is nothing to indicate otherwise. There is no proof of her happiness or sanity or worthiness in the world, no relation to any other person. She is completely alone, even though there are others within her reach: by the beach. The reality of this scene, even if it is only captured for a moment in time, is terrifying. I can see this painting as a depiction of life. No one can ever really come inside your head with you just as we cannot enter her room. You see the world through the windows of your senses, just as she could choose to turn and see the beach. But even when if she chose to look through the window, the various curtains on the windows changed the truth of her perspective. The only other place she could turn to was to the mirror, like your memories, but even a mirror can only give distorted images of a world that is not actually in the mirror. No one else can read your thoughts just as no one else can read the book she is reading. Even though she is in a visually pleasing surrounding with physical amenities like a pitcher of water and small vials, she is still very alone. But what terrifies me is not that she is alone. What terrifies me is that she is trapped by the mirror, the window and the book and no one can come inside her room with her.

Matisse either did not see or chose not to portray the horrible sadness of her being alone. And that is why I found this painting to be incredibly terrifying, more so than any crucifixion scene or similarly violent image. The terror in this painting is that you cannot see her grief or even jubilation, you cannot see anything but her. I don't know how one would show inner turmoil or inner anything, for that matter. I am not terrified of thunder clouds and a witch furrowing her brow. to me as the more upsetting, ugly, non human ones. There is more terror in the way that the gray curtains around the only window in the woman's room start to resemble storm clouds.

So, if I could see so much terror in the painting, how is it fair that it also can be classified as a beautiful accent to an entryway? Why isn't this sort of terrifying moment given the weight we give pictures of corpses or portraits of dead generals? Because she looks more appealing? But I guess that is the greater beauty I am also trying to find. This painting bored, baffled, disturbed and viscerally pleased me. It existed as a comforting piece of artifice with calming colors that would fit in nicely with the overall palette of the furnishings in a room. If that room were in a motel in rural Louisiana it could even be the butt of many jokes. But, instead, it is worshipped on the wall of a famous art museum where it can terrify students with its honesty or whatever else they read into it. What is brilliant about this painting is its universality. I am not going to pretend that I can describe Matisse's genius of craft in any more specific than his hazy brushstrokes,

Speaking as someone who rarely finds deep beauty in paintings of flowers or homes or other such commonplace symbols, I found this small painting of a woman sitting in a room not only beautiful, but deep and meaningful. I know that the experience of looking at and thinking about this painting will always stay with me. When people ask me to recall one of my favorite artists, I will say Matisse, and, without thinking, recall my experiences at the Barnes. After spending so much time studying the individual and the patterns within the museum, I finally had an experience of a painting that exists separately from the institution in which it was housed. Dewey would be proud. And, browsing in the gift shop, I decided to come back with my credit card and buy a print for myself. After all, I spend so much time in my own room, it would be nice to be reminded of all that my behavior entails. And the colors will probably match the pattern on my sheets. So, the next time I want to fill a glass from my own pitcher, I will have something besides my own thoughts to look at.

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