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Beauty,Spring 2005 Third Web Papers On Serendip

Stop Reading and Find the Joy of LIfe

Muska N

In Roald Hoffman's critical essay on the aesthetics of chemistry, he states that people create stories when contemplating beauty. Hoffman says "We do so by structuring a narrative to make up for the lack of simplicity. And then we delight in the telling of the story." The same can be said about contemplating beauty in a work of art. Each work of art evokes a specific narrative which a speculator responds to depending on his/her connection to the story being told. The difference between an artistic narrative and the narrative of a literary text is merely the language being used. Paint strokes and pigment replace words and adjectives—however the story remains the same. The narration then becomes simply a matter of translation. The speculator must look at the piece of art and be able to translate the language of the painting into the language of his/her own internal monologue and language.

I am particularly interested in the narrative quality of paintings, particularly the narrative quality between paintings created by the same artist. Often times I find that two pieces of art, done by the same artist, speak to one another as if in conversation. It is like reading two novels by the same author in which one book extends the themes of the other. While in the Barnes Foundation, I noticed this sort of conversational theme between two Matisse paintings—(1) The Music Lesson and (2) Le Boneheur de Vivre (which can be translated to The Joy of Life). Through an in-depth analysis of my reading of both these paintings, I found that the dialogue between the two paintings was less of a conversation, and more of a debate.

The first painting by Matisse, The Music Lesson struck me immediately because of its warm familial setting. A woman in a white collared blouse sits beside her son in front of a grand piano. In the bottom left hand corner of the painting, a man in a business suit sits in a chair with a book in his lap. In the center is a big window that spans from the ceiling to the floor. The window is open and outside there is a glimpse of a vibrant green garden with a patio. In the patio a young boy sits in front of a statue of a naked woman. The young boy is also reading a book in his lap and paying no attention to the statue or the beautiful garden he is in.

As mentioned before, the painting evokes a strong sense of family. However, upon further analysis I realized that the painting is not representing a particularly warm family. The woman sitting beside her son at the grand piano is not looking at him lovingly, but instead her eyes are cast down at what I suppose is the sheet of music before them. The son does not appear to be excited about his lesson either. The expression on his face—his wide-eyed stare—assumes a more strained, panicked emotion. The business man reading his book is also not talking or engaging in any kind of activity with his family, but is rather minding his own business privately. The boy on the patio is also silently reading his own book.

The other objects in the painting give off the same feeling of disconnection. An idle violin sits on the grand piano, as if begging to be played and appreciated. In the corner, behind the mother and the son playing on the piano, is a portrait of someone stiffly sitting on a chair. The person in the portrait is not active, or portrayed with another person, but instead is alone.
The entire scene appears to be very rigid and forced. The family, although sophisticated and eloquent, is not the same warm family that I had first imagined when I saw the painting. The family appears to be very elite and wealthy. The musical instruments, the formal attire, the grand art pieces and sculptures, the groomed garden—all of these things imply a family that is very refined and well off. However, the refined lifestyle does not give off an aura of freedom. In fact, all the people appear trapped and repressed.

Ironically, it is the naked statue that is shown lying down on her side, which appears to be the most liberated and free character in the entire painting. Unlike the other people, who are "clothed" in both the literal and figurative manner, the statue is outside in the brisk sunlight. She is unapologetic and unashamed of her naked body. Unlike the other people in the painting, who are either absorbed in a book or absorbed in a sheet of music, the statue appears to be looking at herself in awe. She is completely connected to herself, and through her own self-glorification, appears to be connected to the vibrant green grass and bushes around her. The narrative of this story is seen through the paradoxical symbolism between the repressed family and the liberated nude statue. The nude statue seems to be mocking the family by appearing more human than the humans themselves.

Although the statue in The Music Lesson is representative of freedom—it is through the narrative in The Joy of Life that the true debate between freedom versus societal sophistication is expressed. The first thing I noticed about this painting was the way in which human bodies appeared to blend together, as if they were connected. In the bottom right hand corner of the painting, two nude bodies are embracing. The arms, neck and head of the two people are so intertwined that I could not distinguish between the bodies. Then I started to look at the other people in the painting. They are all nude, close, touching and dancing. Music also plays a big role in this painting. There are two flute players who are passionately engaged in their music—either walking around with their flute in hand or reclining in a patch of lilac flowers with their instrument. The people in the far distance are holding hands and dancing in a circle to the music. They are not passively distant to the music—as are the people in The Music Lesson but instead are deeply engaged and participatory in the tunes and melodies.

Everything about this painting is drenched with human connection—whether it is through the physical connection between bodies in the act of making love, or the connection between musicians and dancers, or merely the connection between friends walking through nature together. Everyone is deeply engaged in both the people and the nature around them. They are much like the statue in the first painting in The Music Lesson.

It was only after I realized the connection between the people in The Joy of Life and the statue in The Music Lesson that I came to the conclusion that there was an inter-conversational debate between the two narratives. The first painting tells the story of a repressed, wealthy family and the second painting tells the story of the ideal symbol of human freedom and liberation. The first painting appears to advocate a poised, cultured, intellectual life filled with literature and classical music. The second painting appears to advocate a return to nature, human connectedness and the liberation of love. If the narrative between the two paintings is indeed supposed to be a debate, the artist himself seems to have his own opinion as to which lifestyle is to be strived for. The titles of his paintings reflect the artists own perception. The professional sounding title of The Music Lesson as contrasted to the utopian title The Joy of Life implies that the artist agrees with the message of the second painting.

Both these paintings, however, reflect a common theme of the role of art in society. The first painting represents the institutionalized role of literature, music and sculpture. These art forms are materialized to display the wealth and high societal standing of the family. The music and dance in the second painting is much more lucid and free. The art is not being implemented to express societal standing but instead is an extension of internal, emotional impulses and desires. The art in the first painting is distant and placed on a pedestal, whereas the art in the second painting is integrated into the daily fabric of the characters lives. John Dewey makes this distinction between institutionalized art and primitive art. He states the following:

The collective life that was manifested in war, worship, the forum, knew no division between what was characteristic of these places and operations, and the arts that brought color, grace and dignity, into them. Paintings and sculpture were organically one with architecture, as that was one with the social purpose that buildings served. Music and song were intimate parts of the rites and ceremonies in which the meaning of group life was consummated. Drama was a vital reenactment of the legends and history of group life. Not even in Athens can such arts be torn loose from this setting in direct experience and yet retain their significant character. Athletic sports, as well as drama, celebrated and enforced traditions of race and group, instructing the people, commemorating glories, and strengthening their civic pride.

Therefore, the narratives between these two paintings do much more than merely tell a story, but rather dispel a specific moral argument between societal depictions and uses of art and the authentic origin of art. The Music Lesson and The Joy of Life can better be understood through the analysis of both in context of one another, and therefore can help the speculator come up with his/her own opinion as to how art is best to be implemented into society.

Hoffman, Roald. Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry. Pg 3.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Pg 7.

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