Monday, March 20, 2017

A Day at the Museum: Matisse Nearby, and Letting Inspiration Find Me

Henri Matisse "Yellow Odalisque"
I value inspiration, but I don't often go in search of it. Inspiration usually finds me via something else I’m doing—research for an already-begun writing project, a planned personal or business outing.

Like what happened during a trip to see the "Matisse and American Art" exhibit at the Montclair (NJ) Art Museum. Though this museum is a well-respected gem only a few miles from my house, I don't get there often enough. But my 2017 resolution is to support (not just talk about) organizations that matter—ranging from social justice to the arts. So I made a plan to attend the much-celebrated new exhibit, and pony up annual membership (so I'll be financially inspired to return). The timing meant my sister Cathy and I would have something to do together (other than haunt our favorite diners and bakeries) when she visited.

Cathy's the real art lover in the family; she knows the difference between Monet and Manet, and whether something is impressionist or impressive (or both). I enjoy looking at art, but for me it's always been an enjoyable sometime thing, not a passion.

Henri Matisse—and the American artists influenced by him—may have converted me. But the real bonus: new observations and thoughts about why I'm write  about some of the things I write about, my relationship to the prose, and even a few essay ideas. I'll keep the essay ideas to myself (half-baked as they are still), but as a writer, here's what I came away with:

+ Color! Rich, vivid, bold, drenched colors.(Yep, I used four adjectives in a row.) Colors saturated with ideas and emotion, suggestive and nuanced! Colors were speaking to me. Hard to believe some of Matisse's early critics called his use of color ugly and his first paintings something to laugh at. The world caught on, of course. A magazine feature on Matisse displayed notes, "All the colors sing together…like a musical chord." Like the words and sentences in a piece of writing.

Matisse, "Woman in Blue"
+ Matisse influenced so many artists. I was struck by John Baldessari's "Eight Soups" and Roy Lichtenstein's bronze "Goldfish Bowl II", which build on details in Matisse's works, combined with Warhol's soup cans. I'm reminded of how writers create new prose that couldn't exist if not for the foundations, references, styles of writers who came before. When writes quote Proust, build on a Shakespearian pun, obliquely reference Didion, they are both acknowledging those who paved new literary paths, and paying tribute, and if very lucky (and very good), perhaps making something that extends and expands instead of imitating.

+ Matisse believed in using "all the colors," and this spurs me to think more widely about all the literary tools at my disposal. It nudges me to remember about all the forms I don't regularly try, structures and organizational methods I want to experiment with but often pass over for the safer, more reliable methods.

+ Standing too close to visual art warps perspective. Stepping back brings the visuals into focus. Like creating distance from a manuscript draft is vital. Too close to the same material—page or canvas—and you no longer really see it.

Matisse, "Pianist and Checker Players"
+ My two favorite Matisse works were "Interior at Nice" and "Pianist and Checker Player"—the former because it brings me back to the feeling of being cosseted at a seaside inn (beautiful hotels being one of my favorite places), and the latter recalls my many childhood evenings when my sister was playing piano (beautifully), and I was playing checkers (poorly) with my mother. For writers, memory triggers—that can turn into stories and pages—are waiting everywhere!

+ Cathy and I were captivated by the bold, exquisite works of contemporary mixed media artist Janet Taylor Pickett and her "Matisse Series," which includes many pieces that play with the shape and colors of Matisse's
"Woman in Blue" and his later-career cutout works, and the form and symbolism of women's dresses.

Janet Taylor Pickett, "Wrapped Up in Blue"
+ Like all great acts of inspiration, the visit tipped me into exploration—finding more Matisse works to look at online and reliving Pickett's exhibit via this compelling video, which she narrates and appears in, tracing her own inspirational journey to and from Matisse.

+ You can't visit the Montclair Art Museum without stopping at the George Inness permanent collection, and there on a placard was this, describing the 19th century American landscape artist:

"He refined an approach of conveying the greatest amount of information by means of the fewest marks of the brush."

A reminder about doing more with less, about, essentially, editing. How appropriate to end my excursion to the visual art world with this gentle reminder about the art of brevity in all art forms.

Images courtesy Montclair Art Museum


Cathy said...

I remember the first time my mother took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, carefully explaining to my 8-year-old brain about impressionism and the use of light and color.

I also remember our beloved MHS English teacher, Mr. Sherburne, teaching about Cezanne who painted his tables filled with fruit from a perspective high above, and how we, as writers/readers, should do the same when writing a piece of prose. Funny what you remember...

Lovely, lovely piece, Lisa. I admittedly have never been to the Montclair Art Museum except for the art course my son took when he was in grade school. Good for you and your lovely trip!

Lisa Romeo said...

Thank you, Cathy. I haven't thought of Mr. Sherburne in years, but yes, I do remember how he tried to expose us to many different forms of art in addition to the written word.

The bit about perspective and what "level" we create from reminded me of the documentary I just watched about the street photography of Vivian Maier (it's on Netflix now), and how she always kept the camera at about chest level, which lent her pics a compelling perspective.