Visiting Henri Matisse’s MoMA exhibit at 5 AM

I went to MoMa on the last weekend of its Matisse exhibit.


Originally published at the-toast.net on April 14, 2015.

In the last decade of his life, Henri Matisse couldn’t paint anymore. He sat post-surgery in a wheelchair in France’s Hôtel Régina, often barefoot and wearing a blue cardigan with no shirt beneath. Régina: a hotel named after a woman, maybe somebody’s wife, likely beautiful.

Matisse’s own wife, Amelie, had left him several years earlier. He missed her. But this isn’t an unhappy story.

“During the summer of 1946,” said his studio assistant Lydia Delectorskaya once, “Matisse had cut out a swallow from a sheet of writing paper and, as it distressed him to tear up this beautiful shape and throw it away…he put it up on his wall, also using it to cover up a stain the sight of which disturbed him.”

Matisse added more and more shapes — leaping dolphins, curling coral, random pomegranates — to the wall. Soon it was covered in cut-outs.

When I arrive to view Matisse’s The Cut-Outs at MoMA on the exhibit’s final weekend in February, it’s 5:00 a.m. and I stop feeling lonely as I stand among the paper collages. All tickets for other times have been sold out. I’m alone because I don’t know anyone who’d go with me at this hour, and because I’m used to being alone now. It’s my first winter at school in New York City, where I know many good people but somehow still feel cold. I miss my friends who live far away.

On the 1 train downtown, I chat with the old woman who sits beside me. Do you work at MoMA? she asks.

No, I’m meeting people, I say. I think I lie because it’s hard to tell the truth even to a stranger. On the scale of depressingness, going to a museum alone is probably below eating fries at a restaurant alone but above midnight shopping at Wal-mart alone.

The exhibit is quiet but full of expectation, like a concert hall in the moment between the lights dimming and the first violin playing a note. Matisse’s cut-outs are rough. I see a piece that looks like Hulk Hogan’s mustache, but upon reading its description, is actually a woman stretching. It’s red and yellow. The entire exhibit thrums with color.

“A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public,” said the critic Camille Mauclair about Matisse’s paintings in 1905. Matisse and his mangy artist friends were called “les fauves,” or “wild beasts,” for their untamed use of color.

Blue Nude II, Henri Matisse, 1952.

The Blue Nudes, which Matisse translated from paintings to cut-outs, are naked women sitting with their arms behind their heads, as if the artist imagined them doing yoga in early 20th-century France. Swimming Pool is a whole room covered in cut-outs of the sea: blue seaweed near the ceiling, blue jellyfish by the door, blue shapes of swimmers arcing through it all.

Seismic joy. Matisse created his cut-outs as an old man, in pain, sitting alone in a wheelchair, but his art suggests something childlike and luminous, like sunflowers facing the dawn.

In 1942, he told the writer Louis Aragon that “perhaps after all I believe in a second life…some paradise where I shall paint frescoes.” At his exhibit, I imagine him wrestling a parakeet out of green paper. He’s optimistic, thinking broad thoughts, and Amelie is only a dull ache.

I feel a strange kinship with the other baggy-eyed visitors around me. Sorry, I say when I realize I’m blocking the view of a dark-haired guy in a black parka.

Don’t worry about it, he says. We look at the piece before us for a moment before he asks, So why are you here at five in the morning? I find out his name is Ronan, he’s a senior at NYU, and he smoked a bit of weed before heading uptown. We visit a few more works together and then part ways.

Maybe what I really want in this city isn’t a friend, family member, or lover, but just a passenger for my car — someone to share the present with.

Near the end of the exhibit, I sit on a bench and listen to a little girl and her father talk in Japanese. She’s chatty for 6:30 in the morning. Cute kids have the superhuman ability of making anyone smile, and this girl is no different. There’s a man and woman who likely don’t even realize they’re smiling. They’re buried in matching fur coats. I think some people go to museums to be looked at.

The Snail, Henry Matisse, 1953.

I can wax on about color theory or his use of whitespace, but really I just like Matisse’s works because they make me happy. Sitting on that bench makes me happy, even if a collage of scattered rainbow squares mind-bendingly called The Snail is in front of me and I still can’t understand it.

I don’t know if art needs to be understood, if it even needs to have a purpose. Last term, I took a workshop with a former Poet Laureate. He asked us to bring in a favorite poem to read, and I chose Dean Young’s Ode To Hangover:

…Chug, chug, goes the arriving train, those on the platform toss their hats and scarves and cheer, the president comes out of the caboose to declare, The war is over! Corks popping, people mashing people, knocking over melon stands, ripping millenniums of bodices. Hangover, rest now, you’ll have lots to do later…

After I read it, he was silent for a moment. Then he asked, Why did you choose this?

I beamed and said, It’s just so fun.

Poetry isn’t supposed to be fun, he replied.

He’s a wise man with a Pulitzer and I’m not, so maybe I am on the wrong track about art synonymizing with joy.

The winter of Matisse’s life bloomed in color. On top of his existing aches, his best student Rudolf Levy was killed in Auschwitz in 1944, the same year Matisse made The Destiny, a piece of white paper curved like smoke framed by blocks of yellow, blue, purple, and green.

The Destiny, Henri Matisse, 1943.

Pain into beauty. “Les fauves” means “wild beasts,” but its more literal translation is “the fawns.” It’s art not made by a wolf or lion, but in fact a deer — not savage, but tender.

It was snowing heavily a few weeks ago when I went outside, pulled up my hood, and lay down in the middle of a field on campus. Snow seeped into my coat, and for a moment all was silent and I imagined I was far away from the city. Then a police siren keened in the distance. Or was it someone singing? I thought about how interruptions of peace may just be invitations from a world with more color and a little more sun. Chaos isn’t an obliteration, but instead a homecoming.

Matisse’s cut-outs were always impermanent. His body was immobile, but his art wasn’t. He constantly had Lydia reassemble the birds and pomegranates stuck on his wall. “I am cutting out all these elements and putting them up on the walls temporarily,” he said. “I don’t know yet what I’ll come up with.”

I often feel alone as a new student in New York City. I feel alone as someone who bounced around six schools before graduating from high school. Change can be lonely. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a word for the feeling. Social constipation? It’s the same longing I feel when I pass by an apartment’s open window alone as music spills out of it.

But as I emerge from MoMA into the 7:00 a.m. lagoon of Manhattan, I think about Matisse moving his decorations around, each new wall a gift to himself. Blue dawn shrouds the few people outside, as if they’re Matisse’s women, and swimmers around us. I turn a corner and get startled by Times Square, quiet but glittering, an arcade even in this early hour. A flurry of shapes that turn out to be pigeons convene by a trashcan.

The Parakeet and the Mermaid is a mural of flowers with a tiny parakeet hidden on its left and a mermaid tucked into its right. Matisse felt like that lone bird among flowers. “I had to make…this parakeet with colored paper,” he said. “Well, I became a parakeet. And I found myself in the work.”

Second lives, third lives, fourth lives. Somewhere, Matisse paints red in a fresco of what could be poppies or sleeping women. Lydia has told him a joke, and he is laughing.

The Parakeet and the Mermaid, Henri Matisse, 1952.
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