So, when I was at a major museum a few years ago, looking at a travelling exhibition, I saw “Still Life with Oranges” by Henri Matisse c. 1899. Standing next to me, also looking at the painting, was a truly delightful and elderly gentleman. His wife was wondering around looking at other pieces. It was just a silent moment, when he suddenly started speaking to me.
“Why on earth would anybody want to look at this?”, he asked. He went on to say that the painting was childish, anybody could accidently do it, and why is it worth anything? He also noted and pointed out that it clearly wasn’t even finished!
I stood there, befuddled for a moment, as if someone told me to freeze because a bear was right behind me. This is a Matisse, I thought to myself, one of the world’s most favorite artists. How do I respond?
We chatted for a little bit before I invited him to consider looking at the painting not as a representation exactly of the objects depicted, but rather as an arrangement of shapes and masses. Consider, that the artist is living in a time period where he is an adventurer, discovering ways to compose fields of color in just such a way that it causes us to respond to its proportions like tones do in music. I asked him to step back from the painting and not see the table and fruit, but see the center of the canvas and it edges all relating to each other. The unfinished part, I asked him; how would it look if were finished? Could he see that perhaps the incomplete parts made the complete parts emerge as whole composition of background and foreground and we lose our notion about the subject of fruit and tableware, per se?
More silence. Uh oh, I thought. His finger went to his lips as he shook his head. I started to feel deflated as I awaited his response. “No.”, he said, “I couldn’t see it.” He paused, “But I can now!” Relief exited my lungs, and we smiled and looked at it again. “Thank you young man, wait until I show my wife!” He looked around, hoping to explain his new insight of the painting to her now. “She was around here somewhere”, he said, looking back and forth, while wandering off to find her.