Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe has been doing a series all summer called Frame by Frame where he focuses his attention on one particular work of art. These pieces are brief but insightful, a serialized reminder that Boston is full of masterpieces hanging in permanent collections.
Yesterday’s piece featured a painting by Matisse in the Worcester Museum. Smee’s titled his response to Petit Interieur, “Ease belies the effort”, and his commentary on this later Matisse (it was painted in 1947) confronts the mystery that is at the core of Matisse’s oeuvre. His signatory effortlessness was anything but effortless. That ease and flow was hard won.
From Smee’s article:
There’s a great big metaphysical joke at the core of the genius that was Henri Matisse, and it has to do with the idea of work, of labor, of effort.
Matisse, in his full-throated maturity, represents the opposite of these things. His work stands for ease and effortless beauty, and for an almost total absence of pressure – the pressure of careful outlines and fastidiously filled-in paint and, by extension, of life itself, with its repressed desires, irreconcilable demands, and emotional heavy-lifting…
The painting is about conferring balance and proportion on rapturous sensuality – dizzying beauty with no diminution on either side.
Matisse was in fact one of history’s great pressurized personalities. Habituated to harsh criticism and to countering such criticism with feats of the most strenuous concentration, he was prone to panic attacks, insomnia, nosebleeds, chronic anxiety, illness.
It cost him a lifetime of unstinting strain to get to the point where he could turn out pictures like this.
Things are not as they seem. Matisse’s personality did not possess the laid back ease of his lollygagging odalisques and his light-infused interiors. Turns out it isn’t a requirement. What a relief! In many ways art making can be the way we possess the qualities we don’t embody easily, to evoke moods, auras and existences that are vastly different from the ones we inhabit.