Somewhere in the bowels of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), hidden from public view, is the Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse painting La Coiffure. The 1901 painting depicts Matisse’s wife, Amélie, facing a mirror while arranging her hair. I do not know where I first came across the painting, nor precisely why I saved it to my computer; I do know, though, that I have been attracted to the painting for years. The last time I remember viewing it was when, dutifully following a silly Facebook meme sent to me by an acquaintance in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The words I used when I posted it were: “The idea is to occupy Facebook with art, breaking the monotony of photos of lunch, sushi and sports. Whoever likes this post will receive an artist and has to publish a piece by that artist with this text.” Memory of whether anyone responded dutifully to me is long gone.
Coming across the image this morning prompted me to inquire about the painting’s history. I learned that its last public viewing took place at the NGA between January 2010 and January 2012 for the exhibition entitled, “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection.” I also learned from the NGA’s website the earlier provenance of the painting, specifically:
Purchased from the artist by (Galerie Druet) for Eugène Druet’s personal collection; sold 1910 to Judge Jacob M. Moses, Baltimore; by whom sold 16 December 1929 to Stephen Carlton Clark [1882-1960], Cooperstown, NY; (sale, 11 May 1944, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, no. 93); purchased by Chester Dale, New York; gift 1963 to NGA.
I wish, when I was young enough to retain the information, I had the patience to learn more about art history. When I say “more,” I really mean “anything.” What miniscule knowledge I have about art and art history could fit into a thimble crafted for an elf’s child. I am the poster child for “I may not know art, but I know what I like.” In other words, I am embarrassingly ignorant about art and artists. I know some of the major artists whose names regularly appear in prominent places, but beyond their names I know very little. I understand Matisse is known as a post-impressionist, but I cannot define what that term means without resorting to a Google search. Thanks to Wikipedia, I know Matisse contributed to Fauvism, “the style of les Fauves (French for “the wild beasts”), a group of early 20th-century modern artists whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism.” I like the artist’s use of color and his ability to convey, with color, emotional context; at least that’s what I think I like about his work. Whether anyone with knowledge of art and art history would say that, I do not know.
The second image, entitled The Woman with a Hat, is also a painting of Matisse’s wife. Leo, the older brother of Gertrude Stein, bought the painting together with his sister, though he is quoted as calling it “the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen.” Apparently, the two of them realized it was an important piece of art that would contribute to the world of painting. Unless the information I found this morning is outdated, the painting resides today in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
During my morning foray into the art world, I came across an article that identifies “The Thirty Most Popular Modern and Contemporary Artists.” I wonder whether “most popular” legitimately translates into “most influential” and/or “most important” (in terms of their impact on various art movements)? Without any background in art appreciation, I have no idea. One of the artists identified in the article, Cecily Brown, is “…credited as one of the main influences in the resurgence of painting at the turn of the millennium. Her paintings are filled with erotic, fragmented bodies amidst vivid, pulsating colours…” Another of the top thirty, Takashi Murakami, is called the “Warhol of Japan,” and is said to be famous for his merging of fine art and popular culture.
Another modern artist, Peter Max, whose art is variously called pop art and expressionsim painting, is a favorite of mi novia as well as some our friends. But there are so damn many modern artists! How does one identify the ones who are creative geniuses and masters of technique; people whose contributions to art will be recorded by history as unquestionably enormous and important? Perhaps if I knew more about art and art history I would know. But I don’t. I just know what I like. I like a lot of Picasso’s work; like Don Quixote and Guernica and the Girl Before a Mirror and The Art of War. And I like Van Gogh, especially his self portraits and Starry Night. I like a lot of the art of women ArtNews calls “The Women of Impressionism,” including Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt and Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond. I like a lot of the work of Paul Cézanne and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. But I probably could not have spouted off those names except for first wandering through the internet, looking for art and artists that pleased me.
Art, to me, is both escape and prison. It depends on one’s mood when viewing art. It can transport the viewer to another time and place where today’s troubles are distant; not even memories. But it can lock the viewer into an inescapable cage where the only things on view are the hideous occurrences of humankind’s inhumanities. Naturally, I prefer the former, but the latter is just as important, if not more so. Okay. Enough about art for the moment. I have admitted to broad stretches of ignorance, resolved only to the extent that this morning’s surface-skimming trip through an art-filled pond the size of a raindrop. On to something else about which I know almost nothing.
White-breasted nuthatch. Summer tanager. Carolina wren. Tufted titmouse. Carolina chickadee. Cardinal. Blue jay. Mourning dove. American goldfinch. Common grackle. American crow. Eastern phoebe. Ruby-throated hummingbird. These are some of the backyard birds we have seen since moving to the bowels of the forest. I’m sure there are others we have not identified. It’s quite a treat to see such a diverse set of bird visitors near us. Some of the land on our deck and/or eat from the feeders. Others just zip by. Either way, though, it’s a treat. Watching them can relieve stress more quickly and completely than any other “treatment” I’ve tried. Like works of art, I can rarely identify any but the most common birds without referring to reference materials about birds.
I know damn near nothing about almost everything. I am an expert at nothing. That is probably true of most people. We’re generalists whose depth of knowledge of any given subject is more like that of a raindrop on a concrete sidewalk than the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. I blame the complexity of life for that shallowness. Without foregoing interest in anything but an incredibly narrow field of exploration, it is virtually impossible to become “expert” in anything. Even then…even if one were to focus every moment of one’s time and attention on a tiny sliver of the world around us…our knowledge of a topic would be woefully incomplete. There’s just too much to know. Our minds are too small and unable to store and/or retrieve such vast stores of knowledge. The most sophisticated, complex, and fastest super-computer cannot begin to possess all the knowledge “out there” that’s available for us to “know.” We pretend to be knowledgeable, when in fact we are bumbling through with a cursory appreciation of only the surface of that tiny fraction of the world in which we live. I could not begin to tell you about how a specific species of mollusks found only in the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean secure, consume, digest, and process the nutrients from their food sources. I cannot even tell you which birds outside my window are insect-eaters and which consume only seeds or berries. How we humans have been able to take over and relentlessly deconstruct or destroy the planet on which we live is beyond me.
Do we want to get serious about healing our planet? I think not. Because it’s just one more thing about which we know damn near nothing. We can pretend to attack the problem with all the intellectual weapons at our disposal; but we will find that, the more we know, the more we don’t. Let Earth heal herself. Let her consume us as if we were spoiled food; she will expel us from her digestive system, after which she will recover naturally. Eventually, we are apt to discover, too late, that the damage we inflict on this planet ultimately will result only in our extinction; after we are gone, the brief biological experiment that goes by the label humankind will be terminated. In the interim, we can continue to fool ourselves or we can face the facts that the consequences of our thousands of years of planetary butchery will inevitably come home to roost.
My Sunday morning mood is not as positive as I might like, but it’s surprisingly not negative, either. I’m resigned to the fact that our species will be held accountable for our abuses and our willful neglect. And a happy Sunday to you.