An Art Lesson with Matisse

Le Rifain assis

‘Le Rifain assis’ by Henri Matisse

Someone asked Robert McKee recently how to write stories that were “timeless” and “immortal.”

The question is absurd, of course. If McKee knew, he’d be writing them himself. Still, his screenwriting seminars are legendary, and his former students include Peter Jackson, William Goldman, John Cleese, Drew Carey and Russell Brand. Twenty of his former students were involved in 12 films that were nominated for Oscars this year.

And, thus, his answer: “It’s a mystery.”

Some stories, he said, “just capture something ineffable that you cannot quantify and cannot measure … a magical quality.” They are told “in a certain way,” and become classics — he mentioned The Wizard of Oz and The Godfather — while others are merely “temporal.”

I’m pulling together material for a book, and I’m stalling. The stalling is old behavior. I did it before starting both of the books I’ve written, but this time the material is more personal and appears to require a demanding level of vulnerability.

I’ve spent a lifetime acting cool and invulnerable, and I’m not sure about what the payoff might be in change. And I wonder if it’s possible to pull off being personal and vulnerable without coming across as self-absorbed. I don’t expect to write anything timeless or immortal, but I don’t want to embarrass myself, either.

But as I was watching McKee, I was reminded of an experience I had at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A friend and I had gone to see the Matisse exhibit in October 1992, and it was so crowded that the recorders and headsets which provide a pre-recorded tour of the exhibit weren’t available. That was fine with me. Although I had (and have) no art education, I wanted to experience Matisse on my terms and make up my own mind.

So we ambled from room to room, following what I recall as a chronological rendering of Matisse’s career. It was pleasant and entertaining, and I especially appreciated his passion for color.

Then we entered a rectangular room filled with people filing around the perimeter, listening to the audio tour and studiously studying the paintings. On the long, opposite wall was a large painting. I’m guessing it was five feet by seven, but it’s possible that the impression it made has magnified the painting in my memory as well.

There was a table with a bowl of fruit, two or three wine bottles and a violin. Maybe there were flowers, too, and my recollection insists that it was painted in muted tones.

There was nothing provocative or unusual. The objects were commonplace and even mundane unless you consider a violin exotic.

Why, then, was I standing in the middle of the room staring? And why were there tears in my eyes?

Then I got it: this was what made art art.

It wasn’t what Matisse painted, but how he painted it. I don’t know anything about composition, color theory, texture or technique, but I do know there was an energy, a power, that made those ordinary, everyday objects extraordinary.

I don’t know if Matisse set out to paint something timeless and immortal, but surely he was inspired and eighty years later that inspiration still radiated from the painting. It was like seeing those things for the first time.

It was an amazing gift, and an unexpected insight into the nature of creativity. Why would a great artist paint a table, fruit and wine bottles? Because they moved him, and he wanted to express it. Probably he had to express it. That others might also be moved was a bonus.

I couldn’t find the painting I was taling about online, but “Le Rifain assis’ was painted during that same period.

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