The Flight of Matisse’s ‘La Negresse’

2002 > America

La Negreese took my mind into flight

art imitates life
nuttin like the real thing
life imitates art
the live version
Its been a while, like five years, since I wandered the halls of the National Gallery of Art, so today, on a cloudy yet hot summer day, I retreated from the heat into the cool confines of I.M.Pei’s East Wing to see what I’ve been missing.

Seeing a sign for Matisse Cutouts, I headed up a winding staircase into a single room. Echoing what my fellow viewers, I said a soft “This is it?” for there were only five works of art in the room, the most famous of which was his ‘La Negresse.’

Now I’ve seen a postcard of the collage before, and was not impressed. A black figure with abstract birds & flowers just doesn’t compare to the pure detail of a Salvador Dali or visual perspective of a Chuck Close. There, in that room, confronted by the fifteen-foot tall original, I was shocked speechless.

The ‘negresse’, which I always saw as a single human form, was really several shape groups emerging from the ‘leg’ base, with the top one seemingly ready to fly away. That image drew the eye to the bird shapes actually flying and then made the flowers seem to be floating up to join the birds. The collage gave me the overall impression of humanity, expressed in the woman/mother, yearning to grow upwards, with other life forms ahead and behind her in her quest to grow.

How amazing, how brilliant. Matisse made me feel all that and more with a few quickly made paper cutouts glued to a white canvas. I could even feel the femininity of the shape before I read the title block. Now that is an artist!

Unfortunately, just as I was mentally flying in the painting, tourists from Iowa taking flash photos of ‘La Negreese’ broke my trance. It’s a shame, for not only did they disturb my moment, they’re unwittingly damaging the art in a useless attempt to capture the image. If I couldn’t feel anything from a professional postcard, cropped & edited to represent the original as best as modern technology allows, how can they expect a random, off center quickie shot to be anything viewable?

Better they try to describe the experience in words, and fail completely, for only then will they truly convey the power of art: the ability to timelessly convey the feelings, emotions, and thoughts of tropical life and flight through simple imagery to a random guy in a sterile white room on a Sunday in July.