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Perspective | Matisse’s – and arguably the great masterpiece of the 20th century

Henri Matisse painted this unspeakably moving painting in the summer of 1916, at the beginning of the Somme offensive, one of the deadliest battles in history.

Matisse’s mother was stranded behind enemy lines in his hometown, Bohain-en-Vermandois, France. His brother was sent to Germany as a prisoner of war. Henri had tried to enlist twice, but he was rejected: too old (46) and a weak heart. Instead, he collected money to send supplies to the civilian prisoners in Bohain and supported the wives of artists and others who had been sent to the front.

Haunted by guilt, Matisse did what he knew he had to do. He painted.

A painting is a trace of the painter’s physical actions, but of course also of his or her feelings. Matisse’s goal during these years (about 1913 to 1917) was to try to preserve on his canvases what he called the “involution” of the painting. By this he meant a kind of radical and inward distillation of his feelings towards the subject – the visual equivalent (but less fleeting) of an excerpt from a song or a scent that evokes intense nostalgia.

A drawing for “The Piano Lesson” shows a boy sitting at a piano. Through the window behind him, a garden full of branches and leaves. Matisse turned to painting and slowly reduced the image to the point where he felt it expressed, in as concentrated a form as possible, the original emotion evoked by the subject.

What was this strong emotion?

The question sounds crass, like asking what the main color of the painting is. After all, strong emotions are never one thing. The various ingredients are volatile, promiscuous.

But imagine: you have children – a daughter in her early twenties and two teenage boys. You are a strict but loving father. And then this war, this human slaughterhouse. Your boys are almost military. Members of your extended family are in danger. You don’t know which way the war will go.

In such an atmosphere everything feels uncertain. You struggle to maintain order, routine. Even domestic life inevitably feels militarized. Every time the clock strikes the hour, how many dead, maimed more? Now, as you walk from your studio to the living room, there’s your son, doing what you ask, passing another lesson.

What emotions would you feeling?

“The Piano Lesson” is sensual yet strict. Both qualities are ramped up to maximum intensity. On the sensual side, the sinuous curves of the balcony railing and music stand (inscribed “PLEYEL”, for the famous piano manufacturer); the sculpted nude on the left; a burst of bright pink in the foreground; the promise of green grass, blue sky. Even worse, you have the piercing gray; the blank, bleached-out teacher who sits sternly and erect on a high stool behind the boy (actually a recognizable Matisse painting on the wall, but he definitely wanted the double entender); the feeling of imprisonment; the ticking metronome.

Matisse wanted his finished canvases in these years to provide evidence of the creative process. So “The Piano Lesson”, which is over eight feet high, is marked throughout by sanding, scraping, repainting, bits of blank canvas, subtle shifts in finish levels.

The metronome and the matching triangle wedged into one side of the boy’s head are the only two parts of the composition that show shadows, and thus three-dimensionality. The rest of the image is resolutely flat, the space derived only from the tension between verticals and diagonals. The largest diagonal, reminiscent of a curtain pulled from the window, creates a triangle that echoes the metronome and the left side of the boy’s face.

So everything is swinging with a kind of instant, all-in-one connectivity, as shapes repeat other shapes and colors distort colors. The whole thing is tight, locked in place. Yet it vibrates with latent power, as if charged with the noise of a father’s love, his fear.

“The Piano Lesson” is not just a piece of jewelry, a decoration. It’s oracle. It has the power of an icon, an altar. It’s something you could pray for before when the world was falling apart around you.

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