On a recent tour of the Matisse, Life in Color: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I spent most of my time ruminating about how much I could gain by applying Henri Matisse’s visual artistic process to my life as a writer.
To point, consider with me four of Matisse’s works and what they might say about about how to become a better writer:
Over the period of five months, Matisse took photos of this masterpiece as he rearranged the composition, played with form, color, and pattern, and modified the perspective. As part of the exhibit of Large Seated Nude, I was able to see about a dozen other versions, the early ones drastically different than the final painting.
As a writer, I don’t know when exactly a piece will be finished, but until it is, anything is possible, and everything is negotiable.
Similar to Large Seated Nude, The Yellow Dress evolved over time. As much as three years, to be exact. Matisse wanted us to know that this work was part of a larger process by signing the painting “1929-1932” instead of just 1932 when it was completed.
Although Matisse didn’t photograph the evolution of this work, he did experiment with composition and perspective by working in other media to solve the problems he encountered with “The Yellow Dress.” In several pencil sketches on display, we see Matisse playing with the scope of his painting, which at one point included a much broader view of the room. In his sculpture Venus in a Shell, which was completed in 1930, he appears to have solved a question about the posture of the women in the yellow dress in the painting.
I think of myself chiefly as an essayist. But when I am stuck or when I am simply looking for inspiration, could I turn to fiction or poetry or journalism to find my way?
Another favorite from the exhibit was an oil painting called Ballet Dancer Seated on a Stool. Unlike Degas’ airy wisps floating across the canvas, Matisse’s dancer looks like she is struggling. Her limbs look heavy, her face looks dejected. The painting evokes more “ugly duckling” than “swan lake.”
Matisse didn’t work in cliches or stereotypes. He didn’t make “pretty paintings” all the time, or live up to the expectations of all the artists around him. Matisse painted what he felt in a style of his own. And he told true stories with his paintings, not the ones everyone expected him to tell.
Those are the stories I want to tell as a writer, too. Even if the star of my story is a little heavier and grumpier than all the other main characters.
When I saw what I call the “back sketches,” at first I almost laughed. How could such simple line drawings be part of an esteemed art collection? Then, I realized the sketches were sequential. Matisse wanted to capture the essence of a woman in as simple a composition as possible.
In the end, a simple composition of no more than 10 lines evokes the powerful emotion of a woman, arm extended behind her, stretching, revealing, concealing.
Sometimes, in the process of getting it right, in order to tell the truest story, the writer, like the artist, needs to simplify. To use as few lines—or words—as possible.
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