Thursday 1 August 2013

The old master

Today we walked up the hill, rising from our seedy city neighbourhood through several social strata to the Musee Matisse.

Between the museum building itself and the little cafe outside, there's an absolute rarity - empty space.

This part of the world has been civilised for so long that parklands just don't seem to exist any more, long ago built over with apartment blocks.

So naturally some people were in this little park playing the French national sport, pétanque.

I think it's a sport in much the same way that Thumb War is a sport.

A game, yes. A thing to keep children amused at a picnic, definitely. But not a sport.

I suspect that the drugs in cycling (the other French national sport) actually drifted over from pétanque, as it would take some serious mind alteration to make me buy a special shirt for tossing metal balls in random outdoor venues.

But the people playing were taking it very seriously indeed, putting on that grim face known amongst aficionados as the "total pétanquer".

I digress.

So the Matisse Museum is full of the old master's work, mainly donated by his family, as they were clearing wall space for plasma TVs.

(Below is the sculpture series: The Many Faces of Margaret Thatcher.)

If the museum was your only exposure to Matisse, you might think he was a bit crap, because it's full of his practice works - the stuff he created on the way to being sublime.

For example, he sat down one day and drew the same woman's face 50 times. All simple line drawings, quickly executed. With each version, he would concentrate on a different aspect of the drawing - the eyes, the hair, the line of the chin, the slightly protruding booger, etc.

And as you walk around the room where these are displayed, you can see the development of his craft.

If you're a fan, it's a fascinating insight into his work. But if you're an art-bogan, like myself, then it's factory seconds.

Where's the 51st one, where he gets it just right? That's in one of those museums where they only show the really good stuff.

So I thought the pencil drawings were a bit scratchy. And the paintings were dull and blobby. And the religious vestments were boring. 

(This one he apparently did shortly after the invention of liquid paper.)

I was just looking forward to getting out of there, so I could have a corn-syrup laden soft drink and a really good scratch.

But then we came to the paper cut-outs.

They were beautiful, a pure joy. Just being in the room with them made me feel happy.

So very simple. The same basic tools as found in any kindergarten - coloured paper and scissors - but in the old man's hands, they could say anything.

And downstairs were the spectacular costumes he designed for a ballet. The show was based on a Chinese folk tale, so there was the Emporer and his court, some nightingales, the spectre of death, etc. They were just beautiful.

Mind you, I think that ballet is the pétanque of the performing arts world, but at least in this case, the costumes were brilliant.

(And I thought this portrait of Rowan Atkinson was pretty good too.)

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