Mulling Over a Matisse Pineapple at the Dentist
It was actually key limes that started it.
The assistant prepping me for three fillings had painted her fingernails vivid key lime, which she could manage with her brown skin. We talked about it: how a pale, Irish-German complexion really can’t carry key lime, no matter how much I like the color (and flavor, for that matter). I have tried but simply looked tired and waxy and like someone without the sense to dress herself properly.
When she left, I looked past the forbidding dental light to study the print. Each room at my dentist’s office has a large print across from the chair; though it ought to be on the ceiling, since that’s what I end up looking at the longest. This time, a framed reproduction of an undated still life by French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) – “Still Life with Pineapples” – presented me with a table covered with a pale pink cloth, at the center of which stood a vase the exact key lime color the assistant and I had discussed.
Having time on my hands, and my jaw still closed, I appreciated the color a moment and then moved to the rest of the painting. This was a somewhat odd experience. I wasn’t sure where the front and right side of the table began and ended, which put me in mind of photographs where I leaned unintentionally.
And then there was the pineapple – or, possibly, a moldy ham with green leaves on top. It had a tail: a streak of gray paint, fashioned like the tinted white paint that suggested a paper “nest” for the thing, but too gray and too attached to the fruit to be the same as the other curling paper strips.
Did Matisse have trouble with pineapples? Did he run out of white paint? Did the doorbell ring and startle him, causing his brush to slip? Was he drunk? How can one of the great artists in history so perfectly render a teacup (almost touchable) and make a pineapple look like a cross between flank roast and a deflated football? Was this an early attempt, or one as senility approached?
That’s how criticism starts when we approach art. And far from being easier for those of us who work in the arts, or who practice some form of artistic endeavor, the criticism gathers momentum to include every item of prejudice we have acquired against other artists, people we’ve worked with, performances we’ve had to endure, and – especially – suspect interpretations we’ve had to read.
I held some of the censure at bay while I studied the piece more carefully. The left half was cleanly executed: parallel lines, attention to detail in the plums, the cup, the shadows on the table, the light on the vase. The lemon was the only element that suggested … well, boredom. (“Let’s crap this lemon out and move on to something else.”)
The upper half demonstrated wonderful perspective. The screen behind the table reveals half a painting on the wall behind it, and to the right we see another half-painting at the edge of the frame. Nice.
But what was going on with the table? I felt like I was struggling with my astigmatism. The corner was angling oddly in relation to the parallel lines. And the brown smudge that I first took for a cheap sofa I finally determined to be a splashing of paint in a non-dimensional, almost haphazard representation of a floor.
Now, what would art critics have to say about that sloppy Matisse pineapple with a tail and the muddy floor? Would they declare boldly that Matisse was blending styles, making a statement that these were two different techniques? (He may well have been; but why? and why with a pineapple?) More to the point – should I believe them? After all, these are people who have been known to spend thousands on Styrofoam cups and bags of trash so indistinguishable from yours or mine that the cleaners tossed them in the bin. (The latter one was intended to demonstrate art’s “finite existence.” It succeeded admirably. I’m not sure what it says about the Tate’s budget, though.)
The thought of curators spending a million on this made me shudder. Why does every work of a “master” get valued at the same level? Why would we assume masters never created utter rubbish?
Photographers create rubbish all the time: blurred shots, crooked shots, those shots they imagined would be brilliant but came out looking flat, with no remedy. In the digital age, if the frame can’t be fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom, the photographer usually deletes it.
Likely, Matisse didn’t have the luxury of saying, “I screwed up the pineapple in that one” or “the floor is just boring” – canvas and paint cost rather a lot. But why do we consider a painting that suggests half-hearted effort or unclear intent so valuable just because Henri Matisse stuck his signature on it?
Really: If Paul McCartney were to bellow “London Bridge Is Falling Down” off-key, to a background of jackhammers, would it be worth anything?
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) asked such questions. He signed a whole bunch of things – blank checks, check reproductions, membership cards – that have been sold and preserved and displayed as hallowed, untouchable items (along with his urinal “Fountain”). It is a massive joke that persistently cleans out a humorless art world.
This line of thought marks the “edge” I keep barking my shins on, as I would Matisse’s table. I just don’t trust some of the people who most like to peddle the “artistic experience.”
It has happened at performances as well. A couple years ago, an artistic director and I attended a showing by one of the “next generation” of New York choreographers, whom she assured me was terrific. But this piece was dreadful: long, derivative, cacophonous, and lacking either feeling or movement elements that make you appreciate dance’s physicality.
All around us, people surreptitiously checked Facebook and email on their cell phones or studied the theater catwalks. My companion pulled out a pen and began to list on her program all the dance performances she had actually liked. I mentally began to list all the things I could have been doing – “Emptying the cat litter” featured high on the list – rather than watching what seemed, at best, a rehearsal for something that belonged in the circular file, performed with utter apathy about audience (apart from their ticket contributions of $28 apiece).
Yet, when the performance ended, most of the audience surged to its feet, whistling and applauding madly. It called to mind Emma Lathen’s crime novel Death Shall Overcome:
Too long had human beings been coerced by mere instrumental chaos. A mighty clamor rose from thousands of human voices, hands, feet. From the balcony, a demented claque from Juilliard howled for the composer…. Wild applause continued. Thatcher himself was still clapping, he realized. It was understandable. No matter what the critics might say, this was enthusiasm for release, or, more simply, the human propensity to raise cain in any socially acceptable manner. (Chapter 14)
In my performance’s aftermath, only one brave soul dared to proclaim in the comments of an online review, “The reviewer is being too kind. It was awful.” I am grateful to that person, whomever he or she is; for if there’s one thing that galls me constantly about the artistic community, it’s the assumption that we have to be supportive, and its contempt for those who dare to say, mournfully, “That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.”
Thus, we get pineapples with tails.
Henri Matisse was an amazing artist. Pleasingly willing to experiment, he challenged the dominant aesthetic of his time. Some of his paintings show such an acuity of perspective as to take my breath away. I am amazed by his range, and I love how he so often painted what was around him – what he saw, with its reflections and dimensions and subtle details of light and shadow. I do not like everything he did. With most, though, I appreciate that “something is happening here.”
But what is happening in “Still Life with Pineapples” may be anything from the need for new spectacles, to a lack of interest in what he started with, to the need to meet a deadline, to (possibly) a self-consciously artsy statement about blending styles. Whatever it is – it doesn’t quite work.
Still, opening the possibility for criticism of “a master” can be hard going.
My dentist came in. “I’ve been studying your Matisse,” I told her.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“The pineapple has a tail.”
“That’s a stem!” she declared, outraged.
And so, credentials notwithstanding, I joined the ranks of (I learned) numerous patients who have reacted badly to that pineapple. I take comfort in that.
More than I do at the thought that somewhere, someone doubtless paid a great deal for it.