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Matisse, Piano Lesson

Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916 (The Museum of Modern Art) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're in The Museum of Modern Art, looking at a-- really one of my favorite canvases-- by Henri Matisse. This is The Piano Lesson, and it dates to 1916. It's a big, austere canvas. It's probably one of Matisse's most Picasso-like canvasses. It's sort of Cubist in its severity and its use of line. And some artist historians have seen it as Matisse really trying to, in a sense, answer Cubism. SPEAKER 2: It certainly doesn't have the sensuality of many Matisse paintings, what we usually think of when we think of Matisse. SPEAKER 1: As explicitly, you're absolutely right. None of the sort of sensuous hips or nudes. SPEAKER 2: Little hints of it with the arabesques of the-- SPEAKER 1: The wrought iron. SPEAKER 2: --cast iron. Right. SPEAKER 1: Exactly. Which is, of course, the balustrade. But, you know, that's perfect because some art historians actually see the rendering of that balustrade actually as, almost a kind of written expression of music that's being produced by Pierre Matisse, Picasso's son, who's at the piano. SPEAKER 2: Matisse's son. SPEAKER 1: Matisse's son. Excuse me, did I say Picasso? SPEAKER 2: Yes. SPEAKER 1: And so, Pierre Matisse is at the piano. This is 1960. Pierre Matisse, by the way, would grow up to be a really important gallery owner in New York, selling his father's work among others. And we have this sense of a kind of real balance in this painting, because you had mentioned the lack of sensuality. But actually if you look in the lower left corner. SPEAKER 2: That female figure on the lower left. Yeah. SPEAKER 1: It's not a real female figure, or I shouldn't say real-- SPEAKER 2: A Matisse sculpture SPEAKER 1: --it's a painting of a bronze sculpture by Matisse. So there we have a nude, and she is curvilinear and really sensuous. And really contrasted, almost as if they were boxers, from the figure in the upper right. SPEAKER 2: Yes, who looks very strict and reminds me of the metronome that's directly under her-- SPEAKER 1: In its strictness. SPEAKER 2: --in its kind of uprightness and strictness and sense of discipline and order there in that figure. SPEAKER 1: She does hover over Pierre Matisse's head in a kind of menacing way, doesn't she? SPEAKER 2: She does. SPEAKER 1: And she's painted, you're right, so curve-- so rectilinear, rather, so much in opposition-- and she's clothed so much in opposition to the sculpture on the other side. And so, you know, the metronome is in that other corner, you're absolutely right, and that kind of alternates between the two. So some art historians have suggested that this is a painting that is really about this opposition between order and structure and beauty. SPEAKER 2: Sensuality and discipline, I can see that. Now what about his face, do you think? I mean, why one eye? Why is his face so kind of cubist? SPEAKER 1: I have no idea, but it actually seems to reflect the metronome, doesn't it? SPEAKER 2: It does and, somehow, I think it speaks to me of removing this image from reality. SPEAKER 1: So this is Matisse really trying to sort of impose some of the strict, geometric, formal aspects of the painting to the figure itself, so that we're not seeing it as a literal rendering. SPEAKER 2: Yeah, I think so. And that figure in the upper right. Is that really a figure there, or is that-- SPEAKER 1: No, because this is his house in Nice. That's a wall. And, in fact, the woman that we're seeing, in a sense, playing the role of the piano teacher is actually a painting, Woman on a High Stool,. It's also in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art. SPEAKER 2: So it's really not-- SPEAKER 1: It's an allegory. SPEAKER 2: It sort of is what it seems, but it's not what it seems. SPEAKER 1: Well, you know, Matisse is playing with, sort of, levels of reality here. Right? And he often does that. SPEAKER 2: Pierre looks out at us as though he'd like to, somehow, escape into the pleasures of the female nude on the far left. SPEAKER 1: Maybe. Or, perhaps, of the shock of-- SPEAKER 2: The daylight outside. SPEAKER 1: That's right because you almost see the last rays of sunlight coming across the lawn in that wonderful triangle between the windows. Yeah. It's a pretty austere allegory about what it means to make art. I mean, in some ways, I look at Pierre, and I see him as a kind of stand in for Henri. SPEAKER 2: For Matisse himself.