I remember being taken to museums when I was little. I also remember being bored and letting my parents know it. But my disinterest didn’t alter their plans. They were passionate about art, and we were going no matter what I said. To my amazement, I also remember a lot of what I saw.
My parents’ intention was to create the foundation for my love of art, but I’m not sure if it would have made such an impact if they hadn’t been so ardent. They’d take the time to point out and explain what they thought was important, such as the influence of African art on cubism and how you can see the impact in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. They’d freely discuss their own observations and what had inspired them. The bottom line was that whether I was interested or not, they motivated me to think and look at what was in front of my eyes in a way that finally got my interest. And this is what one hopes for—enthusiastic teachers.
It wasn’t until the seventies, when I was visiting the Matisse show at the Grand Palais in Paris that my perception of museums as dreary places was altered, and how I saw art became personal. The paintings in the show had been installed in chronological order. As I entered, I walked through galleries of dark realistic paintings. These were the paintings of Matisse’s youth. They were painstakingly done, clearly in an attempt to understand his subject and the materials he was using. The paintings looked nothing like the bright-colored bold Matisse I was used to seeing. Along with the paintings, the curators had added photographs of the artist hard at work in his studio creating what we were now looking at
As I moved through the show, the paintings started to become bolder; color started to define the space. This was Matisse as a grown man; he clearly had mastered his medium. There was no trepidation; just an exploration that was so exciting and compelling it was hard to believe that the artist who had filled the previous rooms was the same man. The photographs no longer showed the artist as a young man. Now his hair was grey, he had a long beard, he was growing old, and yet his face had a radiance that was missing when he was a young man.
When I turned the corner and entered the last gallery, I felt as if I had walked into an explosion of movement and color. The shapes were now cut pieces of paper that barely resembled their inspiration. There were vibrant shapes that seemed to fly across the room at each other, barely contained by the paper they were on.
The expression was so powerful, so clear, that I could not help but gasp. Matisse had understood and captured the essence of his subject; I smiled in wonder. At the edge of the room hung the last photograph: the artist, Henri Matisse, relegated to his bed as an invalid. Now he was only able to cut shapes and position them with a long stick onto his sheets of paper. His hair white, his skin so wrinkled and fragile from age, he was old by all standards, yet his eyes had a sparkle that was wondrous. They were alive and pulsating with excitement—reminiscent of the look that children have when they are playing with total abandon, without a care in the world.
Seeing the evolution of Matisse’s work was something I’ve never forgotten. It taught me that there is something in every show that can surprise and inspire me—I just needed to find it. I realized that if I had continued to judge what I was about to see before ever seeing it, I would miss out on a world of joy and adventure that lies at the entrance of every exhibition.
That is a gift I need to thank my parents for giving me, as well as for ignoring my endless complaints and refusing to leave me at home to watch TV as I tried to convince them to do.
What about you?
Have you ever had a teacher who changed your life?
Let us know, I’d love to hear.
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