Sarah Fawn Montgomery
|Sarah Fawn Montgomery has won the Zone 3 Nonfiction Award contest for her essay, "An Unseen Figure in Matisse's Le Bonheur de Vivre," which was published in Zone 3's Spring 2013 issue. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno, and is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has served as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor for several years. Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Confrontation,Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol and others.|
An Unseen Figure in Matisse's Le Bonheur de Vivre
The more you look at the exact same thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel. —Andy Warhol
A woman on the left arcs her back, arms in the air, hands in her hair, purple flowers vining over her shoulder and between her breasts. Shading her is a tree of red and orange and mustard, though elsewhere in this forest it is spring, pale pink and green. She closes her eyes, hip cocked, pretending she is solitary though she’s clearly on display. She is yellow, as though you should envy her with her proud breasts and thighs curving self satisfactorily.
At her feet, a figure crouches over the bright yellow ground, reaching forward, intent upon some unknown squiggle—Is it a bit of grass? A snake? Is the figure crouching over turtles? Whether the figure is man or woman is unclear, unimportant. What matters is the curve of the body, the way the figure is pale green, the way one bent leg looks without bone, the way the figure’s head is nearly invisible, blending into the red shadows. What matters is the way the figure’s back is curved smoothly like a snail or billowing sail.
Without clothing, all the figures reveal their fleshy bodies. The treetops fit together like lovers’ bodies.
This painting depicts a place of smooth curves—maternal, sexual. Figures languish in a crop of trees, a Technicolor, watercolor forest where color defies reality, where figures seem at peace and blithely unaware. The moment is joyful and calm, peaceful in a way that seems unreal. In the distance beyond the forest is a bit of ocean, rendered the way we’ve come to expect, a flat horizon, small to the eye because of the sea’s immensity. It is the only thing that appears normal in this fantastical moment, and thus it goes unnoticed.
What you notice are the lovers to the right of the frame, lounging in the front corner, drawing the eyes’ focus with their pose. Leaning back towards her lover, only their heads touching, she splays her legs open like eyelids, a blue blanket draped between. The only fabric in a scene of nudes and she uses it as a prop, a bright colored thing to draw attention to the moment. Is the act of love the same when it’s for show, when the bodies fold into one another for someone else to witness?
She is leaning back in ecstasy with no support. It’s awkward really, the way she rests, perched amidst prickly orange flowers, her upper half at a garish angle. True, her belly button is a dimple in the curved flesh, and her breasts, one a creamy pink, the other a deeper blush, are high and smooth with her posture. True, with her arms around her lover’s neck, her head is absent from view, and with his head dipping low in front of hers, their bodies look as though they share one head, one mind, one consciousness or soul.
But there is a space between them where the grass is green as it should be; only in the space separating their displayed passion do things appear as they truly are. Three white daisies grow in the shade their love has overlooked.
And his spine is visible like some mutant roach as he hunches over her face, careful only to touch his mouth to hers, careful to leave their bodies distant from one another. I imagine an unseen figure in this painting used to count the vertebrae, run her fingers and tongue over the bumps before she grew disillusioned with this man, with this scene. Before he took up with this other woman.
In the forest things are distorted—our unseen figure looks beyond the forest and the people to the clear sea in the distance and wonders how the other figures do not see the way things ought to be. In the forest, color is intense and unreal—one side of the forest a blazing blend of rust red, burnt orange, mustard and bright yellows, the other side dusty rose and pale sage, cool teal and lavender. It as though the scene can be folded, contrasting colors lined up so that the bright yellow corner of treetops rests on the dark green foliage at the other corner, warm orange over a blue-toned pink, warm green over cool. The mix of contrasting, complementary colors makes each tree, each patch of grass, each figure stand out and demand attention. The eye does not know where to rest.
In the forest, things are all flat shapes too, no texture or depth. It’s oppressive, repressive, depressive. Things are all controlled lines—a belly, an ankle, a swoop of hair rendered the same as a branch, a tree root, a twisted shadow. It would be hard to live this way, expression dominating detail, wild, dissonant colors defying what is natural.
This landscape is not natural. For the figures on the canvas, yes, but for me and you, it is wild imagination, dreamlike and novel. And the unseen figure who lived here soon saw to the sea and realized this place is something fantastic and frightening. Though the scene is pleasing to the senses, our unseen figure eventually walked away. Look closely, try to find her.
The visible figures would have you believe this is paradise as they lounge and embrace. There is a couple walking together, one’s arm over the other’s shoulder, gesturing as they move under the candy- colored trees. They, too, are on display as they walk, perfectly posed on a backdrop of red and orange shade, a purple tree trunk bisecting the colors, drawing the eye to their joy.
In the center of the scene are two sleeping figures. One of the figures is sprawled out, her back in view—she is the only figure not facing forward, as though the smooth canvas of her back and curve of her buttocks is essential, for the eye is drawn to what it cannot see, the viewer intrigued by the unknown of this unreal place. Her waist is a sharp dip, her hip a wide curve shadowed in deep greens. One leg is bent—the bottom of her foot a flat plane like her back—the tender sole exposed to anyone who will look. Her other leg stretches out, cut off at the ankle by a tuft of grass. The figure rests her head on her hand, her weight on her elbow. Her hair is an orange swirl, like a bit of frosting or an undersea creature.
Her female companion sits up close by, resting her weight on an arm that is hidden behind her lounging companion. Like the couple making love, there is also a distance between the two of them, the portions of their bodies separated by harsh burgundy lines, tall grass spouting up between them.
This second woman has long, blue-grey hair, eyes closed under thick brows. Her legs are twisted like a braid or gnarled root, her hand is in her hair. She is entirely expressionist, represented from a subjective perspective, truth distorted by emotion for the sake of mood and idea. The mood is joyful, playful, sensual. The idea is nakedness, literally and figuratively, freedom. Emotion is more important than physical reality here so this woman is rendered flatly, abstractly, her body denoted by merely outline and patches of color.
In Marius von Senden’s Space and Sight, Von Senden examines patients who have undergone cataract surgeries, their blindness reversed. Many of these patients, Von Senden explains, have difficulty adjusting to the seeing world, their sense and space perceptions undeveloped. Most patients describe seeing as experiencing a series of color patches—shades devoid of meaning, for meaning is often coded by social realities. Von Senden explains of one patient, “The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.” These patients do not apply space or time to their visual experience, but instead experience vision solely as pleasure in response to color.
This place exists much the same way. Look and you will feel pleasure before anything else. We long for the emotion this picture creates—freedom, tranquility, pleasure. Figures rendered only as color, only by outlines and borders, without depth or texture, bone or sinew, yes, but also unblemished, no scars or stories. To intensify color, one must simplify the image, reduce the detail in favor of the expressive effect of the color. Matisse wrote, “We move towards serenity through the simplification of ideas and form . . . Details lessen the purity of lines, they harm the emotional intensity, and we choose to reject them. It is a question of learning—and perhaps relearning the ‘handwriting’ of lines. The aim of painting is not to reflect history, because this can be found in books. We have a higher conception. Through it, the artist expresses his inner vision.”
What do you see here? Patches of color so saturated you drown. No time or rhyme, no space, none of life’s grueling pace. The eye delights in the sights—vermillion, cerulean, copper. This way of living requires hedonism, pleasure the only intrinsic good, bodily, sensual. Bright color instead of the darkness that sometimes shades reality. Sudden pleasure instead of that which endures over time. Action rather than reflection. In the 4th century B.C., the Cyrenaic, one of the earliest Socratic schools, argued not only for the absence of pain, but for enjoyable sensations. They argued that momentary pleasures, more specifically, physical pleasures, are stronger than those of anticipation or memory.
The lovers in the corner are not concerned with anticipation— they jump into their love, splayed out like fish on a cutting board. Nor is the man, bent over the woman, his head becoming hers, concerned with memory, with the way he and our unseen figure once loved each other, made love on yellow grass, blue grass, pink grass, under cotton candy trees, multicolor, watercolor trees. Because he lives for the now, concerned only with his pleasure, the man does not remember our unseen figure, the way rolling the memory of pleasure around in her mind like a marble was enough to sustain her. The way she ventured out of the forest towards the even line of the seashore, the sun truth-shining, the shadows of the forest dispelled. It is always summer in the forest and the colors lie.
So do the figures—to themselves, to each other. The scene is beautifully rendered, one of Matisse’s masterpieces, but if you look beyond the color you can see that the figures choose to ignore the steady sea beyond the trees. They lie on the ground, staring up and up but they cannot even see the heavens for the faux forest. They examine the ground, walk with each other, make love or sleep, living naked and free in the forest as though they were wild beasts.
In 1905, at the Salon d’automne, art critic Louis Vauxcelles entered a gallery of paintings like this, whose figures were simplistic, complexity replaced with bright colors. The room whirled with color and abstraction. Vauxcelles paced the room, stroking his red pointed beard, adjusting his round spectacles as he gazed at the color patches, wild aestheticism taking hold of patrons who flocked to the paintings, threw themselves into the scenes, longing to be amongst the lovers, the bright trees, anywhere but where they were each tedious day.
A Renaissance sculpture stood at the center of the room, its marbled form colorless in comparison to the rest of the paintings, including our scene framed and hung for spectators. Yet the marble was realistically rendered and upon inspection the stone’s impurities created subtle shading. The sculpture had curves, and harsh lines too, the jut of bone and sinew alongside the arc of muscle. The sculpture contrasted with the paintings lining the walls, most of which seemed to distort reality, whereas the sculpture rendered it. Patrons flocked to the paintings, their fancy and pleasure, yet glanced back at the sculpture now and then as though for reassurance, for permanence, to remind them of what really was, lest they be led too astray.
Louis Vauxcelles glanced between the paintings and the sculpture, between the pleasure of paradise in the pigments and the pure image of man in the room’s center and cried out, “Donatello au mileau des fauves!” the sculpture “a Donatello amongst wild beasts.” Yes, they are Fauves, wild beasts, in this painting.
There is nothing wrong with fancy or with magical realism, with Dali’s dripping clocks, Max Ernst’s grotesque hilarity, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, or a urinal on display. There’s nothing wrong with our subconscious and the automatic response it gives when we see abstraction—it is perhaps even honest to respond to a scene with intense emotion, free of dissection and analysis. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the color, with reimagining yourself in relationship to the painting, perhaps nothing wrong with a forest paradise in pink and purple.
Imagine yourself a spectator at the Salon d’automne. Walk past the sculpture in the center of the room, the one so like your everyday existence. Walk past this realist rendering in cold marble to something bright, something passionate, something different. Gaze at the figures, move your eye and nose close to the canvas. Imagine the sound of birds, the Arcadian serenity, the warmth of the grass or a lover’s body. Imagine yourself differently, it’s so easy to do. Lose yourself here.
There is a woman at the bottom of the scene playing two lutes, the instruments hanging like cigarettes from either end of her mouth. She would have you believe she can play a range of notes, her fingers expertly covering holes here and there along the instrument’s slim body. Yet with a lute in each hand, she can hardly hold the weight, let alone cover the appropriate holes. And she is lying, don’t you see, on her side, hardly the posture for the diaphragm, for a good breath and a clear, steady note.
Our unseen figure is the only one who heard the screech the lutes made. If only you could hear what the lutes really sound like as the woman tries to fool us. If only you could see beyond the promise of this place, hear what our unseen figure heard after she returned to the forest from her first venture through the scene to the sea, after she saw the world as it was then returned to this place, a world as Matisse wished. The sound is guttural and screeching, the death-call of a rabbit, or a baby choking and screaming its last breath, a siren’s death rattle, the ferocious women exposed at last, their promise broken and bloody.
There is a man standing between color patches, gold dancing between his legs as he stands in a block of white. He is the only figure haloed in white and his hands cradle a lute too, drawn to his mouth like a kiss. He seems almost celestial in the light with his lute and his angelic curls cropped around his face.
There are goats are in front of him—symbol of Dionysus, of Bacchus, god of grape harvest and wine—leading him toward some momentary pleasure, merriment and wine and fanciful luting. Bacchus is pleasure seeking, depicted jolly and handsome, jugs of wine in his hands, disrupting order and certainty to arrange wild parties. But Bacchus is also symbol of ritual madness and ecstasy. Though he incites merriment and freedom, the thyrsus he carries can be used as a weapon to destroy those who oppose his cult and the chaos he covets. And the maenads or “raving ones,” female followers that worship him, dance drunkenly, lose self-control as they spin, shouting fervently, their sexuality unbridled, their bodies given freely. While their dance is seductive, the wine rich and delicious, their bodies young and enticing, eventually they hunt, ritualistically tearing to pieces animals, men and children, devouring the flesh raw, making blood offerings to their god of pleasure.
Mere outlines with a wisp of horn, we know the animals in this painting are goats. The knowledge is instinctual, the same way we know the story told in the Hall of Bulls in the caves of Lascaux, mineral pigment adorning walls with abstractions of animals and human figures. Dating from the Upper Paleolithic, the figures were clear when discovered in 1940 by four teenagers out walking their dog. The boys stayed a moment enthralled by their ability to read the images, interpret over thousands of years. Perhaps they looked up overhead at the abstractions on the ceiling, saw themselves as line drawings, spear and strength, imagined themselves free of WWII’s destruction, imagined themselves living among the animals, all color and abstraction. There is something comforting about abstraction— we see ourselves like the newly-sighted devoid of time or context, and thus of pain. Perhaps the boys stayed an hour, perhaps four or five, their eyes gazing up at the dome of rock encasing them in this other world, but they ran from the darkness when they realized they’d forgotten reality, when the dog barked a warning, stumbling over each other, pulling themselves out of the cave and into the light.
Just as we recognize the paintings on the cave wall, feel something stir in us, who doesn’t also recognize Van Gogh’s post impressionism, his Starry Night—vibrant colors, swirling brushstrokes, the artist’s heightened state of mind? Who doesn’t wish the world was colored so? Of his colorful work Van Gogh admitted, “Instead of trying to render what I see before me, I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully.” His clouds move behind Cyprus trees like oil and water, the stars burn and churn in their color. Color becomes a way to exaggerate, to be bold, to create emotional force. It was color patrons flocked to at the Salon d’automne, color that made them ignore the sculpture and reality. In the early 1900’s art critic Camille Mauclair accused Matisse and others of using color to contort and control reality, saying, “A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public.”
Paint flung into the sky might have been what Van Gogh saw as he stared outside his sanitarium window, faced a breakdown, felt a “terrible need,” watched the sky outside, all galaxies and tremendous fear. Starry Night is a painter’s madness, the madness of comprehending the universe, the madness of the movement of objects we cannot begin to conceive. Van Gogh hoped to render visually the paradise he longed for and his painting is madness in form—intense brushwork, phantasmagorical colors. Like Matisse, color was most important to Van Gogh—never mind perception or proportion, space or time. Color could change reality, a sanitarium view altered to a view of the glory of the heavens. In an August 1888 letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh explained his vision—“The whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow.” Color was escapism, color superseded all rational else.
But the painting, Van Gogh insisted, was all wrong, for he argued it, “says nothing to me, because it lacks individual intention and feeling.” He aimed to move beyond “people’s photographic and empty perfection,” but was never satisfied with his alternate reality. While colorful and free, his vision of paradise was not enough.
Return to our scene. Look there in the distance—a group of exuberant dancers hold hands and dances in a ring. Their fingertips barely touch, though it is clear they trust one another, know the lengths of each other’s bodies. Some figures appear as one would expect, skipping in a circle, foot over foot, knees up high. But others are simply unreal.
One figure flies, tilted sideways, both feet off the ground, one arm up as if for takeoff. The moment would have you believe she is flying from the speed of the circle, from the laughter, from the colors cradling the forms and moving like a rainbow pinwheel between their spinning legs. But the figure looks broken from reality, disjointed and awkward. Another figure looks behind herself to her extended leg and pointed toe and it is clear she is not participating in the dance, only posing and preening, her arabesque painful in its precision like a ballerina’s, show and sequin, bits of chiffon. Another figure leans so far back it appears he will fall, as though he is midway into the descent and the others hold him up by way of their momentum and collective joy.
The apex of the painting, the dancers circle just before the opening in the forest, where the trees separate and one can begin to see the ocean horizon beyond. It is in this brief opening that the altered perspective of this place becomes clear, where the aesthetics, colors and languid bodies, are revealed to be only an illusion. The illusion could be broken, reality glimpsed through the trees if only the dancers could stop spinning and spinning, legs working faster into a fantastic frenzy, breathing whirred, vision blurred.
For Matisse, serenity was simplicity. Why bother with the detail and texture of reality, when reality can be simplified, abstracted for the pleasure of color? Why bother with the harsh realities of the world when they can be reduced to flat color patches, to plum and cobalt?
I imagine our unseen figure, a woman who lived here in this painting, in this imagined paradise. I imagine the way she ran her hands through soft grasses, dipped a foot in a stream. She was drawn in by the vibrancy and hues, the way the body moved and arced, the way her body’s whims controlled her living.
Then the color became too much. Her eyes grew tired and she felt tricked upon seeing a sparkle of silver and periwinkle, of goldenrod, and finding upon closer inspection it was simply a rock. She wanted her skin rendered golden rather than aquamarine. She couldn’t sit days at a time, delighting in the patchwork overhead, leaves like calico. She couldn’t lute or sleep endlessly, couldn’t catch her breath while dancing, circling this way and that, someone always flying, another falling backwards. The figures spun too fast and she couldn’t see. She closed her eyes to get her bearings, and, eyes closed, she preferred not to see the garish clownish colors of this place, the way everyone looked the same.
Look again, will you. For all the oddity in this scene, the delight we take in unexpected color, is there diversity among the people? Yes, one is purple another yellow, but aren’t they all the same? Where is the expression in the eyes, on the lips? Where below the skin do the muscles tell us of intention?
Still, I imagine she was content at first, as she rolled with a man on the ground in the sun, their bodies interlocked and full of heat. She fell in love with him, wanted to know him beyond the limitations of their bodies, beyond the limitations paradise offered. She loved him in lilac and emerald, in ruby. She ran her hand over the length of his side, dangled her fingers in the arch of his back, the curve of his foot on the grass. She whispered she loved him, but he couldn’t hear over the sound of the lutes, over the bleating goats. He couldn’t hear her over the dancers leaping and crying out, so dizzy they did not know to stop.
I imagine she saw to the sea one day, stepped slowly forward into the glare of the world and found the tides frightening and refreshing. They were dangerous, thrashing rocks against the shore, but they lapped away, leaving smooth sand, a rhythm of destruction and rebirth she had never known.
I imagine when she came back to the forest, eager to tell her lover what she’d seen of the real world, she found him with another, his body smooth curve and color, his action momentary, bound by the body’s search for freedom.
Perhaps she cried out, angry, accusatory, and the other figures stared at her, confused by an emotion other than joy. Perhaps when she spoke out, questioned their paradise, they banished her from sight and she remains just out of sight, in the margins of the frame.
Or perhaps they did not or chose not hear her at all. I’d like to think she left on her own, wandered clear and direct out into the light and towards the sea.
In his study on the blind, Von Senden reported that while the bright color patches the blind were able to see after reversing their cataracts through surgery were pleasurable, making meaning from them was exceedingly difficult, overwhelming in many cases. Patients felt bombarded by color and could not interpret it; they spent their days navigating a rush of color patches, unclear what the colors meant, too overwhelmed to try to interpret. One patient reported “nothing but a confusion of forms and colors.” Some simply shut their eyes and retreated into familiar darkness; some wished to reverse the procedure.
I imagine the newly-sighted gazing at this scene, overwhelmed by the conflicting color, trying to determine what to feel, what it means, trying to make sense of their reality from this vantage. To those for whom color is new, this scene is not joyful or free the way it is for most viewers longing to escape from a world of deadlines and convention. To those for whom color is new, this scene is overwhelming, chaotic.
While the scene may seem gorgeously saturated to those of us familiar with sight and color, those of us who delight in aesthetics, yearn for paradise beyond comprehension, it simply cannot be. Without color, the moment is meaningless. The scene is devoid of space and time, flat and untextured, so unlike our day-to-day lives it is appealing yet impossible, even unimaginable in some ways, the viewer struggling to determine just what it is and means. The promise of eternal happiness, of complete satisfaction for each figure here is unreal—we are unhappy by nature, that’s why we turn to paintings like these for escape.
This moment is as familiar as Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, calm sheep herder and village, calm sea. Almost unnoticeable in the corner of the frame—much as the shore goes unnoticed in Matisse’s scene—are Icarus’ flailing legs as he drowns, warning against hubris and pleasure seeking, warning us not to try and fly too close to the sun. While Brueghel’s and Matisse’s landscapes could not be more different in their renderings, one realistic, once fantastic, the message remains the same—both scenes rings true to the pleasure seeking, selfish core in us all.
Look at Le Bonheur de Vivre again. Look through the clearing, beyond the forest and figures. There is the sea. Don’t look too far to the right or the sea will be mottled with forest, will appear purple and milky, will look as though it is in a shimmery fog and you’ll be drawn in again. Be careful still, not to get wrapped up in the siren song of the dancers just before the opening in the trees. They are carefully positioned to block escape, to keep our gaze forever entwined with this fantasy. They spin and spin, sucking sight into their midst, stealing it away before it can reach the shore.
Resist. Look straight through to the horizon, where there are no arcs or curves, where reality is rendered straight and true. There is no brushwork’s deception, no show of color. There is no need for abstraction.
Look through all this escapism, this lunacy, to the salty sea as it washes away oil and linseed and pigment with the briny truth of our origin. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you look back.