When I was in seventh and eighth grade, at St Frances of Rome school in the early 1960s, once a week a teacher came to visit who wasn’t a nun. She had a rich Spanish accent and an exotic history – she may have been a Cuban refugee. But what she taught was even more exotic. Each week, she brought us a small color reproduction of a famous work of art. And then she talked to us about it. I can’t recall clearly any but the first one, which was Matisse’s painting The Red Studio.
I understood that this was a famous artist and that this was supposed to be a great painting. But I couldn’t figure out why everything was so red, deep red, rose red – the floor and the chairs and the table, quivering with red. Why didn’t he make the space look real, the way it did it photographs? And why were the shapes so squiggly, so artless?
The art teacher spoke to us, and we read from the Art Appreciation brochure she brought. Matisse wanted the space to vibrate. He wanted us to see what he saw, in his studio, shapes leaping into aliveness, ideas almost born, everything dizzy with color. It was possible to see things if you knew what to look for. Art was a language, and you could learn it.
I was at the Museum of Modern Art many years later, wandering through the galleries, enjoying the city on a damp autumn Sunday, when I came upon my old favorite. The Matisse was even redder than I remembered, as rich and intoxicating as it was in my fevered decades-old memory. Yes, I shouted at him in my head. I know why you did it this way. I can see it.
Today, the among the first museum visits I have dared since the pandemic, I visited MoMA to see Matisse: The Red Studio, with its artifacts and history and letters about the painting. Today, I found out that color Matisse called Venetian Red. Today, I had all my molecules rearranged by that painting once again.