Mozart and Matisse

I used to believe that I was the young Mozart. This came about when I read his biography, a book with an orange cover, sitting in my father’s huge, over-stuffed chair, during the heat of a South Carolina summer. When our mother took my sister and me to the Charleston Symphony concerts at Memminger Auditorium, I suspected that the boy Mozart hung suspended within the velvet folds of the curtains at the left of the stage. Never the right. Something of the rascally, talented boy waited  there.

In those days, there were many biographies for young readers with orange covers. Another told the story of Madame Curie, a celebrated female scientist, unusual at any period. She lived in Paris. Cure and Curie sounded alike. Yet, though I admired her, I did not want to be Madame Curie, but always the young Mozart. He came alive under my fingers running up and down the piano keys, the years I studied piano with Grace Miller, walking down the irregular slate sidewalks of Charleston, and presenting myself at her door. She had a face peppered with orange freckles, and surrounded by a frizz of orange-brown hair. Something of a leprechaun.

I chose Mozart and not Beethoven or Haydn, whose concerto for four hands I learned well enough to perform with Miss Miller at my last piano recital. I chose Mozart because he was a boy genius, full of fire and jokes and whimsy. We were a family of sudden inspirations and surprises–my father embracing my mother in the kitchen instead of yelling at her about spots on his Citadel uniform. A rat running across the Old Citadel courtyard, its tail long as a ladle. Slabs of ceiling plaster falling and crushing our little play table. When we returned who knows how many days later, long strands of straw, ancient as the Old Citadel itself, hung over the wreckage.

When “Amadeus,” the film about Mozart and his rival Salieri, came out in 1984, I believed in it with a child’s abandon even though by that time, I considered myself more than grown up. I wanted to be that boy genius so endowed with grace that he could make silly faces while performing like an angel. Creating music of soaring divinity while sliding a frog down the soprano’s décolletage. Struggling in poverty toward an early grave even as he composed one of the world’s most enchanted opera, The Magic Flute.

Now I’ve seen a production of The Magic Flute by the Minnesota Opera Company that does justice to my early vision of Mozart’s comically sweet, dark music. The production uses animation with dragons built of clockworks, devils playing hangman with one’s chances, yet reversing the tune just in time toward sublime, tumbling delights. Maybe I’m entering my second childhood. Maybe Mozart never left his first, but trundled it along toward his death at age 35, fulfilling symphonic demands yet retaining inside his pocket a pop-up nose of a delightful nihilist who brings joy even as he sings these madcap harmonies toward the grave, to the tune of bells.

Matisse, the French Impressionist, turned wild colorist and final graceful abstractionist, could not have led a life less inspired by childhood. He was a quintessential pater familias, good bourgeois who went to work in a suit. I bring him up here because also this week I saw an exhibit of Matisse’s work at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Opera in St. Paul; painting in Minneapolis. We are very arty twin cities sometimes.

These two artists, separated by almost a century, tell different tales of how talent discovers itself. The boy Mozart, born with genius, bestowed in relatively few years and reverenced ever since. Matisse, taking years to work himself beyond a rather dry repetition of the time-honored subject–woman in a chair. Yes, Matisse became a Fauve, a wild beast throwing bright colors against each other, sometimes even slashing a green stripe down his model’s face. Yet there remained in him the
careful, constant revisionist. Take his series of drawings of an odalisque–that exotic import from a sultan’s palace, aka the reclining nude, sometimes as in Ingres, very tightly painted despite her naked curves, sometimes as in Delacroix, tinged with shadows and patterned cloth, a hint of hand cymbals just beyond the frame.

For Matisse toward the end of his painterly development, this motive was played back and forth, from more naturalistic to greater simplicity and monumentality. We know because he took pictures of the more than 12 studies of an odalisque which he made over a week or two. How interesting, I say to myself, noticing how in one he retains the slit of buttock against buttock, yet how in another that elides that to a simple curve. The final painting is almost Egyptian in its rock-like U shape. I’m not sure I like it.

But I love what happened not long after, when giving up painting for paper cut-outs, Matisse began an experiment with bright colors, flat shapes, and jazzy placements.  Wavy curving thin thick light dark blue chartreuse red black arranged almost at random on time-honored 9 x 12 paper. Or as in the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, set a line of huge cavorting females in an array of colors across a huge mural–the essence of motion so joyful as to obliterate anything but itself.

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