I had the opportunity to see the exhibit of Henri Matisse's cut outs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Tuesday. It was a dazzling show -- so much color, and vibrancy and a certain rawness to the art that you could really feel in your bones. At one point, my husband said, "I didn't expect it to be so intellectually engaging." It was a good point. There's a temptation to think that a child could make those cut outs and slap them together but the more time you spend in their presence and the more you learn about what Matisse was doing, the more you realize what a false assumption that is. There was so much work involved in imagining, painting, cutting, arranging, rearranging.
I had been thinking how very different writing is -- how very NOT tactile, how very NOT tangible -- when that assumption, too, was challenged.
Towards the end of the show, there was a room with the famous Blue Nudes mounted on the wall. The gallery notes told the story of Paule Martin, the assistant who had to pin and re-pin paper to the wall as Matisse was working out these compositions and deciding what he wanted to do. She described the work as "exhausting:"
"He made me pin tiny squares of paper to enhance the curvature of the thigh or some other part of the body, then remove parts of the figure."
In the end, according to his assistant Lydia, Matisse made the figures very quickly:
"Each on a different day, they had been cut in one line, with one stroke of the scissor, in ten minutes or fifteen at a minimum."
It was a bit of an AH-HA moment for me. Pinning and re-pininng tiny squares of paper to achieve the desire impact is precisely the same thing that writers do. It's just that we use letters and ink to get at emotion rather than paper and paint. We pin and re-pin words, moving them here and there, putting them in a different order so that the result resonates with our readers in some specific way -- and so that those writers THINK we just whipped out the words in ten minutes, fifteen at a minimum.
The revelation made me grateful to be in the business we are in. It made me grateful for the time to do that work, for the passion to do it, for the brain power to make it work and for the chance to help other people who are doing it, too. By virtue of these things, we are connected in a powerful way to all creators, to all artists, to all writers, and to each other.