Matisse’s Piano Lesson is the painting I keep going back to at MOMA. For me, it’s the most compelling modern painting in New York. It’s hard to compare it to my other all time favorites at the Met or the Frick but certainly at MOMA, it exerts the strongest pull on me and it never, ever disappoints.
It’s the green triangle and the way it flips in and out of the window, the way it turns the gray to warm, but also complements the pink, which, in turn, turns the gray to cool. That gray! It’s warm and cool all at once, and there’s so much of it. The longer I look at the painting, I feel myself absorbed by that ambiguous gray. To reinforce the red/green complements, the blue and orange curtains/shutters climb up the side of the window frame above the boy’s head, offering a secondary, subtler version of simultaneous contrast. Everything about this painting is ambiguous, that is, a good kind of ambiguous, not to be confused with vagueness. All of its elements lock together in an amazing tension that feels as if the painting might explode if the boy hits a wrong note.
And the boy’s face! The intensity of that wedge, mirrored by the metronome, teased by the black arabesque calligraphy of the balustrade! I wonder what he is thinking as he reads his music in rapt concentration. Or maybe he’s not thinking at all, so intensely focused on his music as he is.
I’ve never cared much about whether the woman on the stool is a painting or a person. She’s just out there, hanging suspended in the otherworld of pictorial space – another ambiguity. The painting offers us a superb balance of literal and formal information, poised between multiple interpretations. In other words, it is an example of representation at its most powerful.
What I always ask myself as I stand before the Piano Lesson is how did he know when to stop? What gave him the courage to create, accept and celebrate those ambiguities, to know just when they were poised in the right balance between clarity and uncertainty to keep us looking?
I’ve always loved The Red Studio that hangs nearby. Both are wonderfully immersive paintings in which one feels submerged and surrounded by large expanses of color. By comparison, however, The Red Studio seems lightweight and decorative. The Piano Lesson is much more taut, more surprising. For me, it represents Matisse at his most fearless as a painter.