A Formal Apology to Henri Matisse

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.53.48 AMI was looking at a picture of bamboo. I love bamboo. I have spent so many hours painting it. In my sumi-e practice, I have painted a million bamboo plants. In the beginning, I thought this was insane repetition. In Western schools you don’t sit and write the letter “e” a million times. Maybe that’s why I always flunked handwriting.

I used to sit and work on the same image or same kanji hundreds of times. Eventually, I learned, it was all the same. To create an image a thousand times is to create it once. Bamboo, chrysanthemum, a cherry blossom–whatever. The goal is to reach perfection. The reality is that perfection doesn’t exist. The perfection is, in fact, in imperfection. Sometimes, our drive to be perfect consumes us. We suffer. Practicing these arts teaches us eventually that the learning–the experience–is in the journey–perfection is just a destination to imagine in the meantime.

What I liked about creating sumi-e was that it seemed unfinished. The Western eye saw that and said “Oh, you forgot half, you moron.”  But truly, that was its perfection. How liberating to jump that line. To realize that simplicity was, indeed, complete, and that the mind’s eye was charged with filling in the details. That the truth of the image could lie in a single leaf. The mind does the rest. This totally changed the way I looked at nature.

Bamboo was always my favorite. I’m not sure why.  When I was younger, I always drew a couple things over and over. One was a big tree. It’d start on the side of a page, and cover half. Sometimes, I’d insert a river with a little boy fishing, a fence…Often the tree emerged in a graveyard. I always loved graveyards. Still do. The colonial graves would appear around the tree, one by one–always slightly out of artistic proportion, because every time I put in details, the picture got skewed. Seems a fitting metaphor for life.

Bamboo was different…a single sweeping line with a couple interruptions, flowing leaves.  The unfinished tree picture was always that…unfinished. The bamboo was complete in its simplicity.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.57.37 AMYears before I studied sumi-e and shodo, I lived in Russia for a short spell. I saw a Matisse exhibit at the Tretyakov Gallery. There were tons of Russians standing around with hands on their chin contemplating a picture of a house that looked slightly less skilled than a similar picture I drew in kindergarten.  I stepped away, trying to hide my laughter at the scene of these art aficionados contemplating what seemed to be a child’s mess.  My friend Svetla was concerned.

“You don’t like it?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “I’m just not sure why everyone’s so serious about that picture.”  Seems I’d thrown out a judgment. I should have been embarrassed, but I was too ignorant to suspect the magnitude of my own stupidity.

She proceeded to talk about line, form, and other things with which I neither agreed nor could have processed at the time. Sometimes life throws depth at us that we’re just not ready to ingest. I tuned out, wondering which subway station would have farmers with the best vegetables to assemble for lunch. I also wanted some cheese.

Years later, after I had studied years of Japanese sword, calligraphy, and art, I ran across Matisse again, seeing a full catalog of his works. I stopped. I noticed the mastery of each line, color choice, form. I looked at this stunning catalog, researching Matisse further–how he evolved from what I would have understood to be a “proper artist” to one who liberated himself from the constraints of the establishment to transcend the rules.  He was, indeed, a true master worthy of the time those dozen Russians with their hands on their chins spent contemplating his mastery.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.57.48 AM      This was an epiphany. I was finally embarrassed by my earlier assumptions. I took a moment to apologize to Matisse.

In Japanese culture, there is a concept of “shu, ha, ri.”  Shu: is when you learn something and repeat it over and over,  following the rules. Ha: you make it your own, adding style and flourish. Ri: You forget the rules. Leave them behind. Transcend them.

Henri Matisse was at “ri.”

This lesson never leaves me. I consider it when I think about  self-development, improvement, and simplicity. 1. Sometimes the simplest things are the most profound. They are the truth. 2. Often times, society makes us stop before we approach “ri.”  Society laughs at “ri,” It cannot comprehend that degree of freedom, always forcing us into boxes, expectations, and rules.  3. In order to achieve our greatness, we must make that jump from the safety of the rules to the exposure of mastery.

All the great artists, musicians, thinkers, and creators were at “ri.” It’s difficult to understand, and harder to measure. Society doesn’t always approve, and often, it’s only in the end that people step back and say, “Wow.”

These are lessons I’ve learned, but not always practiced. I see that in my writing, in my approach to education, in my willingness to take chances in life, I often stop at “ha,” conforming to the rules of society when there is so much more to be done. Truth is, most of us do just that.

Only when we commit to take that last step, despite the fact we will be seen as non-conformists and outliers… only when we promise ourselves we will speak and act upon that truth, can we get to the level of “ri,” and change the world.

[images: ascalaska.net and wikipaintings.org]