Wayne Koestenbaum: The Desire to Write (II)

August 29, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Essay

Henri Matisse, _Madame Matisse (The Green Line)_, 1905; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, gift of The Engineer J.Rump and Wife Fund, 1928; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about The Green Line

A green line bisects the face of Matisse’s wife, in a painting Henri made in 1905, and so we call the painting The Green Line; the line’s unreasonable presence overshadows the woman it besmirches. Or does the line have nothing to do with the woman? Should we leave her out of it? Before I felt the desire to write about The Green Line, I felt an overwhelming desire to write about a 1922 Man Ray photograph of Alice B. Toklas entering the atelier she shared with Gertrude Stein: Alice hovers in the doorway, maybe entering, or maybe standing frozen, commanded by Man Ray to strike a characteristic pose; I felt a desire to write about Alice’s threshold status, her occupation of an ambiguous point between arrival and departure, but I felt a stab of remorse when I realized that Toklas reminded me of a friend whose husband had died a decade ago of heart disease.

Man Ray, _Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in the atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris_, 1922

Though I was not responsible for this man’s death, and though I would be doing no damage to his widow by writing about Alice entering the atelier, nonetheless their resemblance chastened me and made the prospect of writing about the Man Ray photograph seem an act of premeditated violence; to write honestly about this photograph, I would need to write about the widow, and to write honestly about the widow, I would need to describe the outline of Toklas’s breasts beneath her dress, a smock that modestly veiled her body but allowed the breasts to declare their existence with an unembarrassed directness that corresponded to the steady, large grace of Gertrude Stein seated (in that same photograph) at her desk. Stein’s blouse, tucked into her skirt, bunched in the back; this bunched place, a site of pressure and crowding, underlined Stein’s physical amplitude, her regal comfort on her writing throne, a seat she occupied in a suspended present she would have called a continuous present. Permissive, unbroken, the time of writing (and the time of reading) didn’t stop at the gate to pay a subservient toll but stretched into the past and future with a lazy (and secretly splenetic?) unfetteredness. If I were to write honestly about Stein’s body and about her writing process, and if I were to write honestly about the visible implication of Toklas’s breasts within her floral dress, then I would also need to describe the body of my friend whose husband died a decade ago of heart disease, and I would be trespassing on her body by mentioning it; to write about her body, I’d need to describe my torpor, as if I were drowsing in a Florida room whose jalousies admitted a variegated light, like the operating theater in Suddenly, Last Summer, or the ward where Tennessee Williams’s sister Rose received a lobotomy. Afternoon torpor, redolent of jalousies and lobotomies, overtook me when I considered writing about Toklas entering a room suffused with a fine dust; and so I decided to write instead about Matisse’s portrait of his wife, a portrait subtitled The Green Line. By defecting from Toklas, and hiding behind The Green Line, I felt cowardly — guilty of shirking my vocation’s duties and cowering behind abstraction (the green line) as a way to avoid the hard work of describing ambivalence, destructiveness, guilt, and fatigue. The green line attracted me because it permitted a face to say two things at the same time. The green line permitted one half of the subject’s face to be burdened (or heightened) by flesh-pink brushstrokes, wedges of conspicuous paint that offered a pressured statement, a demand, an exhibition; the other side of the face, yellow and flat, unenhanced by thick paint or emphatic brushwork, nonetheless borrowed enough green to cloak the eye-socket. Thus the face’s downtrodden side flourished, albeit in a mephitic, doomed fashion, a dignity composed of too much green. Matisse’s abundant green signifies a luxury that, for a writer, can only be approximated by the silence that follows an act of composition: the ordeal of sequential language, word following word, has been surmounted, and now the complicated respite of green, an indescribable green, can begin.

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  1. Hilary Harkness Says:

    Hello, does anyone know the dimensions of this painting? Thanks

  2. Natasha Says:

    Where is the original painting located? Because my parents have this painting in their house.

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