From Lemons to Lemonade: Two Cool Examples of Contingency Turned to Art (One a Painting, One a Poem)

In a collection of art essays by Roger Kimball titled Art’s Prospect (Ivan R. Dee 2003) is an essay on a Matisse exhibit in which Kimball writes the following (151):

[Matisse] arrived [in Morocco in 1912] in the rainy season, and his correspondence is filled with despondent reports on the unending rain. “Shall we ever see the sun in Morocco?” he plaintively asked Gertrude Stein in a postcard. “Since Monday at three, when we arrived, until today, Saturday, it has rained continuously. . . . It’s impossible to leave our room.” We owe a substantial debt to that Moroccan rain, however. For while it corralled a Matisse impatient for the fabled glories of the Moroccan sun, it was the occasion of Le Vase d’iris (1912), which was purchased by [Sergei I.] Shchukin and is now at the Hermitage.

Here’s the painting to which Kimball refers:


Le Vase d’iris is the first painting Matisse did in Morocco. For want of the sun, Matisse birthed a star out of his own imagination.

Kimball calls Le Vase de’iris  “uncharacteristically somber,” and claims that “weeks of rain seem also to have concentrated Matisse’s powers. When the sun finally broke through, he enjoyed a tremendous burst of productivity” (152).

Matisse’s working with contingencies, transfiguring them into art as he went along, recalls for me a poem by Richard Blanco, the poet who has been tapped to read a poem at President Obama’s second inaugural. In his poem “Burning in the Rain,” Blanco writes of his desire to set fire to some old writings about his father, mother, and ex-lovers, erasing them from memory:

I tossed them, sheet

by sheet on the patio and gathered them

into a pyre. I wanted to let them go […]

But the desire for their abrupt and heated dispatch was turned by the weather into a softer ending, one in accord with tears:

Today was that day, but it rained, kept

raining. Instead of fire, water—drops […]

Instead of burning, my pages turned

into water lilies floating over puddles, […]

the rain would not let their lives burn.

And so was made by the poet something else, the poem cited above.

The philosopher Richard Rorty, in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge 1989), sees reflection on contingency as central to linking key intellectuals over the past 150 years (that is, since Darwin’s publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species):

The line of thought common to [the historian] Blumenberg, Nietzsche, Freud, and [the philosopher Donald] Davidson suggests that we try to get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything–our language, our conscience, our community–as a product of time and chance. To reach this point would be, in Freud’s words, to “treat chance as worthy of determining our fate.” (22)

In Rorty’s telling, Freud’s great insight is that each one of us–not just Nietzsche’s Supermen–is generating a creative poem or piece of art (that is, our lives) out of contingencies (beginning with where, when, and to whom we were born). To be human is, therefore, to democratically participate in an aesthetic endeavor; to narrate to yourself and others the story of your life and that of the cosmos as you see it; the story you tell yourself concerning who, where, and how you think you are. From our contingencies–our very particular existential situations–each of us acts out, consciously and unconsciously, “an idiosyncratic fantasy” (36).

What redeems life, then, is what we make of our lemons, and how we tell it on, say, Facebook and represent it back to ourselves in art, our work, and in the relationships we choose.

In this sense, Blanco, who is Cuban American, seems an apt choice for reciting a poem at the inauguration of a president for whom surprising and seemingly deal-breaking contingencies (from his unusual name to his mixed race ancestry) nevertheless combined with other improbable factors to bring him to power.

It will be interesting to see whether Blanco represents any of this in his poem. In telling his story about America in verse, will he address contingency at all, either explicitly or implicitly?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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