The Obamas Return a Painting

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Watusi (Hard Edge), Alma Thomas, 1963/Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Last month we learned what artworks the Obamas had chosen for the family quarters of the White House and the West and East Wing offices. One of the pictures that caught everybody’s attention was Watusi (Hard Edge) by Alma Thomas, a lesser known Washington, D.C. area artist who died in 1978. But now that picture has been handed back to the institution it was borrowed from.

Art News is reporting that late last month the White House returned Watusi to the Hirshhorn Museum, one of the several Washington-area museums that were lending works to the White House. Michelle Obama’s deputy press secretary has since explained that the painting turned out to be too big for the place in the First Lady’s office where it was expected to hang.

This would barely be worth a mention except that Watusi was also briefly the subject of the dumbest right-wingnut art controversy since Glenn Beck discovered secret messages in the exterior artwork around Rockefeller Center. Watusi is plainly a riff on Snail (L’Escargot), a very well-known Matisse that was part of the cut-paper series he began making in the late 1940s. For her painting Thomas has almost exactly reproduced the dancing forms of Snail and in the same overlapping arrangement, but turned them at a 90-degree angle and shifted the palette, mostly to a cooler range of blues.

Matisse snail

The Snail (L'Escargot), Henri Matisse, 1953/© Succession H Matisse/DACS 2007

This has lead some right wing bloviators in recent weeks to charge that Thomas had “plagiarized” the Matisse — which entirely misses the point. Plagiarists try to cover their tracks. But Thomas is playing with what she and everyone else would have known was a well known image. The whole experience of her painting depends on the viewer’s awareness that she’s having fun with a famous Matisse — turning it on its head, you might say, or just about. Even her title, Watusi, which baby boomers will remember as the Chubby Checker dance craze of the early ’60s, might be a play on Jazz, the title (actually chosen by his publisher) of the 1947 book that collected the first suite of Matisse’s cut-paper images.

Snail, which dates from 1953, wasn’t in that book, but it uses what everyone had come to think of as Matisse’s Jazz techniques. Wilson may have been razzing the Frenchman a bit for presuming to borrow the energies of jazz, a quintessentially African-American musical form, one that fascinated a lot of uptight French intellectuals. (To cite one obvious example, at the end of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, the ur-text of Existential fiction, the despairing hero Roquentin finds a sort of personal salvation in a beloved jazz recording.) For good measure, the Watusi, as most people knew in the days when that dance was popular, took its name from an African tribe, so the word had one foot in pop culture, the other in African history.

The important point is that by 1963, when Thomas painted Watusi, Matisse’s cut-paper works were among his best loved and most recognizable works, especially among visually literate people. Like Chagall’s levitating fiddlers, they had been embraced by the middle class as what you might call icons of civilized jouissance. Thomas no more wanted people to think she had invented the forms and arrangements in her picture than Andy Warhol wanted people to think he had invented the Campbell’s soup can. You had to be aware of the original image to understand the game she was playing.

It’s too bad her witty exercise in cultural call-and-response is too big for the wall it was intended for, but it’s a big picture in a lot of ways. Bigger, apparently, than some people are prepared to grasp.