19: La Ecole – The Artist in 20th Century France

The only class Matisse and I ever took together was a night class, The Artist in 20th Century France. Since it was listed as a Comp lit class, it satisfied a requirement. Besides, it was a perfect class for us.

The instructor was young and probably hadn’t been teaching long. Each class started with a lecture and was followed by slides, music, or discussion of poetry or a novel. It should have been called The Artist in 19th Century France, since we started with the pre-Impressionists and ended at World War I. The instructor, R. Harold Black, turned out the lights for the slides and the music.

We both loved the class and Matisse loved R. Harold. The class had a sprinkling of students, plus the hippies–two guys and a girl. They sat close to the front, an Impressionist blur of long frizzy hair, sweaters, army jackets, and jeans, so they could argue with R. Harold over Rimbaud’s hashish and Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. 

Despite the dark room being perfect for it, we never got stoned before class. Matisse didn’t like to smoke pot anyway, and it was easier to pay attention straight, except for one time. Some friend of John’s from Rockland County had come by with some Orange Sunshine that afternoon. Sunshine wasn’t technically LSD, it was an analogue, ALD-52, and it always seemed more disorienting than mind-opening to me as acid. But it was more visual and auditory than acid, and when Matisse mentioned our class that night was going to listen to Debussy and Ravel, it seemed like one of those synchronicities. 

The class was a 7:30, so we dropped around 6. By 6:30, things were definitely popping and we kept checking the kitchen clock so we wouldn’t be late.  In our attempt to show we could function on acid, we miscalculated and got to class about 20 minutes early. We went to the bathroom to eat up some time, but after watching the tiles over the urinal ooze for a while, I gave up and found Matisse in the hall, eagerly pretending to study someone’s office hour schedule. There seemed like nothing else to do but sit down.

We found our seats. There were a couple of other early birds, and the hippies. The girl looked at us and nudged her friends. They turned, smiled knowingly and looked away. They know. I thought I should be paranoid, but somehow the comfort of being with Matisse and feeling like I was there to protect her made me calm.

“Debussy, tonight,” said the girl to Matisse. “Our Hal knows how to pick ’em.”

“Who?”

“R. Hal,” she said. “You know, Harold, Hal.” “Our Hal,” she said. “Our hero.”

 And then the rest of the class started filtering in. “Enjoy the show,” she said to Matisse and turned around. Our Hal entered and began describing impressionism in music and the Mediterranean coastline. I pretended to take notes, but Matisse stared at him for the entire lecture. And then, mercifully, he turned out the lights and played La Mer on the little portable record player.

In my mind’s eye, I could see that first light in the sky breaking onto the water, the waves, the rocky shore. From dawn to noon, I followed the day. I loved to watch Matisse draw, always amazed at how she created lines that had depth and shape. Debussy did the same with notes—how could you make simple notes create the picture or oboes sound like little lapping waves? What was like to hear it for the first time in a French concert hall, the men in tails and the women waving lacy fans in their formal gowns, expecting something familiar? Mike Bloomfield once said that he thought he was a pretty good guitarist until he was backstage at some festival and this guy next to him kept making the wind and animals come out of his guitar. He said he stopped playing for a year after he heard Jimi Hendrix. I imagined there were composers who might have felt the same way. Apparently, there were also a lot of pissed off music lovers. I laughed a little, listening to the waves.  There was more after La Mer, but nothing quite as striking.

Mercifully, Our Hal sensed that tonight was not the night for lengthy discussions and let us go after some perfunctory back and forth. We walked into the campus, the sounds of cars, machinery, bicycles, conversations becoming music as we walked. ‘La Ecole,’ Matisse said, and a plane streaked overhead. I turned, and a bus squealed to a halt and its brakes sent a blast of compressed air into the mix.

She asked me what Our Hal had said during the lecture. “I don’t know, I was just trying to hold it together until the lights went off. I thought you were really into it. Every time I looked, you were staring at him.”

“I was watching the muscles in his face move. I wasn’t really listening to him. ”

We walked until La Ecole wound down, then went back to her room and, in the dark, played another kind of music.

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