Henri Matisse

Henri MatisseThis is the last birthday post of the year. But it is not the last birthday post. For one thing, I’m not sure what I would do without my birthday posts. Yes, I complain about them all the time. Yet they give my life a certainty that I just don’t get anywhere else. It’s like the old stories of Winchester Mystery House, that the owner, Sarah Winchester, thought she would die if she stopped building it. Except in my case, if I knew I would die if I stopped writing these things, I wouldn’t even be writing this one. That’s not because I especially want to die. It’s just that I don’t much care. And since not writing this series will not go along with losing the responsibility of continued existence, I might as well keep writing. A man has to work, you know.

The second reason this isn’t my last birthday post is that it hasn’t been a year. This series started just by chance on 26 February 2013, with Fats Domino at 85. It wasn’t much of a post: just the mention of his birthday and a video of him doing “Blueberry Hill.” The next day, I did Irwin Shaw, because it was his 100th birthday. That was a hard one, because John Steinbeck was born that same day 11 years earlier. Both authors have been enormously important to me. Over the year, based in part on reader comments, I’ve changed the format of the series. At one time I just listed people, going into depth when I felt like it. Now I pick a few people to talk about in a bit of depth and then dump the rest of them into my “other birthdays” paragraph.

I do think that on the 26th of February, I will change things. But I suspect that I will give it about as much thought as I gave the series when I started it. Anyway, onward. Today’s a big day, which is unfortunate, because I’m exhausted.

On this day in 1714, the mathematician Arima Yoriyuki was born. I don’t know much about him except that at the age of 51, he was able to find a rational number that approximated π to 29 digits. I have no idea how he did it. But it reminds of what I used to force my physics students to do. I gave them strings and rulers and and made them measure (as best they could) the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Now that’s very simple. Everyone knows that c = 2πr. But until they did it, they really didn’t understand what π was. It was just some number.

John Denver was born in 1943. What most people don’t know about him is that he was a big proponent of civilians in space. In fact, he was supposed to go up on the space shuttle. But he was prevented, because the government wanted a school teacher to go up instead. So Christa McAuliffe went and she died. But after that Denver still seemed to be kind of angry that he had been bumped. So I wasn’t surprised when 12 years later, he crashed into the Pacific Ocean and died. He was living on borrowed time. Not a great musician, but he had his moments and he was a great live performer. His extreme vibrato offends me to this day. But he did an excellent job of picking other people’s music to do. That included especially John Prine, but it extended to his own people like John Martin Sommers who wrote “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and Mike Taylor who co-wrote “Rocky Mountain High” with him. And like many artists, he really did get better as his popularity waned. Anyway, here he is doing “Rocky Mountain High” live:

Ben Kingsley is 70 today. He is absolutely one of my favorite actors. He was the only thing that made Iron Man 3 even slightly watchable. And I’d love to provide you with a nice video clip of Kingsley doing his thing. But with an actor like him, how can you pick a single thing? So I’ll provide you with the trailer of a really good movie that you probably haven’t seen, Turtle Diary (typically not available on DVD):

Other birthdays: German expressionist painter Max Pechstein (1881); songwriter Jule Styne (1905); actor Anthony Hopkins (76); guitarist Andy Summers (71); and gymnast Gabby Douglas (18).

The day, however, belongs to the great painter Henri Matisse who was born in 1869. Unlike many painters, Matisse was truly creative. That isn’t to put other painters down. Think of Vincent van Gogh: he had a vision—a single vision. And he repeated it again and again in different contexts. And we need that. But Matisse was constantly changing. I know that a lot of people think this isn’t so. They think of Red Room and that is what Matisse is for them. Well, if that is all Matisse were to me, he’d hardly make the “other birthdays” list. He’s hard to pin down stylistically. Some of his stuff seems downright neoclassical to me. Other seems to verge on the primitivism. Regardless, it is more expansive and compelling than anything by Picasso.

The following is one of his last paintings, Annelies, White Tulips and Anemones. He painted it while in poor health and that perhaps explains its simplicity. But I think it works, especially the way the colors work together:

Annelies - Henri Matisse

Happy birthday Henri Matisse!

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