Modernism is one of the most notable art eras in history. It represents a time when the conventional was taken to extraordinary new heights. Instead of operating within the boundaries of what was traditionally considered to be acceptable art, a new generation of artists produced some of the most riveting, and often confusing, works that have ever been seen. This paper will take a look at two similar, but completely different pieces of art. Both are oil on canvas, but they come from completely different parts of the planet. In William Baziotes’s, Figure on a Tightrope, (1947), one can see the nuances on how abstract modernism art had evolved in the United States, from where it was earlier in the 20th Century in France with Henri Matisse’s The Yellow Curtain, (1914). Certainly, both pieces represent their periods within Modernism, while showing the commonalities and differences between the two in the way they depict art in the different geographical locations.
William Baziotes’s, Figure on a Tightrope, of 1947, is a very simple painting that is done as an oil on canvas piece of work. It is minimalist to the highest degree, and has a sweet innocence to it. The rich tones of blue, green and pink are indicative of its simplistic nature. No effort is given by the artist to use any combination of colors that might make the piece of art more complicated. However, Baziotes manages to achieve complexity even in the simplest of shapes. While the piece shows something that looks like a four-legged animal, and a squiggly shape on the other end, it is not as simple as it appears. The title helps explain a certain component of the piece of art, and it certainly helps the audience understand that the four-legged animal shape must indeed be some creature. This indication of Figure on a Tightrope, helps the viewer know sort of what is going on in the painting. We know that the green line must be a rope, since this is what the four-legged figure is walking on. Then, the blocked figure with that is positioned in a way as to indicate that it is a four-legged animal, such as a dog, helps the audience to get an idea of what precisely is going on here. The blue that surrounds the figure can be assumed to be the blue sky, as the tight rope is likely high in the sky. There is a second figure, and a second green line. Presumably, this second green line is also a tight rope, and the pink shape must also be some sort of creature, though it is not identifiable – at least not in a way that a layperson would identify a figure. Certainly, since the title indicates that there is a figure that is on a tightrope, it can be presumed that this second shape is also a figure. However, one might assume that only the animal-shaped figure is the figure to which the title refers, since the title is Figure on a Tightrope, and not Figures on a Tightrope. Perhaps Baziotes is trying to make the audience understand that just because a shape cannot be identified by the human eye, does not mean that it is not a tangible figure. Perhaps he is alluding to the fact that there exists in this world creations that humans cannot identify, or even that they cannot sense – whether that be through visual sense or otherwise. Certainly, the oddly shaped, pink blobby structure in the painting can be anything, though it is likely more of a representation. It is dealing with the same matter that the more identifiable figure is dealing with (a tightrope), but it is not being perceived by us as being an identifiable figure with clearly defined legs, body and head. It should also be noted that the animal-looking figure in the painting has circles drawn in its head. This could be representative of a brain. The other object does not have this feature. Baziotes could be alluding to the fact that the four-legged creature is more in tune with thinking, and the pink structure is not thinking. The painting can be linked to the believe of some spiritual masters who believe our perceptions, and the constant reliance we have on our brains, actual hinder our perceptions that only the “Third Eye,” can see. Perhaps these circles on the head of the figure on the tightrope is the third eye that these spiritual masters have been discussing. This third eye is allowing the object to perceive the second object on the tight rope.
In Henri Matisse’s, The Yellow Curtain, of 1914, he helps provide some clue about the painting in the piece’s title. The yellow shape in the middle of the painting must be the curtain, since this is the only component that is yellow, and the title gives the viewer the understanding that this is indeed what the yellow represents. The viewing can then begin to place the other pieces into the picture, and start to develop some meaning behind the artwork. If the yellow is the curtain, then the blue that is behind the curtain must be the sky. Then, the green that surround the curtain must be the walls, and the red pole and black pole on the left side of the painting must be the pole that holds up the curtain. This can help describe the physical nature of the objects that are being depicted in the painting, but it does little to describe the meaning behind the piece. Certanly, the curtain being restrained to the boundaries of the window’s edges could provide some indication of what Matisse means with this painting. He seems to be playing with the idea of form. Is the curtain inside or outside of the window? Is the pole that is supporting the curtain actually supporting the curtain, or is it an entity to its own? Is everything an illusion? It cannot be said for certain what Matisse meant when he created this piece, but it definitely provides a basis on which to develop speculative ideas about his intended meaning when he painted this piece.
Similarities and Differences
The style in each of these piece is uncannily similar. It could be assumed that the same painter created them. Certainly, the style is similar in that it is done in oil on canvass. Surely, it is also similar that they have both created pieces that are quite abstract, and requires a lengthy study in order to decide what the meaning is behind the pieces. Also, both painters give a clue to the audience in the titles about one of the elements in the piece. This allows the audience to then piece together the other areas of the painting that could be interpreted as having one meaning or the other. Then once the physical components are discovered, it can then be decided what the meaning is behind the pieces. This is the component that resonates with the greatest similarity in the two pieces. Both lead the viewer on a detective journey to try to identify what the hidden meanings are behind the pieces, while giving just one clue to get the viewer started.
The form of these pieces is quite similar. Both artists are using shapes to describe the meanings behind the pieces. Also, in the actual form that is used (oil and canvas), the painter is able to see the meaning behind the pieces.
Both artists use muted colors. Though the more Baziotes piece uses more upbeat, brighter colors. The Matisse painting is quite muted with deaf tones that do not convey much optimism in life. Since both paintings appear to be about life, the colors used could be a representation about how the artists feel about life.
The major emotional effect of these pieces are quite similar. They both seem to be depressing. They are chaotic in their nature, and they do not convey true form as it is known to us. People tend to look at objects and try to quickly assign meaning, but this is difficult to do with both these painters, as they play with real-life objects, such as tight ropes and curtains, and they create oddly shaped objects that surround these identified components.
No concrete definition can be established to anything other than what is contained in the title, and this causes controversy in the eye of the viewer. It leaves the viewer hopelessly looking for meaning, which is what both these pieces might be saying: there is no meaning in life. No matter where the artist is from, they are both struggling with life, and the meaning behind it. It does not matter if the artist is American or French, we are all living in the same game of life, and there are no answers. We can only search for meaning.
William Baziotes, Figure on a Tightrope. American, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1912-1963.
Henri Matisse, The Yellow Curtain. HenriMatisse.org, 1914
 William Baziotes, Figure on a Tightrope, (American, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1912-1963), 1.
 Henri Matisse, The Yellow Curtain (HenriMatisse.org. 1914), 1.