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Matisse Madness

Three concurrent exhibitions showcase the seminal French modernist’s art and influence.

Henri Matisse, Interior with Etruscan Vase

Henri Matisse, Interior with Etruscan Vase, 1940, oil on canvas.

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Henri Matisse hardly needs an introduction, or a rediscovery. Perhaps the most beloved and endearing of all the pioneer modernists, he has never been out of favor, nor has his work ever suffered from a lack of exposure. Nonetheless, three museums in the U.S. have found new things to show and tell about Matisse, mounting exhibitions that each reveal something unexpected or neglected about the artist, his work methods, and especially his influence on American artists.

Opening April 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and running through July 9, “Matisse in the Studio” focuses on the artist’s relationship with a group of material objects that he kept in his studio and repeatedly used as source material for paintings. These non-human models had a talismanic power for Matisse and embody the range of influences on his work from the world of material culture. Ranging from Islamic and Asian textiles to tribal masks and sculptures to homely domestic objects such as a pewter jug and a chocolate maker, they have been loaned to the MFA from French private collections and are being exhibited alongside the paintings they inspired.

A show centered on the studio is even more apt for Matisse than for most artists, given that he so often depicted his own work space (and living space) in paintings, particularly after he moved to Nice, in southern France, in 1917. There, he sought to infuse a new spontaneity and sensuality into his work, which he felt had become too dry and cerebral. The tension between the bright, sharp Mediterranean light streaming through the wooden Venetian blinds of his window and the cool, dim interior was key to this new aesthetic. Reminiscing to a friend years later, Matisse said, “Do you remember the light though those blinds? It came from above like a theater spotlight. Everything was false, absurd, splendid, and delicious.” The little theater-set inside was built up with props, many of which were artisanal objects that Matisse collected in Morocco, where he was exposed to the Islamic and African culture that had such a huge influence on the rest of his career.

A late painting, Interior with Egyptian Curtain (1948), is paired in the MFA’s exhibition with an actual Egyptian tent curtain owned by Matisse, and by comparing the two it is possible to see how the artist transformed his raw material. The curtain in the painting has a different color scheme, but the geometry of the decorative elements is more or less the same, with the folding of the cloth adding another dimension. The leaf designs on the curtain also mirror the palm fronds visible through the window, seeming to vibrate with solar energy. This interior is also a still life, due to the absence of a human figure and the presence of the iconic bowl of lemons placed on the table in front of the window. In Matisse’s art, as in Giorgio Morandi’s, still life becomes a version of self-portraiture; the objects on display are transformed by the personhood, if not exactly the personality, of the artist. As the same rotating cast of inanimate characters appears again and again in the paintings, we realize that what we are seeing is a memory play, a chronicle of the interaction over time between objects and owner.

For example, a green glass vase from Andalusia, Spain, that belonged to Matisse appears in the exhibition “in the flesh” and also in two paintings: In Vase of Flowers (1924) it plays host to a bunch of roses and transmits light streaming in from the window, the stems of the flowers clearly visible inside. In Safrano Roses at the Window (1925), the vase looks darker and more solid because of how it is placed, no longer a lens but simply an object illuminated by diffused light. With a change of light comes a change of mood. Other object-painting pairings in the show are less about emotional optics and more about cultural-artistic influence: His Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal) (1914) clearly derives her posture and the way her head joins her neck from a Fang reliquary sculpture, while the large Qing-dynasty calligraphic plaque that Matisse hung prominently in his studio testifies to the impact of Chinese script on the artist’s approach to line, especially visible in the paper cut-outs that he made in the 1940s and ’50s, after illness and surgery made it impossible for him to paint, but also in any number of drawings.

“Matisse and American Art,” at the Montclair Art Museum through June 18, turns the tables by concentrating on the influence of Matisse rather than the influences on Matisse. This ambitious exhibition, five years in the making, places 19 Matisse works alongside 44 works by artists from Max Weber to Faith Ringgold, to illustrate the profound impact of the French master on artists in this country over more than 100 years. As show organizer and MAM chief curator Gail Stavitsky points out, consciousness of Matisse entered the U.S. art world very early on, thanks to the prescient efforts of artist-impresarios Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Walter Pach and collectors and salonistes such as Claribel and Etta Cone of Baltimore and the Stein family.

At the Paris apartment of Leo and Gertrude Stein, Matisse was introduced to American artists including Weber and Alfred Maurer; Gertrude and Leo’s sister-in-law, Sarah Stein, an artist in her own right as well as a collector, not only bought Matisse’s work but encouraged him to found an art school, which was active from 1908–11. During his short-lived tenure as a teacher, Matisse counted among his students the Americans Morgan Russell (inventor of Synchromism with Stanton Macdonald-Wright) and Patrick Henry Bruce. And of course the collector–educator Albert C. Barnes championed Matisse’s work as the cornerstone of his art-appreciation concept and filled his Philadelphia-area museum with it. Matisse himself visited the U.S. four times during the 1930s, and in 1951, three years before his death, the Museum of Modern Art gave him a retrospective, accompanied by the first major study of the artist, written by MoMA director Alfred Barr.

This lengthy history between Matisse and America had, as the MAM show makes clear, very visible results. Early works by Russell (Étude d’après Matisse, circa 1909–11) and Maurer (Le Sentier, 1908) track very closely with the master’s subject matters (fruit still life and landscape, respectively) and style, while Weber gives us an actual depiction of Apollo in Matisse’s Studio (1908) with the artist himself behind an easel in the corner, dwarfed by the mighty Greek god in plaster-cast form. Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s The Connoisseur (1910) gives a Matissean level of attention to the patterned background—carpet, books, wallpaper, and potted plant—that backs the portrait subject. Morton Livingston Schamberg, an extremely innovative artist who died tragically young in 1918 and deserves a major show of his own, is represented here by Study of a Girl (Fanette Reider), circa 1912, which owes much to Matisse’s odalisques but is more somber and draws its colors from the cool end of the spectrum. Stuart Davis and Bruce were inspired by Matisse’s use of bold, flattened fields of color, and the inclusion of a Kenneth Noland painting makes clear the effect of these colors on the later hard-edge and color-field schools.

Later generations continued to find a great deal in Matisse to emulate and enter into dialogue with. Some artists, like Tom Wesselmann and Roy Lichtenstein, created out-and-out homages—Lichtenstein’s 1997 Bellagio Hotel Mural: Still Life with Reclining Nude (Study) bundles most of the main Matissean tropes into one crowded room, complete with iconic open window. Faith Ringgold’s mixed-media Matisse’s Model (1991) combines appropriation art with appreciation art, by combining a reproduction of Matisse’s 1910 Dance with fabric swatches, a reclining nude, and a portrait of the man himself. And some of the works on view, such as Mark Rothko’s 1955 No. 44 (Two Darks in Red) and an untitled 2002 acrylic on paper by Helen Frankenthaler testify to the ongoing ripple effect of Matisse’s Red Studio (1911).

In 1966, as an essay by John Cauman in the exhibition catalogue for “Matisse and American Art” recounts, a traveling Matisse retrospective brought with it two paintings from 1914 that had never before been seen in this country: View of Notre Dame, Paris, Quai Saint-Michel and Open Window, Collioure. These subtle, nearly abstract works had a life-changing effect on the West Coast painter Richard Diebenkorn, deciding him on a return to abstraction from figuration, and in 1967 he inaugurated his famous “Ocean Park” series. The third Matisse show on view this season takes that event as its point of departure. “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” which runs through May 29 at SFMOMA (it originated at the Baltimore Museum of Art), unites 40 works by Matisse with 60 by Diebenkorn. While in many of his works the American artist took the abstracting tendencies of Matisse’s art and extended them into full abstraction, in others he figuratively recapitulates many of the classic Matisse themes—the seated woman, the open window, the patterned cloth. The show reminds us that Matisse cast a very long shadow—if that word can be used for such a sunny artist—across the 20th and 21st centuries, leaving almost no school of art untouched.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2017

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