Today Henri Matisse is known as one of the foremost modern artists of the 20th century, but few realize, as the exhibition points out, that Matisse actually struggled with his art. In the exhibition, entitled Matisse: In Search of True Painting, curator Rebecca Rabinow has discovered that Matisse often created the same exact setting or scene in two or three different paintings. Yet when viewing the paintings, it almost looks as if each was created by completely different artists – different styles, and sometimes even colors, are evident in the same painting sets.
The organization of this show is impeccable, clean, simple. The organizers of the show – The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst, and Paris’ Centre Pompidou – have strategically and ingeniously paired each of Matisse’s paintings with its stylistically-different partner, in chronological order, allowing the viewer to see clearly the artist’s process. Each pairing, or set, of paintings is accompanied by an explanatory wall panel describing the scene while also providing a brief history of Matisse at various stages of his career.
On a Saturday afternoon, expect the gallery to be packed with visitors. Perhaps it is the appeal of seeing so many works of art by such a famous artist in one place. Or perhaps it is the glowing critical reception the show has received from all outlets. Regardless of the cause, Matisse has attracted a great amount of attention, and rightfully so.
Matisse is a transformative exhibition, both on the part of the artist, whose works transform from one style to another, and on the part of the viewer, whose eyes are opened to artist process.
Take, for example, one of the first pairs in the show, Young Sailor I and Young Sailor II, both created in 1906. The first is an experiment in shading, depth, realism, and colors. The young boy’s face is shaded in green, red, and yellow. We can see the bulk of the boy’s jacket, how he fills out his clothes, and sits heavily on the wooden chair beneath him. In almost extreme contrast, Matisse’s second version of the sailor is “deformed” – flat, with barely any outlining or shading. His face has been widened, and the colors have been dulled. The background also has changed, to one simple pink as opposed to a multi-hued background in the first. This experimentation with background colors is also seen in the still lifes of Apples and his portraits of model Laurette in the next gallery. Throughout the exhibition, it is obvious how prolific an artist Matisse truly was. He created paintings of individuals, landscape scenes, still lifes, interiors, and more.
Matisse gained much attention for his early works, but his critical reception waned in the 1920s, when artists like Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, and Salvador Dalí challenged the art world with the movements we’ve come to know as Dada and Surrealism. The artist made a comeback however, in the next decade, with his painting, The Large Blue Dress. The significance of this painting is not the work itself necessarily, but the process of the work. To complete the painting, Matisse hired a photographer to capture his painting process, one day at a time. Each of the photos is displayed in the gallery space in the museum, allowing the visitor a real way to inspect Matisse’s work from inception to completion. Although this part of the exhibition can cause some traffic backup because the images are a bit small, it is nonetheless one of the highlights of the show. The next gallery shows works from the 1940s, when Matisse was recognized featured in a number of gallery shows and most appreciated for his work. Those shows also included photos of Matisse’s progression of his works, and here at the Met, the curator has reproduced those mid-century exhibitions, hanging the art and photographs on the walls of our museum exactly as they were hung in the French galleries.
Matisse: In Search of True Painting is a traveling exhibition, having made stops in France and Denmark. If nothing else, just the scope of the loans contributed to the show is impressive. Works on view include loans from Paris, Dusseldorf, Basel, Stockholm, Washington, Houston, Baltimore, and beyond. Just imagine how long it must have taken to put together a show of this caliber.
Visitors to the show are entirely impressed as well – each passing conversation in the galleries references Matisse’s own style, the organization of the show, and the beauty of the works themselves. Overheard in the galleries: “I love the goldfish!”
“This makes you think of things you don’t normally think of when looking at paintings like these: light, texture, layering, perspective…”
“I like these different takes on the same thing. You get an idea of his process, how his mind works.”
There are 49 paintings spread throughout eight galleries at the museum. Each painting is unique, and each set of paintings is incredible, inspirational. It can be easy for any visitor to the show – young or old, native New Yorker or international tourist – to find himself lost in front of any of the pairs presented here. The simplicity of the show and the works presented therein are a perfect means of enlightenment, adventure, and education.
Matisse is an impressive show, even worthy of the title of – dare it be said –
the exhibition of the year.
Yes, that’s correct. January is only just past its end, and 2013’s best exhibition has already been called. This is the show that all other museum exhibitions should be modeled after. The transformative power of the works, the information provided through labeling, audio, and catalog, and the collaborative nature of the show are all ideals that happen to be the traits of this show.
Matisse: In Search of True Painting will remain on view through March 17. A succinct, well-researched, and illustrated catalog was created for the exhibition, and a number of gallery talks and painting classes also accompany the show. The in-depth website also provides plenty of information on Matisse's process and the history of his paintings and the art world at the time, and also features selected highlights and videos.
Have you had the chance to stop by the show? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment in the space below.
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