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Henri Matisse by Robert Capa, 1949

Henri Matisse by Robert Capa, 1949

Tomorrow marks the opening of a new exhibition at the Met, showcasing Henri Matisse’s idiosyncratic practice of experimenting with the same image in pairs and series of paintings. I previewed the exhibition on Friday night and it’s a lovely, compact exploration of some of Matisse’s different themes with his trademark riot of colour.

Oh, the colours! Blues and greens with pops of orange in Interior with Goldfish… Violets and greens for the exotic Moroccan plantscape captured in Acanthus (1912)…Splashes and dabs of tropical pinks, oranges and aquamarines in his Cezanne-influenced Gulf of St Tropez and Luxe, Calme et Volupte (1904)… Famous compositions like Dance and Nasturtiums… Colours so bright and juicily combined they’ll make your mouth water. And those are just the early years.

There are still lifes, ladies in sumptuous costumes and far less, a smattering of landscapes and plenty of studio interiors. The exhibition highlights Matisse’s  love of windows as a framing device – particularly his view of the Notre Dame cathedral, and from various hotels in Nice where he found “the silver clarity of the light” inspiring. And pacing of the curation serves as a nice primer on the artist’s career, from early experimentation to breakthrough, his struggles with being considered irrelevant alongside the surrealists and Dali, and his critical renaissance after WWII and rich late career work.

Throughout, Matisse’s practice of reworking the same imagery reflects his search for the “essential qualities” of a thing rather than “anatomical exactitude”. Two paintings side-by-side like the Woman On a Divan show how he might work with depth and detail in one approach, then stylise to flat colour in another. “I never retouch a sketch,” Matisse said; sometimes he might rub back into the paint to make a change, but more often he would start again and draw small changes to essentially the same composition.

Perhaps the greatest take-away from In Search Of True Painting is an understanding of Matisse’s process. The finished canvases we know and love may comprise fields of flat colour within bold black linework and simple, almost child-like shapes – but the finished image is the end result of a series of edits and stylisations. Matisse generally started by making quite a lifelike sketch and simplified from there. This approach is most apparent in the exhibition focused on the 1945 Galerie Maeght exhibition in Paris, when some of his best-received paintings were exhibited alongside time lapse-style photographs of the work evolving. According to the curators, “by agreeing to make the photographs public, Matisse tacitly acknowledged that their presence added to the viewers’ understanding and appreciation of his work.” The photographs “dispelled the notion that he worked simultaneously.”

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The exhibition is studded with contextual tidbits – Laurette (above), the first professional model Matisse painted, was so charismatic his son fell madly in love with her; Lydia Delectorskaya, the model in Large Blue Dress sewed the eponymous frock herself, and the skirt itself is on show. Even more interesting are the quotes from Matisse.

Why should I paint the outside of an apple, however exactly? What possible interest could there be in copying an object which nature provides in unlimited quantities?”

“When I didn’t know what colour to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I used black as a ballast to simplify the construction.

As a portrait of an artist’s process, the exhibition is an eye-opener. Paintings that look simple and even effortless, in reality reflect a painstaking process of trial and error, a methodical search for the real essence of an image, an artist who constantly questioned himself. And so it wasn’t just a means to an end, but a journey of discovery.

It is probably just my ignorance of Matisse, but I wish the exhibition had included more about him as a bloke – he seems like a funny one. There are some hilarious anecdotes on the comprehensive website Henri-Matisse.net, my eye went straight to this passage from a 2005 article by Hilary Spurling in Smithsonian Magazine:

So far as modeling went, he applied the same rules to human beings as to a fish dinner. “I’ve never sampled anything edible that had served me as a model… ,” he explained, describing a plate of oysters brought for him to paint from a nearby café by a waiter, who later fetched them back to serve to his customers at midday. Matisse said it never occurred to him to tuck into his oysters for lunch: “It was others who ate them. Posing had made them different for me from their equivalents on a restaurant table.”

Matisse: In Search Of True Painting is on show at the Met until March. Its placement in the museum is also a perfect entry point to the Met’s fantastic collection of modern design masterpieces – from art deco tea sets to modular chairs and spiffy vacuum cleaners, these objects-as-art are well worth a look too.

Matisse: In Search of True Painting. At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 4 2012 – March 17, 2013

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