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Rhythm and Hues

Parsing Through The BMA's Mammoth Henri Matisse Exhibition

Matisse's "Pink Nude"
Edward Steichen Photo Of Matisse With Plaster Cast Of "The Serpentine"
"Two Negresses"
"Male Model"
"Large Nude"
"Joy Of Life" Oil Sketch

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 12/12/2007

Henry Matisse: Painter as Sculptor

Through Feb. 3, 2008, at the Baltimore Museum of Art

The BMA's celebrated Matisse collection, considered one of the premier treasuries of the artist's work in the world, numbers more than 600 original works featuring Matisse's painting, sculpture, and works on paper. It has just recently increased again through the announcement of 77 more prints promised from the personal collection of the artist's son, Pierre, and his wife, Maria-Gaetana Matisse.

Painter as Sculptor was conceived to celebrate the less recognized side of the artist's life work; to introduce Matisse's encyclopedic creative process. The resulting comprehensive show and scholarly catalogue together offer evidence of how worthy and gracious a home the BMA is providing its charge. It's a show Matisse would very likely feel quite at home in, augmented as it is by a judicious visitation of some Belle Époque co-conspirators, Auguste Rodin, Aristide Maillol, and Edgar Degas among them, and enriched with drawings revealing Matisse's fascination with tension and flow, along with many of his immortals: the lush, vivid, highly patterned paintings that grace, activate and illuminate his three-dimensional explorations.

Additionally the BMA's exhibition curators, Jay Fisher and Dr. Oliver Shell, have supplemented the show's concept with interpretive elements throughout, including 3-D imaging displays, a video on lost wax casting, and a clever sensory clay bust environment created by Richard Cleaver. These ancillary inclusions focus on sharing techniques and breakthroughs, a tendency found in Matisse's own magnanimous character.

The Paris scene toward the end of the 19th century was anything but a vacuum. But few artists working in its remarkable plenum would become the apparatus for this seminal period's abundance to the extent that Matisse came to be. His evolution is the core of this show.

As a student Matisse was an early disciple of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but following study there and at the Academie Carriere he entered into a rival friendship with Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. These artists would inspire each other toward radical pictorial space and pure color--squeezed straight out of the tubes--to become known as the Fauves.

Matisse was a sieve to all aspects of his inventive society, capturing ideas and converting them to his own purposes. So while Paul Cezanne's painting style might continually motivate him to experiment further with color, form, and surface, poets such as Charles Baudelaire stirred him with abstract notions of Arcadian utopias.

To develop his sculpture Matisse took much of his early revelation from Rodin on volume and light; finding in sculpture an additive/subtractive mark-making process that sought out the life essence and vigor of his subjects over an effort to render them in flattering perfection; it was essentially what he was pursuing in paint.

In Maillol's streamlined and perfectly balanced figures Matisse would find his own sympathetic yet often polemic reaction to feminine qualities, pushing the arabesque, serpentine, and transitory poses he gave them into suspended disbelief in works such as "Large Seated Nude," while at other times seeking Maillol's internal equilibrium and symmetry of "Small Thin Torso" and monumental "The Back" series. Picasso's sculpture would channel Matisse to establish his own conduit into African tribal aesthetics to arrive at the exaggerated bulbs and crevasses with which he develops his 1911-12 series of bronze busts of "Jeannette" and in the attributes of the small bronze "Torso with Head (La Vie)."

The curators develop their argument for Matisse's processes in an instinctive manner. Assiduously seeking what they did not have in their storage, they've concocted a fluid sense of context for Matisse's source material, tastes, and trials. Matisse's 1906 "Still Life with Geranium," loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago, is placed near his two small bronze figures: the Cone Collection's "Woman Leaning on her Hands" and the Art Gallery of Ontario's "Thorn Extractor." The three re-united works establish a personal story about the artist through their placement. They tell of his manner of painting his figural sculptures into his floral still lifes in order to give them a beautiful and enduring paradise to dwell in, regardless of any human foibles manifest in their poses.

Women are a recurring Matisse subject. Unlike Rodin, who takes a rather libidinous approach to his female studies--as evidenced by his "Meditation," whose embodiment theatrically contorts herself in a brooding or lamenting stance while offering us (read: Rodin) her rosebud of a nipple--Matisse appears more inclined to quietly slip into the feminine mind, as he does in the Centre Pompidou's version of his "Madeleine II." The BMA presents both "Meditation" and "Madeleine II" for comparison, and while it may happen that those who love one will not love the other, they offer much to contemplate about style, period sensibilities, and individual vision in their curatorial proximity. To add genuine artist studio ambience to galleries, Karen Nielsen, the BMA Director of Exhibition Design and Installation, recreated stylized modeling stands as sculpture supports. The detail provides imaginative interpretive richness to the installation's visual impact.

Matisse obviously favored women for their lithe gesticulation and uninhibited rhythmic nature and because color was such a natural aspect of their dress and decorative tendencies. He spends little time on male figures, except perhaps in his drawings. The important sculptural exception in the BMA collection is "The Serf," whose tortuous, compressed spine is the result of toil and gravity, the kind of suffering Rodin's males traded in. But Matisse's stated mission of seeking rhythm and harmony, vivid color, and delightful patterning led him to a ritual observance of these qualities, and it is where he remained devout until his final paper cutout.

Photo Credits (from top): The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. ęcopy;2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Archives Matisse, Paris. ęcopy;2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Dallas. Photo by David Heald. ęcopy;2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Kay Sage Tanguy Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Funds, 1975; ęcopy;2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. ęcopy;2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Opposite: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bequest of Elise S. Haas. Photo by Ben Blackwell. ęcopy;2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bequest of Elise S. Haas. Photo by Ben Blackwell. ęcopy;2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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