Questions and Answers at Matisse: In Search of True Painting

Scan of Metropolitan Museum of Art postcard
THE DREAM, Henri Matisse, French, 1869-1954
Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 25 5/8 in., 1940
Private Collection

I wasn't sure what to expect of the Met's exhibition, Matisse: In Search of True Painting.  The exhibition had been up since December 4th and I hadn't spoken with anyone who had been to see it.  But I was confident it would be interesting since I'd had a chance to see the Met's last Matisse exhibition in 2005, Matisse, His Art and His Textiles. In that previous exhibition, the Met had focused on textiles that repeatedly were shown in Matisse's work.  In the current exhibition, the Met curator was hoping to illustrate the evolution of Matisse's ideas to the finished product.

I found the exhibition fascinating.  Through the excellent audio guide and the posted placards, I learned that Matisse worked and reworked a painting until he felt it was finished, even painting over already completed sections of canvas until he was satisfied.  He tried to "push further and deeper into true painting."  By selecting thematically connected paintings, not necessarily series per se (because Matisse didn't view them as such), the curator showcased the progression of ideas from one to the next.   For example, Matisse was interested in artistic deformation, the simplification of a form to its most essential elements.  This was influenced by Matisse's interest in African art that exemplified (to him) this very concept.  One instance of this was exploration from 1906 in two paintings, Young Sailor (1906) and Young Sailor II (1906).  The curator hung them side by side to facilitate comparisons.   It became easy to see what elements Matisse chose to eliminate, emphasize, and simplify.

Matisse did set some parameters while investigating a particular idea.  One of his most notable self-imposed "rules" was to paint the same sized canvases throughout his investigation.  This was true even if the experimentation spanned years.  He also returned to subjects if he felt his investigation wasn't complete. The audio noted that the following ideas engaged Matisse: the means of representation; the role of color; and, questions of what constituted a finished canvas.    The curator selected what looked like sketched compositional studies and finished paintings, but noted that many of the sketches weren't titled as such.  Instead, Matisse considered them finished works onto themselves even if elements weren't fully formed.

One of my favorite "experiments" (though it's hardly fair to call them experiments since they're all completed works and brilliant) was Matisse's investigation into "using black to paint light".  His painting "Interior with Violin" (1918) from his time in Nice is absolutely spectacular in my opinion.  You can see a copy of the painting here.  You'll see that, though most of the painting is black, there's a luminescence to the canvas that's breathtaking.  You can see the sunlight shimmering.  Amazing.

Of course, the exhibition also left me with lots of questions that only Matisse could answer.  Why are the lady's hands in "Woman in Blue" (1937) so huge?  Why didn't he think it necessary to clean up the paint drip in "Young Sailor"?  Why didn't he put many people in his Notre Dame paintings, even if they were a representation of a street view in Paris (were the people extraneous)?  Fortunately, a very obliging curator was able to answer another one of my questions.

One room of the Met's exhibition was given over to a re-creation of the Matisse Exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in 1945.  In the 1945 exhibition, the gallery arranged photographs of the evolution of a  work, culminating in the presentation of the final piece.  It was an effort to dispel the notion that Matisse worked spontaneously.  At the Met, three such progressions were displayed and arranged according to photos taken at the original exhibition.  One of the paintings showcased was "The Dream" and it just so happened that the photo from the Galerie Maeght of that painting was enlarged to wall size.  When I compared the original exhibition photo to what I saw before me, I noticed that some of the progression photos were arranged differently.

Fortunately, the exhibition curator had just finished a private tour and was saying her goodbyes to the group.  When she finished, I decided to ask her why there was a discrepancy (if in fact there was one -- was I wrong?).  In fact, she stated that I was only the second person to call out the difference.  Indeed, the photos on the wall at the Met were hung in chronological order (easy to determine because Matisse dated everything) but the photos hung originally at the Galerie Maeght were not.  Apparently, Matisse was ill and couldn't be present when the 1945 exhibition was hung, hence the error went unchecked.  The Met curator told me (and the small gathering of folks who now surrounded us) that she had thought long and hard about how to hang the photos.  Was it more important to be true to the original exhibition or to be true to Matisse's implied intent?  She chose to correct the error and hang the photos in the correct chronological order.

Ah, the impact of a curator on even the minutest of details....

I love it that she took the time to answer my question.  And by doing so, she brought Matisse even more alive for me.  With a bit of Googling, I've learned that Dr. Rebecca Rabinow was the curator and I'm going to make sure I pay attention for any future exhibitions she curates.

Sadly, the exhibition closes today, but I encourage you to read through this more detailed explanation of the exhibition from the Met.  It explains many more of the fabulous things I encountered at the exhibition and with great clarity.


twas a great exhibit! how I love the Met. Must go back for more!
carolina said…
She is a great lady. Glade you had discussion with her. You are lucky.