Art History lectures usually begin with side-by-side images of works of art.
By Mary Brennan Gerster
Art History lectures usually begin with side-by-side images of works of art. Through comparison we are able to focus on similarities and differences in technique among artists through the centuries. A Piero della Francesca angel alongside one by Rockwell Kent can lead to intriguing insights. The Metropolitan Museum has mounted an exhibition employing this learning tool with the works of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The gallery walls are filled with Matisse’s exploration of a subject in the same year, but with variations in his approach.
Matisse said, “A picture is formed by the combination of surfaces, differently colored, which result in the creation of an “expression.” He worked along with Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Fauves, and even the Abstract Expressionists. His longevity permitted him to constantly reinvent his art, defying a single label. At one point, a critic complained that his work was not “original,” a comment that seems ludicrous to those of us who have had the advantage of seeing his complete range.
As all art students did then, Matisse learned by copying from the Masters hanging on the walls of the Louvre. He was intrigued by the works of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (1833-18), and Paul Signac (1863-1935), as well as early Renaissance Italian painters. As you walk through these galleries, you will note each of these influences in various works, but all still in his distinct style.
Two works from 1904 graphically represent Matisse’s experimentation. Still Life With Purro #1 is a rich pastiche of warm colors blended with broad brushstrokes. The work, with its liberal application of paint, is that of a confident master. Still Life With Purro # 2 is one of several works showing the influence of his friend Paul Signac’s adoption of the Divisionism or Pointillist color theories. Dabs and dots of color side-by-side create a dappled, not wholly integrated result. The first is lush and tactile, the second formulaic. But such experimentation is required of an artist en route to his/her own focus.
Several of Matisse’s works from 1914, painted from his room overlooking Notre Dame, are perfect examples of extremely different approaches to the same subject.
Notre-Dame (owned by a Swiss museum) appears as a quick oil sketch with the iconic cathedral in the distance but still a central point of interest. On the street below, along the Seine, quick dabs of a brush indicate passersby. The style is loose and the work brilliantly unfinished. Notre-Dame (owned by MoMA) is almost monochromatic with thick, wide brushstrokes of blue interchanged with black lines and a square open window, which is the only indication of its being a room. It borders on total abstraction and calls to mind contemporary artist Richard Diebenkorn.
Three interiors from 1918 are another dramatic notation of his playing with different approaches. The Open Window and Interior at Nice were painted from his room at the Hotel Beau-Rivage, where he went to escape the demands of Paris. The third, Interior with a Violin, is from the same room, but a completely different take. The first two are lovely Matisse interiors, filled with fabrics and patterns and color and skewered perspective. Much of the canvas of the third is covered with black paint, intensifying the brilliant sunlight outside the shuttered windows. The brilliant Mediterranean blue of the sea glimpsed outside is picked up in the lining of the open violin case. Not as abstract as the Notre Dame work, but getting there.
One of the highlights of this exhibition is the room filled with photographs of the stages of one of his most beautiful works, The Dream. He hired Armenian photographer Matossian to document his progress. These are not different paintings, but the same painting reworked. The first one is from January 1940 and the final one from September of that year. The photographs were displayed along with the final painting at an exhibition at Gallerie Maeght. Though the photographs are black and white, the impact of being able to follow an artist’s process is worth a visit in itself.
Last spring, I visited the Chapelle de Rosaire in Saint Paul de Vence, France. Everything in the small chapel was designed by Matisse as a thank-you to the nun who cared for him in his illness. I walked in and was so overwhelmed by the simple majesty and peace I cried. The chapel (1948-1951) is truly the culmination of this brilliant artist’s life. He designed the pews, the cross, and the priests’ vestments and, of course, the breathtaking windows that sun pours through.
The exhibition at the Met educates us on Matisse’s evolution as an artist, which culminated in the Chapelle de Rosaire. Put it on your “bucket list.”
You have only until March 17 to see “Matisse: In Search of True Painting.” Don’t miss it. The Metropolitan is closed Mondays.