Henri Matisse and what makes modern art modern

Large Reclining Nude, 1935, by Henri Matisse 
Large Reclining Nude, 1935, by Henri Matisse 

If the winter blues are getting you down, hop on over to the MIA on Sunday for the opening of the new Matisse exhibition, which has plenty of color and light. Curated by the MIA's Erika Holmquist-Wall, the ticketed exhibition draws from the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection, a treasure trove of 20th century modern art that includes over 500 paintings, sculptures, and prints made by Matisse. 

Nude with Spanish Comb, Seated in front of a Curtained Window, early 1920, by Henri Matisse
Nude with Spanish Comb, Seated in front of a Curtained Window, early 1920, by Henri Matisse

Claribel and Etta Cone were textile heiresses who began collecting art when their brother gave them $500 to "spruce up" their home. They used it to buy five paintings by impressionist artist Theodore Robinson. The sisters became friends with Gertrude and Leo Stein, who introduced them to Picasso, Matisse, and other avant-garde artists of the early 20th century. 

According to Holmquist-Wall, Matisse realized that due to the number of his works that the sisters had purchased, their pieces would probably end up in a museum eventually. So he began to seed their collection with works that reflect the extent of his career. 

The exhibition is structured chronologically, with different rooms encompassing different periods of Matisse's practice. As you walk through the different galleries, you'll notice that the work goes from rather dark pieces to the extremely colorful jazz room at the end. 

No matter what room you're in, though, there's one common theme throughout all of the work: women. Sitting women, lounging women, naked women, clothed women; Matisse was fond of painting the opposite sex. And while his models may have been very beautiful, you'll notice they aren't particularly attractive in the way Matisse portrays them in his paintings and sculptures. The women's bodies are objectified, but not in the way that women's bodies are objectified in advertisements and the media today. Rather, it's as if the bodies become a medium through which Matisse is exploring form, shape, and pattern. 

The Yellow Dress, 1929-1931, by Henri Matisse
The Yellow Dress, 1929-1931, by Henri Matisse

This is true in his early work, such as Nude with Spanish Comb, Seated in Front of a Curtained Window, made in early 1920, which depicts a rather blurry looking, almost unfinished figure of a woman sitting in front of two window shades which draw most of the focus in the painting. It's also true in a much later piece, Large Reclining Nude, made in 1935, where the female figure becomes not so much a reflection of a woman's body but rather an abstract shape. The arms and legs lose their dimension, and the woman's head is so tiny it doesn't really belong with the rest of the body. The shape, painted a peachy color, appears in contrast to a blue-and-white graph pattern right behind the figure and other shapes and colors in the piece as well. In the same room, there's a fascinating series of photographs that show Large Reclining Nude in progress, as Matisse fiddles with how to distort the figure and other shapes that make up the painting. 

Even Matisse's odalisque paintings have more to do with the colorful tapestries and fabrics than the nude bodies of the women and their undefined faces. Like Picasso, Matisse isn't depicting beauty, but rather exploring a new way of seeing the world. The paintings of the modernists aren't rooted in the male gaze more or less than artists than came before them, the male gaze just manifests itself in a different way. 

Photograph of Large Reclining Nude in progress 
Photograph of Large Reclining Nude in progress 

The exhibit, which spans Matisse's entire career, serves as a great entry point for understanding "what makes modern art modern," says Holmquist-Wall. What you see is an artist who is compartmentalizing how sees the world. Rather than painting a woman sitting in a chair, he's painting the hexagons that connect together on the floor beneath her feet or the shifts in color of her yellow dress. Rather than painting a subject, Matisse divides the world up into its different components, putting them back together as a way of seeing the whole in a different way.  

When you come to the show, you might want to consider doing the audio tour, which includes local French actor Dominique Serrand, from the Moving Company, reading Matisse's writings. You can also take a selfie inside of a constructed Matisse painting. 

Besides the main ticketed Matisse Exhibit, Holmquist-Wall has put together "More Matisse, Please!," comprised of Matisse works that the MIA owns, as well as a group of paintings created by Matisse's students. Not a part of the ticketed exhibition, "More Matisse, Please!" takes place in four different rooms in the main part of the museum.


"Matisse: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art"
February 23 through May 18, 2014

Minneapolis Institute of Arts
$16; $20 weekends (general museum admission is free)

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Minneapolis Institute of Art

2400 Third Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55404



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