Matisse: In Search of True Painting

Review

of an Exhibition

by Brittany Powell

Published on December 27, 2012

  • Description:

    As a practicing visual artist and life-long fan of Matisse, I was excited to visit the Matisse: In Search of True Painting exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a tiring travel experience and a long day of class, I was looking forward to the uniquely calming but energizing experience I find in museum exhibitions.

    A quick cab ride across the park and a few minutes later my friend and I arrived to find the museum steps bustling with people coming and going. The museum is open for extended hours on Saturday nights and on this evening, visitors in long dark coats, tourists from out of town, and families of children, parents, and grandparents wandered the halls and filled the galleries.

    I have visited the Met several times in the past, and while the grand entrance and towering space never cease to thrill me, I also understand the historic and “traditional” nature of the galleries and exhibitions.

    My friend and I checked our coats and visited the ticketing counter to offer our “donation” for admission. After grabbing a museum map (just in case!) we wandered through the ancient art toward the special exhibition galleries.

    No matter how often I visit, I am eternally excited to recognize pieces similar to those in my “home museum’s” collection and after asking a few museum guards for guidance, my friend left me at the entrance of the exhibition where I joined the stream of visitors trickling slowly inside.

    Matisse: In Search of True Painting has been described as an exploration of Matisse’s painting process and for student of art history and practicing painter, the evolution of his work is astounding. The exhibition began with a cursory introduction to the time period and location of Matisse’s works.

    Evenly spaced and expertly hung, visitors can see some of his early pieces and the general wall text in this section references some historic and contemporary influences. For an art history student, the influences of Van Gough and Cezanne are clear, but as a museum professional, I wondered if other visitors could also vividly recall the artistic methods and changes of this time period. I was glad to see a small photo of a Van Gough painting included on a nearby panel for visitor reference in this early gallery, but as other artists were mentioned throughout exhibition, additional references in each gallery were scarce.

    Like this first gallery, each chronologically organized area of the exhibition included a large section of wall text, two to three paragraphs, of information regarding the artist’s location and work. Some sections included small bits of technical information regarding the use of specific mediums, the influence of literature, and the role of a specific model or location.

    In the areas where it was possible to find direct links between the paintings and the wall text, I found visitors pointing, congregating, or talking quietly to one another.
    In front of two paintings of Notre Dame I found a bench where I could quietly compare the striking differences in the depiction of the cathedral and recall my own experience in front of the church on a sunny summer afternoon.

    On a wall nearby it was possible to see the repeated use of the same model in several of Matisse’s works. Although the wall text made a brief mention of the model by name, I wondered to myself about her life and relationship with the artist. While I was able to recognize the deconstruction of the dark hair and striking gaze of the figure through the paintings, I overheard a child nearby ask his mother if something was wrong with the artist as he aged. While it might have been an obvious development of his process for a student of art, for this 10 year-old boy (and probably many first time museum visitors!) the flattening of the figure and the dissolving of realism were indicators of lackluster talent and the breakdown of Matisse’s artistic faculties. I chuckled quietly to myself after eavesdropping on this comment and was excited later in the exhibition when it was possible to see photographs of Matisse’s paintings after each day throughout the process of creation.

    This later section of the exhibition included text regarding the photography of Matisse’s work within his studio and illustrated the daily progress the artist made on the several photographed paintings. In this section it was possible to clearly identify the process and perhaps understand the method that Matisse practiced. As an artist I loved to see the evidence of creating, changing, and re-working areas of the composition, but as a novice viewer I might have asked myself why the artist was doing this at all. Without a clear explanation and contextual information about painting during this time period, a visitor unaccustomed to the progression of art throughout history might feel lost or confused.

    The highlight of the exhibition was an opportunity to see “Lady in Blue” alongside the photographs of the painting in progress and the large blue satin skirt worn by the model herself. The black and white photographs of the painting in progress illustrated the complexity and nuance of Matisse’s process while the text in this gallery referenced the time Matisse spent painting the delicate white lace ruffles against the massive cloud of deep blue satin. It was here I felt the strongest connection between the painting, the process, and the experience of the artist. Here, in one of the smallest gallery spaces, visitors lingered while discussing the painting, photographs, and realistic evidence of what the artist depicted. They pointed, they leaned, and they squinted as they gazed between the hulking blue skirt, the painting itself, and the photographs of its evolution. This is where the exploration was truly revealed! Unfortunately for the visitors, this was one of the final galleries of the exhibition.

    A subsequent gallery also featured two paintings alongside the photographs of their progress and I noted that visitors tended to look harder and linger longer in this space as well, searching for the evidence of shifts and changes in the paintings from day to day. Here they could see Matisse’s process evolve and unfold.
    The final gallery featured a book of more abstract drawings and paintings along with text regarding the artist’s work near the end of his life. As an artist and art history student, I loved the opportunity to examine Matisse’s evolving process of painting.

    We wound our way to the coatroom and gathered our things=. As a museum professional I wondered about those visitors who might have experienced this show with less historic knowledge and understanding of Matisse and painting during this time period.
    It seemed that the strongest visitor experiences were those that occurred when the artistic process, contextual information, and realistic “evidence” of Matisse’s work were clearly articulated. For those who might not be familiar with Matisse and art history, the combination of documenting and explaining the artistic process, observation guided by meaningful label text, and the artifacts of the subject could extend the experience beyond technical information and bring the art to life.

    We made our way down the crowded front steps and my thoughts returned to the magic of seeing the delicate lace ruffles of the large blue dress and the bright colors of the “Lady in Blue” while the low humming of visitors and faint echo of classical music mixed with the sounds of the city and drifted into the crisp evening air.

Latest Comments (1)

large blue satin skirt

by Kathleen Mclean - December 29, 2012

Brittany, your review makes me think about the power of an OBJECT—in this case the skirt—to catalyze a different kind of experience. When we museum practitioners talk about “objects,” we are usually focusing on the paintings themselves. But in this instance, the skirt is a large three-dimensional object among paintings and other graphics, and it seems to have animated the space in a different way than the paintings.

A few images would be helpful.

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