Rencontre d'oeuvres (A meeting of artworks)

Review

of an Exhibition

by Gretchen Jennings

Published on September 25, 2007, Modified on October 22, 2007

  • Description:

    The Matisse Museum has recently reopened after being closed for major renovations. Since the last time I visited they have put in much needed air conditioning and climate control mechanisms. The Museum does not have a large collection of Matisse’s paintings, but what it does have are many of the props, scale models, and personal materials that Matisse kept in his studio and used often in his paintings. It is quite striking, for example, to come across a striped armchair that you know you’ve seen in one of his works. With the reopening, the Museum is trying a new approach – augmenting their small collection by featuring one central work belonging to the Museum and placing it “in dialogue” with other works that give a context for the main work. In this exhibition the featured work is a “nature morte” or still life that shows a bowl of pomegranates in front of an open window. Next to it is another Matisse featuring pomegranates that was borrowed from a German museum. Surrounding these works and in an adjoining hallway are many examples, borrowed from some 28 lenders, of the use of the pomegranate in Western art- from ancient tiles to ceramics from the 16th and 17th centuries, to still life paintings from the 19th century. Thematic labels for each historic period discuss the groups of works as well as the symbolism of the pomegranate, which was often used in connection with the goddess Venus, connoting fertility and abundance. I loved this approach because it made all kinds of connections with the history of western art, and because it highlighted the ways in which Matisse’s work was both a continuation of and a break with the Western cannon. There is one Matisse cut-out of a pomegranate- deceptively simple in its form- that absolutely captures the essence of this ancient symbol. However, I am not sure how effective this approach is for many visitor. The works from earlier periods are somewhat separate from the two key works, so that the design of the exhibition does not lend itself to making connections. Other visitors looking at the exhibition, for example, seemed to wander off, and I am not sure they were making the connections between the hallway of historic works and the two Matisse paintings “in dialogue.” I’m not sure if the museum is planning any tracking or surveying of visitors to see how this new approach is working, but it couldn’t hurt. The idea is a good one, in my view, but there may be steps the designers of the space can take to make future “rencontre d’oeuvres” communicate more effectively to visitors.

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