I have spent my life training to be an art historian and museum director. Yet Henri Matisse’s influence is so culturally pervasive that I cannot remember when I first encountered the artist. Perhaps it was in kindergarten when my class made our own cut outs with colored paper and scissors. Why is Matisse so famous, though, and why bring an exhibition of his work to San Antonio?
Matisse: Life in Color is the first chance, and maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime chance, for most San Antonians to explore the work of one of the world’s great artists, and to fully understand how beautiful and transformative his sculptures, paintings and drawings are. It is my mission to bring the experience of great art to the citizens of San Antonio. If San Antonio is to rise and compete with the other great cities of the United States, it needs to be a place where people can expect to see exhibitions like Matisse: Life in Color.
Looking around the Museum Reach—up to the Pearl, out Broadway and across the river, I see that culture is a catalyst for commerce. What is good for the arts is good for the business climate of the city. Without the foresight of our founders, development on the north side of downtown would look a lot different than it does today. In 1981 it was groundbreaking to open a museum in an old brewery in a desolate part of town. We continue to foment an art revolution in San Antonio. And so, Matisse.
Matisse was an art revolutionary, and is the artist most responsible for the rise of modernism in culture today. During the course of his life, Matisse moved from a traditional representational mode to a fully abstract method of rendering things in flat planes of color. You can see modernism being born as you walk through the galleries and decades of Matisse’s long career in our exhibition. Without him there would be no Picasso, no abstract expressionism, no Jackson Pollack. As Matisse pushed the boundaries and expectations of modernism, he made art that is thrilling and engaging.
At the same time, Matisse’s works are accessible. His paintings, sculptures and graphic works are just plain beautiful in their pure colors and clean lines. They seem so simple. Matisse makes it look easy.
But what I love about Matisse is that he eschewed the idea of the artist as genius. He talked about how making art was work; these great paintings and sculptures did not just suddenly pour out of him. Matisse struggled with the relationships between line, color, form, and composition throughout his life, and he explored the same themes over and over again with highly different results. He was a close and careful observer of nature. Take a look at the video of Matisse drawing his grandson in the entry of our exhibition. He looks so carefully at the boy that you can feel the intensity of his gaze in a film made almost 75 years ago. “I don’t paint things. I only paint the difference between things,” he said.
One of my favorite parts of this exhibition is following the way that Matisse worked throughout his life on a single form, the reclining female nude, in sculptures, drawings, prints, and paintings. Matisse traveled to Florence with Gertrude and Leo Stein in 1907, and during that trip must have seen Michelangelo’s Dawn, a reclining nude with bent arms and legs made for the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici in San Lorenzo in the early 16th century.
The culmination of Matisse’s preoccupation with Michelangelo’s form is the Large Reclining Nude, also known as the Pink Nude. Matisse worked on this painting throughout the spring and then again in the autumn of 1935, when he was 64 years old. One of the delights of the exhibition is Matisse’s journey of making the Large Reclining Nude. He documented the progression of the work in a series of 22 dated photographs, and they are hung in sequential order in the museum’s great hall. It’s a chance to peek over the shoulder of the artist as he refines the idea in the painting that he wants to capture.
It is heartening to me to realize that Matisse did not arrive at the finished aspect of the Pink Nude without significant work. Indeed the first drawing could be a life-study of a reclining nude woman done in an art class by a very talented student. If you look closely at the photographs, you begin to notice that he changed the position of the model’s body—arching her back, moving her arms, legs, and head, and even rolling her around in space so that now more, now less of her back is visible in the painting.
The photographs reveal when and where Matisse pinned pieces of paper to the painting itself to experiment with changes to the shape of the model’s figure, and to add decorative patterns of lines and cross marks to the blue background. By this time in his career, Matisse had realized that cutting and pinning paper instead of scraping and repainting the surface could expedite his creative process. Tiny little pinholes are still clearly visible on the surface of the Large Reclining Nude; they are evidence of the pains he took over months to accomplish his vision.
How many of us have left a critical piece undone, waiting for the energy, idea or inspiration to finish it just so? Matisse worked regularly and kept a very strict schedule; he woke early, worked for several hours, then had an early supper, almost invariably boiled eggs, salad and wine. He said he needed the boredom of his routine to allow his creativity to flourish.
I hope our visitors will see that the work of this genius is incredibly uplifting and inspiring. It has taken hundreds of people, thousands of hours, and the financial backing of dozens of patrons and corporations to bring Matisse to San Antonio. We have been undaunted in our mission. As Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.”
Matisse: Life in Color, Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art opens to the public on June 14. Timed tickets are required and are available here. Members see the exhibition for free. There is a $15 surcharge for non-members.
A separate complementary exhibition, The Art Books of Henri Matisse: Works from the Bank of America Collection opens June 21. The exhibition will be free with admission and free for members.
The museum café, Wild Beast, will be open during museum hours through the run of the exhibition.
*Featured/top image: “Large Reclining Nude” by Henri Matisse. Image courtesy of San Antonio Museum of Art © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.