Exhibition: Matisse, a life in color

Henri Matisse is a formidable illusionist. In Eggplant interior, he transforms a banal still life – three eggplants placed on a table in the middle of the studio – into a shimmering kaleidoscope of decorative motifs. Everything seems to be done to confuse the viewer. Distorting the perspective, the mirror on the left of the composition reflects a distorted reflection of the scene while the window on the right opens onto a landscape which strangely takes up the colors of the room, like a painting in the painting. The opulent blue flowers of the wallpaper, which invade the floor and ceiling, end in causing a sensation of vertigo.

Painted in 1911 and offered by Matisse’s family to the Musée de Grenoble eleven years later, this monumental painting by its size (2.50 m × 2 m) and its quality is one of the formidable rediscoveries offered by the Centre’s exhibition Pompidou. This fragile glue tempera has left its alpine refuge only three times in a century! While waiting for the museum to reopen, it can be admired during a virtual visit (1), among a dozen milestone works chosen by curator Aurélie Verdier to retrace the evolution of Matiss, from The reading light at Blue nude 4, painted by Matisse two years before his death.

→ IN 2015. Matisse’s influences, at the Gianadda foundation

Deprived of the great Russian and American loans which had made the success of the masterful Parisian exhibition of 1993, the curator of the National Museum of Modern Art was able to take advantage of the French resources, of an unsuspected wealth despite the late interest of French institutions for the painter (the major purchases date from the post-war period!). The route draws mainly from the collections of the Center Pompidou (80 paintings and sculptures, 180 graphic works) and those of the monographic museums of Cateau-Cambrésis, the artist’s birthplace, and of Nice, his adopted city. Beautiful private loans and a handful of paintings from Switzerland, Germany or Denmark complete the selection, such as this intense self-portrait in a striped polo shirt, where Matisse strangely resembles his rival Picasso.

“When does Matisse become Matisse? “

Paintings, but also drawings, engravings and sculptures are put into perspective by the reflections of writers, art historians, close to Matisse and privileged witnesses of his work. An original literary approach, highlighted by the podcast (2) offered by the Center Pompidou, fed by numerous extracts and quotes. “When does Matisse become Matisse? “, wonders Louis Aragon in his anthology Henri Matisse, novel (1971), the result of thirteen years of interviews.

The artist will indeed take time to find his style. His paintings from the 1890s are still imbued with the long hours spent copying the masters of the Louvre, such as Chardin. Son of a seedman from the North, the young man landed in Paris to study painting and “To make a vision ”, according to the formula of his elder Cézanne, whose work he admires and which he bought at barely 20, and despite modest means, Three bathers, which he will give at the Petit Palais.

Game of contrasts and between colors

His palette, initially reduced to bistre and earth tones, became lighter and more toned during his travels to Belle-Île-en-Mer then to Corsica, where he stayed with his wife Amélie in 1898. On the shores of the Mediterranean, from Saint-Tropez to Collioure, he tried his hand at pointillism, praised by his friend Signac. In the superb Port of Abaill (1905), kept in a private collection, the explosion of colorful touches makes the light vibrate, animating workers like the sails of boats. But this technique does not completely satisfy him and his experiments will lead him the same year to the “wild” revolution.

Matisse will no longer stop playing with contrasts between colors “Filled with pure air” and the black lines of the drawings, carried by an incessant “Requirement of the invention” greeted by Aragon. Showing all the stages of his journey, sparkling collages of Jazz aerial works inspired by his stay in Polynesia, the exhibition ends with his total work of art: the Chapel of the Rosary of Vence, of which we can admire charcoal sketches of the Stations of the Cross, models of chasubles in gouache paper and the monumental stained glass projects, “Fiery center of the church”, according to Matisse. A dazzle.


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