The Art History Newsletter

A Trip across France with Matisse’s Brain

by | 17 May 2012 | Modern, Museums

Now at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Matisse. Paires et séries is a small jewel box of an exhibition, studded with fifty-four paintings, thirty-four drawings, and five collages. Rich, intelligent, and uncluttered, it is that rare understated blockbuster that encourages close looking and deep thinking about the creative process. I left it inspired to view my world as openly as Henri Matisse did his.

Matisse. Paires et séries eschews dense texts in favor of subtle installation techniques to activate the works’ mysteries. The walls provide just a short chronology, two quotations from the artist, and three explanatory panels, with no interpretation of individual works. The works seduce the eye, while their careful juxtaposition encourages thought. The viewer is invited to participate in the task Matisse set for himself early on—to merge sensation and cognition. “What I am after, above all, is expression. … Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings,” Matisse wrote in his 1908 “Notes of a Painter” (Translation Jack Flam, Matisse on Art, 1973).

In the first rooms, paintings treating the same subject are hung in two and threes. The paintings’ labels, which indicate studio locations and months or seasons, suggest that Matisse worked on these groups simultaneously or in rapid succession. The variety within themes is striking and instructive. The busy detail in both facture and narrative of the gray Pont Saint-Michel, Paris, Effect of Snow (c. 1900, Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Bührle, Zurich) seems downright Impressionistic compared to the roughly scumbled azure and turquoise sky that dissipates to gessoed canvas in the right edge of Pont Saint-Michel (c. 1900, Centre Pompidou, Paris) or the geometric planes of vivid color in Pont Saint-Michel (c. 1901, Santa Barbara Museum of Art). Clearly, something more than a simple recording of the changing seasons is at play here.

Matisse’s paintings, particularly their colors, lose much in reproduction. Seeing both versions of Le Luxe (1907; version I: Centre Pompidou, Paris; version II: Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen) illustrates his power to use color to express divergent visions of the same composition, as do the two versions of Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance” (1912; version I: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; version II: Pushkin Museum, Moscow). Other pairings demonstrate how deeply Matisse engaged the issue of pictorial depth. The Cubist-inspired geometry and insistent flatness of Goldfish and Palette (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York) complicates the seemingly comfortable perspective of Interior with a Goldfish Bowl (1914, Centre Pompidou, Paris), and vice versa. Witness the way Matisse scratched away paint with a wood brush-handle in the New York picture, revealing a literal and illusionistic depth in its multiple layers.

Many of these paintings were never exhibited as pendants, but as Matisse. Paires et séries unfolds, it provides evidence that at least by the end of his career, Matisse wanted to reveal his creative process. The exhibition next turns to drawings that Matisse expressly created in series and published in the 1943 book Dessins: Thèmes et Variations. It reproduced seventeen series—eleven of women, six of still lifes—that Matisse made in the Hotel Régina in Nice during 1941 and 1942. The drawings are complete works of art in their own right, lyrical meditations on a theme. In series F, Matisse depicts a reclining woman from multiple angles across ten drawings, alternately zooming in and pulling back, even depicting her twice in one drawing. From the spare lines of the initial charcoal drawing, the artist adds detail in his arabesque-like pen and ink variations, before returning to an economical but energetic line in the final pencil drawings.

Matisse. Paires et séries presents the original drawings from series F, H, and M. They benefit greatly from their display on the gallery walls, uninterrupted by the act of turning the page or the need to rotate the large folio as the drawings’ orientations change. (A photograph reproduced in mural scale in the exhibition tellingly shows the original drawings tacked in neat rows and columns filling the walls of Matisse’s studio-apartment.) Seen here, the drawings seem much closer to the non-linear experience that Matisse must have had as he was creating them. The result suggests an artist constantly moving around his motif, responding to it differently, and changing his mind about how he sees and feels it. These suites of drawings read as poetic explorations of the world in all of its variations rather than strict progressions toward an ideal.

In the 1930s, Matisse began employing photographers to document the unfolding of his paintings. In December 1945 at the Galerie Maeght in Paris, in addition to drawings and sculptures, Matisse exhibited six paintings, each surrounded by framed photographs of the various ‘states’. It seems certain that Matisse wanted to grant his audience a glimpse of his artistic process.

Matisse. Paires et séries reunites four of the Galerie Maeght paintings and reproduces the documentary photographs in a format that I found frustrating at first. Postcard-sized and displayed in a glass-topped table, they are difficult to see when the gallery is crowded. Worse, only two of the completed canvases are exhibited in the same gallery as the photographs. Yet the close looking borne of this situation ultimately led to discovery. Forced to rely on my memory to make comparisons, I examined the preparatory photographs carefully, marveling at the variety they divulged. The fourteen photographs chronicling Matisse’s process of painting The Romanian Blouse (Centre Pompidou, Paris), from 11 December 1939 to 23 April 1940, show a fascinating trajectory. It began as a representational, floridly detailed portrait in contours, until Matisse added and subtracted detail en route to the elegantly spare final version. When I finally looked at the completed canvas in the subsequent gallery, the experience was intense. It looked less like a static resolution than a pulsing, almost living entity. I could no longer see the earlier layers (although in other canvases, pentimenti do exist), but my memories of them indelibly infused its current incarnation. The constant balancing act Matisse waged between sensation, cognition, and expression—between seeing, thinking, and feeling—was palpable. The artist’s desire to “reach that state of condensation of sensations which makes a painting,” suddenly made thrilling sense.

Matisse. Paires et séries concludes with a series of gouache cut-outs, Blue Nude I-IV (1952, version I: Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel; versions II and III: Centre Pompidou, Paris; version IV, Musée Matisse, Nice). No label need tell you that the “fourth” version was made first: the flurry of partially erased charcoal lines on its support, as well as the many fragments of cut and layered paper composing the figure, betray a complex distillation of a motif, which is then subtly adapted in the other three variations. This final moment in the exhibition is both visually and intellectually powerful. It suggests that for Matisse, artmaking was not just teleology, a series of steps toward a beautiful picture, but also a deeply personal coming to terms with a world in flux. In his words, “I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it.” By inviting us to look carefully at Matisse’s art, and to reflect on the personal quest it conveys, Matisse. Paires et séries gently encourages us to open our eyes and minds to new perspectives on our own experience.

Matisse. Paires et séries is on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through June 18, 2012. It will travel to Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst (July 14-October 28, 2012) and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 2, 2012-March 17, 2013). A richly illustrated, 288-page French-language catalogue accompanies the exhibition in Paris. Edited by exhibition curator Cécile Debray, it includes short essays by scholars including Yve-Alain Bois, Éric de Chassey, Anne Coron, John Elderfield, Jack Flam, and Rémi Labrusse, as well as two conservation notes, on Le Luxe I and II and Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance” I and II. An official iPad application devoted to the exhibition is also available for download.

Expect long lines and crowds. I recommend buying and printing tickets online in advance, and the evening viewing hours—it’s open until 10:50 p.m. Thursday to Monday. What better time to emerge from this exhibition than on a weekend night, when after-images of Matisse’s bright canvases will illuminate your dark walk home?



  1. Marfisa said on 31 May 2012 at 5:24 pm:

    This format is so annoying–I skip lots of articles just because I can’t stand the short lines.

  2. Jennifer said on 4 Jun 2012 at 9:07 pm:

    I concur with Marfisa regarding the format. When I choose to read a longer article, I have to copy and paste it into a word document. A change would be much appreciated.