Matisse, Beyond the Studio Borders

Inspiration can come from humble places. For Henri Matisse, it came from objects like a simple pewter jug. The jug in question, which has a flip-top lid and a subtle pattern impressed upon the now-dull metal, can be seen in one of Matisse’s paintings, where it rests on a side table and is filled with the flowers, all committed to canvas with loose brushstrokes. It can also be seen as just one of many objects featured in one of the Museum of Fine Art’s newest exhibitions, Matisse in the Studio.

After opening to the public on April 9, the exhibit juxtaposes over 70 Matisse works—ranging from his well-known paintings and drawings to his bronze sculpture—with over 80 of the objects that inspired them. The connection between the carefully curated collections from which Matisse drew inspiration gives visitors a richer understanding of the 20th century French painter’s work, and provides them with rare and valuable insight into the creative process.

Curated by Ellen McBreen and Helen Burnham, Matisse in the Studio is organized into five sections—the object as an actor, the nude and African art, the face, studio as theatre, and essential forms. Each section delves into the connections between the artworks that Matisse created over his career and the variety of objects that he collected throughout his lifetime. The first section, the object as an actor, eases visitors into the idea of the exhibit, presenting them with the physical objects that Matisse frequently featured in his work. Some of the following sections of the exhibition become more conceptual, highlighting the ideas and techniques that he borrowed from other cultures. As visitors make their way through the gallery, Matisse’s brightly-colored paintings, or his commanding sketches and sculptures, jump off the bright-white walls, and visitors can immediately notice the connection between the pieces and the nearby object with which it is paired.

Visitors will notice how the pattern of an intricate Egyptian curtain that Matisse owned is repeated in his paintings, and how his bronze busts, and even his portraits, draw inspiration from objects like a Mboom mask. As McBreen suspects, some might actually be shocked by the obvious links between Matisse’s work and his objects, many of which originate from areas in Africa and Asia.

“Even [visitors] who are fairly familiar with Matisse, because we think of him as such an European artist, and I think that it will be a good pleasant surprise for people to discover how international and how culturally diverse his inspirations were,” McBreen said.

While conducting research for her book, Matisse Sculptures: The Pinup and the Primitive, McBreen herself was even slightly surprised as she discovered just “how intense these relationships were” between Matisse’s objects and his work. But the surprise became inspiration as she delved more deeply into Matisse’s collecting of African sculpture, and how it impacted his treatment of the body in “a more abstract style.”  But this exploration shed light upon the many other objects unique in style and place of origin that influenced Matisse’s works at different moments in his life. So, with the help of Burnham, McBreen began creating this exhibition that would illuminate Matisse’s own sources of inspiration.

As they, selected the works, the two curators focused upon including a range of mediums—Matisse worked as a painter, a sketcher, and a sculptor. But McBreen and Burnham also had to tell a specific story that showed Matisse “engaging with his personal objects.” This requirement made organizing the exhibition slightly difficult, as each piece—some of which came from Germany, or the Matisse family itself—was integral to the exhibition.

“The pairs are kind of like a chess game, each move is conceived for specific intent,” McBreen said. “So it was a complex show to plan, because if a loan fell through, you couldn’t just replace it with another item.”

But for McBreen, this complex game of chess paid off, resulting in a show where the underlying themes are just as important as the masterpieces on display. As McBreen explained, the “intelligence” and skill of an artist is largely dependent upon how open minded he or she is. For a master like Matisse, this meant never sitting down to work with a pre-planned solution in his head. Instead, he would open himself to discovering something “in the process of doing,” a kind of release that can frighten some creators. The connection between Matisse’s work and his objects also exhibits his intense gaze beyond “the borders” of his own European tradition, a value that is particularly poignant given modern political discourse on immigration and the preservation of American ways of life.

“If a culture and a nation isn’t open to other ideas outside of borders, things get pretty boring and limited really quickly,” McBreen said. “It’s interesting that this has become such a political issue now, with things like the Muslim ban, and you’re like, well Matisse had an open border policy with his studio, so everything was open for questioning and new ideas were constantly welcome. In order for creativity to happen, that’s kind of a necessity to be open to new people and new ideas.”

And when the show ends its stay in Boston in early July before moving to its second location at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, its layers of relevancy will not have faded one bit.

“It is a test of really great art that each time period and each generation can see something that’s new or relevant to their generation,” McBreen said.

Featured Image Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

April 19, 2017

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