Passions of Matisse

Henri Matisse: A Retrospective 1992–January 12, 1993

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York September 24,

Henri Matisse: A Retrospective

catalog of the exhibition by John Elderfield
Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 480 pp., $37.50 (paper)

Collecting Matisse

by Albert Kostenevich, by Natalia Semenova
Flammarion/Abbeville Press, 192 pp., $60.00

In 1950 Bernard Berenson visited Henri Matisse at his apartment in the Hotel Regina overlooking Nice. Berenson, who had been one of Matisse’s early supporters, was irritated to find that the man whom he chose to remember as a starving young Fauve now displayed a seigneurial self-absorption even grander than his own. Polite but remote, Matisse seemed to take it for granted that the noted connoisseur’s visit was an act of homage. Five years after this encounter, Berenson took his revenge by ending a short essay about the recently deceased artist as follows: “My conclusion about Matisse is that in the neck-and-neck race with Picasso for the highest place in the art of the last fifty years he ended by coming in second.”

At the time, most people would have agreed with Berenson, but during the past twenty years or so, a consensus has slowly been building about the importance of Matisse’s art. The large Paris retrospective in 1970 gave people a new awareness of the extent of Matisse’s accomplishment, and in the years since a number of other shows have concentrated on the brilliance of specific aspects of his work, such as his drawings, his paper cutouts, and his painting in Nice and Morocco. I can think of no one in recent years who has exerted a greater effect on contemporary art. Painters as different as Richard Diebenkorn, Ellsworth Kelly, and David Hockney have drawn on Matisse, and his influence is also quite apparent among countless younger artists.

The Museum of Modern Art has made the extraordinary gesture of giving over to Matisse’s work the second and third floor galleries usually dedicated to its permanent collection—the first time that an artist has been so honored since a similar display was made twelve years ago for Picasso. It is a very large and impressive exhibition, which will, I believe, greatly increase the number of people who think that Matisse is the equal of Picasso or just about any other modern artist.

The exhibition presents us with more works by Matisse than have ever before been seen together—some four hundred in all, ranging from his early realistic paintings to his near-abstract late cutouts, and including sculpture, prints, and drawings as well as works in color. The size of the exhibition calls attention to Matisse’s immense formal diversity, the way he was able to work in very different styles not only at different times in his career but frequently at the same time, producing widely divergent works within the same week or month. Such intensive scrutiny can have a devastating effect on an artist, and many people had serious misgivings about how Matisse’s work would appear in the Museum of Modern Art’s rather cramped and claustrophobic galleries. But the curator, John Elderfield, has installed the pictures with a deep understanding of the inner rhythms of Matisse’s art. Not only do most of the individual paintings look wonderful, but they …

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