I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently to see the Matisse in the 1930’s exhibit. I’ve always loved Matisse’s color and seemingly playful and uncomplicated work, but that’s not what compelled me to see the exhibit. The most important reason was the opportunity to go with a friend who had spent a year studying Matisse in depth and is a repository of knowledge about his work. The other reason is that, according to the PMA website, “By 1930, Henri Matisse had achieved significant international renown, yet he found himself in a deep creative slump.” Matisse in the 1930’s explores the ways he worked through this block and how his art changed in the process. Although I am light years behind Matisse artistically, I have been going through a creative slump of my own and was interested in learning how Matisse broke out of his.
I learned some new things about Matisse from my friend. For one thing, the French couldn’t stand his painting, at least in the beginning. So most of his best known work hangs on museum walls outside of France. His main collectors were Russian industrialists and American collectors. That’s why, if you want to get a good look at Matisse’s work, you will have to go to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia , the Baltimore Museum of Art where the collection amassed by the Cone sisters resides, or Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation which houses the biggest collection of his work, snapped up at bargain prices by Albert Barnes who started purchasing it in 1912. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited all three museums.
Most of the works at the PMA] are on loan from Baltimore or from smaller museums and private collections. None of the work in the PMA exhibit came from the Barnes (which probably has the best collection of Matisse in the world) or the Hermitage. But ironically, it was Matisse’s connection with Albert Barnes and a 1930 trip to visit him in a Philadelphia suburb that played a big role in the transformation of his work. You can read about that here.
Some things I learned at the exhibit: Matisse painted interiors, mostly still lifes and portraits. If he painted something outside, it was usually the view through a window.
He painted the same objects and people repeatedly. He just moved them around and found new ways to portray them. Drawing was central to his work and he was a master of line.
He sometimes recreated his own work in his paintings and drawings. You can see these in his depictions of the walls of his studio.
He painted many portraits of women, a great number of which were nudes.
In the early 1930’s, the color black didn’t play a big role in his work.
but the amount increased as the decade wore on on.
He embellished his motifs by incising the surface of his works with paint dipped into the handle of his paint brushes.
He was drawn to Islamic Art motifs and designs, and travelled widely in Morocco and Algeria which were French colonies in North Africa. You can see this influence in many of his backgrounds and elaborate rugs.
While looking into this aspect of Matisse’s work, I found an article called The Algerian Teenager who influenced Picasso and Matisse. (The heavy borrowing that went on here brought Emma Amos‘ Muse Picasso to mind.)
Going back to 1930, Albert Barnes commissioned a mural from Matisse during Matisse’s trip to Philadelphia. The result was The Dance II. But Barnes was unhappy with the final product and said he had no plans to exhibit it to the public. A tragedy?
No tragedy at all! Consider that many art historians believe that The Dance II was a turning point for Matisse, inspiring him to return to his early emphasis on color and to explore the use of paper cut-outs that would play major role in his later works of art when he began to lose his eyesight and could no longer paint. The uncanny use of line and color remained.
So it looks like Matisse worked his way out of his creative slump by laboring on a commission for crusty Albert Barnes, only to have it rejected. Which is another way of saying that you never know where your inspiration will come from. Stay open. In closing, I recommend an interesting article on the exhibit that Quinn Russell Brown wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer.