Matisse in the 1930’s

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 AmosMuse 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.

Suzanne Valadon at the Barnes Foundation

I saw the Suzanne Valadon exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia last Fall. Now that the dog days of August are upon us, I have finally decided to write about it.

The Barnes Foundation, for those who are not familiar with it, is an art oasis on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. It used to be located in Merion, a Philadelphia suburb. The move to Philadelphia was controversial, and a testament to the fact that money pretty much rules everything in the art world and everywhere else. But there’s no denying that it practically took an act of congress to gain admission to the Barnes when it was in Merion. And there’s also no denying that many more people get to see the collection now that it’s in Philadelphia. You can read more about the history of the Barnes Foundation here.

Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) was a French artist who “never attended the Academy and was never confined to a tradition.

She was tough because she had to be. She was born out of wedlock and had to make her own way in the world that didn’t treat women very well unless they had money or position behind them.

But she was talented, ambitious and smart. She didn’t have any formal training but started drawing at an early age. She knew many of the French Impressionists, and served as a model for some of them. She was reportedly in love with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Edgar Degas was a friend who greatly respected her drawing and served as a teacher and artistic mentor. He taught her printmaking so she would have a way to make a living other than being a model, a laundress, milliner, waitress, or countless other jobs she held.

She was an independent woman who lived as she wished and who was admired because she “painted like a man,” or with masculine sensibilities. Some said that she painted “with an energy unheard of in a woman.” I am not sure what that’s supposed to mean. She used bold colors and bold contours. I guess you could say that she painted like she meant it.

She ultimately married and had a son who became a well-known artist in his own right.

In an interview late in her life, she said, “I found myself, I made myself, I said what I had to say.”

If you are interested in learning more about Suzanne Valadon, here’s a timeline of her life, a short biography, and a summary of her artistic legacy.