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Weaving a New Appreciation for Matisse
NYC's Metropolitan Museum of Art sheds new light on a modern master and his textiles
Kevin Driscoll (km0d5)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2005-07-06 11:44 (KST)   
At last! New Yorkers have access to an exhibition that bucks what has almost become a trend these days, namely putting on large scale shows devoted to the work of a great artist with wide popular appeal and motivated solely by the need to generate revenue for the gallery or museum concerned.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, has an exciting show titled "Matisse, His Art and His Textiles," which has just opened after running in London and France. The exhibition, which is open through Sept. 25, offers a fresh approach and new insights into one of the 20th century's most fascinating artists.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), although one of the great pioneers of modern European art, has traditionally been regarded as a late starter in his chosen profession. He was already in his early 20s before he embarked on formal art training in Paris. It was a further decade or so before he launched his career there at the notorious 1905 Autumn Salon, where he and a small group of friends exhibited the first "Fauves " paintings.

To describe Matisse as a "late starter" somehow implies he was not the equal of artists of more precocious talent, or that he had squandered those crucial early years. However, this show argues, convincingly, that Matisse's early years far from being idled away were in fact spent developing an interest that was to underpin the subsequent evolution of his own distinctive style which was to prove so radical and influential in European art as a whole.

"Seville Still Life" (1910-11) (The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)
Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambresis and grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, both towns located in a region of France noted for the manufacture of fine quality textiles. It was the abundant supply of such fabrics with their refined design and rich color that was the formative influence on Matisse and remained a great passion throughout his long working life.

Even after he went to study art in Paris, by which time the French capital was the epicenter of avant-garde European art, Matisse scoured the lowliest flea markets and junk shops for any old bits of cloth or curtains etc that caught his eye. He responded enthusiastically to the texture, design and color of all sorts of fabrics that seemed to trigger a rich creative impulse in him.

Take for example the rather simple and mundane tablecloth with a pomegranate design, which is utterly transformed in "Seville Still Life" (1910-11). In this hectic picture, the cloth takes on an extraordinarily animated quality. It exudes a nervous energy, which is checked only by the vivid red background. Painted unevenly throughout, the large expanse of red gives off a gentle, pulsing effect that foreshadows the late abstract paintings of the American artist, Mark Rothko.

These daringly experimental pictures drew a predictable reaction from the critics. But fortunately for Matisse, there emerged someone who had no difficulty appreciating the merit of such paintings and who was to prove a key figure to his success. That figure was the Russian, Sergei Shchukin, who became one of Matisse's principal patrons in the years leading up to the World War I.

By August 1914, Shchukin had amassed possibly the finest collection of early works by Matisse assembled by a private collector and which now form an important part of the permanent collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The fact that Shchukin was himself a textile manufacturer and shared Matisse's passion and fascination with textiles, makes it likely that he would have been well placed to understand fully what Matisse was doing and to appreciate the new, exciting visual vocabulary that the painter was creating.

After the war, Matisse transferred the center of his activities from Paris to the South of France. Throughout the 1920s he put together an impressive treasure trove, or "working library" of carpets, wall-hangings, cushions and Arab embroideries.

Many of these props were used in the exquisite Odalisque series of drawings and paintings that he made during this period. Typically, Matisse dressed a favorite model in exotic costume and cocooned her in brilliant color and bold patterned cushions, screens and tapestries. The model reclines or sits insouciantly, relishing her own overt sensuousness.

One notable exception in the series is "Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground" (1926). Here, the decorative figure is anything but decorative: her bulky frame has been treated in an emphatically sculptural, three-dimensional fashion. She has been de-personalized by the emblematic, mask-like treatment of the face. Yet all the paraphernalia with which she is surrounded; plant, still life, carpets and cushions etc, are full of vitality. Even the Rococco frame of the mirror behind her seems to take on a life of its own.

Towards the end of the 1930s, Matisse's range of sources became ever more diverse. He bought a group of simple Romanian peasant blouses, some of which are included in the show, and disregarding social barriers, he also purchased half a dozen couture dresses from the end of season sales at the Paris fashion houses. One of these beautiful examples that won the Grand Prix d'Elegance in 1938, is exhibited beside the painting "Two Young Girls: Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress" (1941) where Matisse has used it.

It seems, though, to have been the peasant blouse that really captured the artist's imagination. In many of the drawings, Matisse the great colorist, demonstrates that he was also a very accomplished draughtsman. At times the line is delicate and precise, reflecting the intricacy of the embroidery. At others the line is more free flowing and remarkably economical.

However, the props and costumes were not used by the artist for their decorative appeal alone. The great achievement of this is that it illustrates the impact that textiles and textile design had on the development of Matisse's art. By displaying the fabrics from the artist's collection alongside the relevant paintings, we can see how a particular textile design sparked off an idea with which the experimented over a period of time of particular interest in the length of blue and white patterned cotton cloth or "toile de Jouy" that first appear as a relatively unobtrusive wall hanging in the 1903 painting, "The Guitarist".

A year later it takes on a more dominant role as a seemingly abstract patterned tablecloth in "Pierre Matisse with Bidouille." But within a few years it has become the key element in such paintings as "Still Life with Blue Tablecloth" (1909). The cloth with its simple pattern, seems now to have encouraged or inspired the artists to drastically flatten space and to simplify form.

Matisse's creative impetus thrived on examples of textiles and textile design from all over the world. The Polynesian "Topas" and the "Kuba" from Africa both attain a harmonious balance between geometrical pattern and expressive power. It was precisely these characteristics that Matisse strove for in his early experiments with the celebrated paper cut outs of the 1940s.

This exhibition breaks new ground in recognizing the impact that textiles had on the development of a radically new visual language -- a language that used decorative principles to challenge conventional notions of space, color and form. "Matisse, His Art and His Textiles" makes a major contribution to the study of one of the most influential European artists of the 20th century and should not be missed.
Exhibition is on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York June 23 - Sept. 25 2005.

Thumbnail credit: The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Kevin Driscoll

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