Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 29, 2007
Ann Boulton, Jay Fisher, Dorothy Kosinski, Steve Nash, and Oliver Shell Matisse: Painter as Sculptor Exh. cat. Baltimore, Dallas, and New Haven: Baltimore Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, and Nasher Sculpture Center in association with Yale University Press, 2007. 312 pp.; 261 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. $60.00 (9780300115413)
Exhibition schedule: Dallas Museum of Art and Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX, January 21–April 29, 2007; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 9–September 16, 2007; Baltimore Museum of Art, October 28, 2007–February 3, 2008
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Henri Matisse. Reclining Nude I (Aurora) (1907). Bronze. 13 9/16 x 19 5/8 x 11 in. The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland. © 2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“I myself have done sculpture as the complement of my studies. I did sculpture when I was tired of painting. For a change of medium. But I sculpted as a painter. I did not sculpt like a sculptor. Sculpture does not say what painting says. Painting does not say what music says. They are parallel ways, but you can’t confuse them.”
—Henri Matisse

Matisse’s statement, printed high on the wall in the Dallas Museum of Art foyer, sums up the motivation for Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, an ambitious exhibition jointly organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibition features over one hundred fifty works arranged to reenact the dialogue between Matisse’s two- and three-dimensional activity, further contextualized by relevant works by fourteen other masters. The purpose is to rectify the predominant view of Matisse as a colorist by focusing on his sculptures, situating them within his own oeuvre and within the history of modern sculpture. Thus Matisse: Painter as Sculptor looks intensively at the artist’s “parallel ways.” His sculpture and painting—to which we must add drawing—complement and inform one another, while remaining adamantly distinct. The quotation reminds us that he thought of himself always as a painter, even as he sculpted. But should we even trust that his sculpture is painterly in conception? This complex and dramatic exhibition literally rounds out the view of Matisse as a colorist (a term long synonymous with hedonist) painter by reenlivening his persistent engagement with haptic perception.

Any new exhibition joins the formidable, ever-expanding terrain of Matisse scholarship. Major recent shows include the 2005 Henri Matisse: Figure, Color, Space (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen and Fondation Beyeler), the 2002 and 1999 grand exhibitions dedicated specifically to the Matisse-Picasso rivalry (London and Fort Worth, respectively), the Pompidou’s Henri Matisse: 1904–1917 (1993), John Elderfield’s gargantuan 1992 MOMA retrospective, and Early Years in Nice (1986; National Gallery, Washington), among perennial Matisse-related endeavors. Visitors in Dallas may have recalled the 1984 exhibition at the nearby Kimbell Museum of Art, Henri Matisse: Sculptor/Painter. Matisse: Painter as Sculptor expands that earlier analysis by Michael Mezzatesta, distinguishing itself with a nearly comprehensive inclusion of bronzes, a focus on the interplay between media, and groundbreaking technical discoveries.

In Dallas, Matisse: Painter as Sculptor marked the first major collaboration between the Nasher and the Dallas Museum of Art. The show was divided among galleries in both venues, located across a plaza from one another. The Nasher Sculpture Center mostly featured serial sculptures—notably the monumental Backs I–IV (1909–1930; Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, UCLA) and the Jeannette heads (1910–1913; Los Angeles County Museum of Art)—and an entire wall of the 1947 Jazz series. The Dallas Museum segment was larger, arranged according to related groupings in roughly chronological order.

Both segments cohered via an overarching theme of “work groups,” as Dallas Museum of Art Senior Curator Dorothy Kosinski calls them: objects coordinated around a Matisse motif, often played against comparative paintings and sculpture by Cézanne, Barye, Maillol, Rodin, Degas, Picasso, and Giacometti, among others. There were also bountiful photographs, many of which document the works as they were in the studio. The resulting exhibition allowed visitors to consider influence and echoes along various trajectories, such as Matisse’s responses to other artists’ sculpture, artists responding to Matisse’s output, and, most rewardingly, Matisse’s repeated modulations of his own work. Furthermore, the matter of Matisse’s color became secondary, as the translation and engagement of distinct media took precedence.

The dual-venue exhibition naturally invited comparison between the two institutions. At the Nasher, a museum dedicated to modern and contemporary sculpture, one found organic and structural affinities to sculptures not part of the Matisse exhibition, such as Naum Gabo in the entrance gallery or Willem de Kooning’s Clam Digger (1972). The Nasher’s Renzo Piano galleries are smaller scaled and more darkly lit than those of their sprawling neighbor, creating a warmth conducive to contemplating Matisse’s deeply personal explorations. Raymond Nasher, many of whose works are in the show, walked through the Dallas galleries regularly before his death in March.

By and large, Matisse’s sculptural output was comprised of individual female figures that were meant to be held in the hand. Because the curators chose to install serial works at the Nasher, it seems odd that its smaller galleries housed Matisse’s largest sculptures. At the same time, the intimacy of the Nasher made the wall dedicated to Backs I-IV resonate powerfully, anchoring the entire gallery.

In her revelatory catalogue essay, conservator Ann Boulton lucidly explains the results of technical analysis involving laser scans, infrared photography, thousands of measurements, and computer analysis. Boulton debunks the standard view that The Backs were made from plaster casts of preceding versions. She argues that Matisse may instead have worked each time from the clay itself, documenting a stage with laborious piece molds (which can be saved; the easier waste molds are destroyed in the process), then making plaster casts for The Backs I–III. By 1930, with the original clay no longer viable, he possibly pressed clay into the existing piece mold for Back III to make Back IV. Thus these works, never intended as a series, were more likely all steps toward one sculpture that was possibly never completely realized. Viewers can see the piece mold marks in the plaster for Madeleine I (1901; Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection), which was then used to make Madeleine II (1903; Centre Pompidou); the exhibition includes a video in the downstairs Nasher gallery that illustrates the results and shows the relationship between the two. Boulton also delicately distinguishes other variations of bronzes, including authorized versus unauthorized copies of Reclining Nude 1 (Aurora) (1907). The results of the technical studies comprise the most compelling new scholarly contribution of Matisse: Painter as Sculptor.

Upstairs at the Nasher, one encountered the more naturalistic Jeannette I and Jeannette II heads (both 1910) and the increasingly radical busts of Jeannette III (1911), IV (1912), and V (1913). On the wall behind the sculptures, two 1916 paintings—The Italian Woman (Guggenheim, New York) and Portrait of Sarah Stein (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)—echoed the linear planarity and simplified forms of the later Jeannettes. In this grouping, Matisse the sculptor prevails; the lessons for his painting are made evident, but the sheer physicality of Matisse the sculptor dominates.

At the end of the row of Jeannettes, Picasso’s grand, unabashedly sexual Head of a Woman (1931, Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection) was displayed perpendicularly to Matisse’s heads in obvious dialogue with them. For all of Matisse’s savage bluster, his Jeannettes feel comparatively subtle when set against Picasso’s baldly literal bronze Head.

In another “chapter” the heads Henriette I–III (1925–1929) were grouped near Jacques Lipchitz’s 1921 bronze head of Gertrude Stein (Baltimore Museum of Art), thereby situating Matisse in relation to the younger generation of Cubist-inspired sculptors. By the time of Henriette III (1929; Hirshhorn), Matisse had lost his model and worked from a cast of Henriette II (1927; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). The situation forced him to respond only to himself, carving out the jaw, eyes, and brows more deeply, leaving the marks of his tools on the surface.

Across the plaza at the Dallas Museum of Art, Matisse was isolated in two large galleries of a dedicated wing with no interaction with the rest of the building. Here one found the smallest of his bronzes. The gallery space allowed the viewer to meander among works, separated at intervals by floor-to-ceiling photographic scrims of his studio. There was greater freedom to roam among the exhibition’s “chapters” in the capacious setting at the Dallas Museum, though with a resulting loss of intimacy.

The discrete work groups were arranged dynamically, allowing for circular movement among the related pieces. The expected pairing of Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907; Cone Collection) and its likely sculptural muse, Reclining Nude I (Aurora) (1907; the Dallas version was from the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection), was nevertheless striking in this venue, allowing visitors to delve deeply into Matisse’s equivocations between flatness and three-dimensions. These exaggeratedly torqued figures are inextricably bound through their creation story: after the clay sculpture fell to the floor, Matisse began work on the painting, then returned to the clay. Scholarly disagreement about the sequence of events aside, Blue Nude and Aurora—two of the most sensual figures in Matisse ever created—show the artist at his plastic peak in both media. Instead of appearing colorless against the painting, the bronze Aurora erotically supplants color with her hyperrealized torsion.

The installation of the work groups offers a parallel for Matisse’s own explorations of tactility and desire. Our wish to enter the paintings—to revel in Matisse’s arcadian landscape, for instance––is solidified within the sculptures. (The Barnes’s The Joy of Life [1905–06] is not in the show, but San Francisco’s oil sketch is, and it is a luscious imaginary setting for Reclining Figure with Chemise [1906; Baltimore Museum of Art].) We cannot hold these sculptures that demand to be held, that Matisse used to hold. But the Dallas Museum of Art and Nasher permit us to sublimate that need through visual equivocations. In the end, we almost feel as if Matisse’s “sculpture/painting” statement was putting us off: He sculpts like an artist, not a painter.

Katie Robinson Edwards
Visiting Assistant Professor, Allbritton Art Institute, Baylor University

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