Matisse at Mt. Holyoke
One of the reasons I love living in Northampton is that although it is a relatively small city – there is so much culture to take advantage of here, and in neighboring cities and towns as well. Take, for instance, the exhibit of rare Matisse drawings currently on exhibit at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. I think we will spend our Saturday afternoon digesting Halloween candy, and taking a beautiful fall drive down to South Hadley to view this compelling exhibit. How about you?
Seldom seen: Rare Matisse drawings on exhibit at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley
Copywright 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
By STEVE PFARRER Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Henri Matisse was one of the giants of early 20th-century art — an influential painter, printmaker, sculptor and collage artist who became particularly noted for the expressive colors and strong brushstrokes of his paintings.
But Matisse (1869-1954) also loved to draw, whether making studies for later paintings, stand-alone portraits or sketches he used for experimenting with new ideas or examining compositional problems. As John Stromberg, the director of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, puts it, “He was restless. He was often looking for new ways to express an image, and drawing was a key to that.”
The college’s museum is taking a fresh look at some of those drawings — many apparently rarely seen even by Matisse scholars — with an exhibit drawn from a collection built by Matisse’s youngest child, the late art dealer Pierre Matisse. The show has been curated by noted American artist Ellsworth Perry, a printmaker and painter whose own lithographs have been inspired by Henri Matisse’s work.
The exhibit, which runs through Dec. 14, includes 45 Matisse drawings, predominantly from the latter part of his career, when he became partly disabled and found drawing easier to do than painting or printmaking. There’s a wide range of work, from quick sketches of the human figure, to more studied portraits and still lifes, to small series that look at the same subject from different perspectives.
But all of it, Stromberg says, shows “the sureness and economy of his line and his interest in shape and open forms. … Matisse was always experimenting, looking for ways to innovate.” Stromberg notes, for example, that the artist would vary the look of the eyes of many of the subjects of his portraits, even within a study of the same person or similar people.
In a sequence of images of a veiled woman (“Femme voilé”) in the exhibit, for example, the first depicts a woman with slanted, slightly hooded eyes, while in a second and third drawing her eyes have become more rounded. In another sequence, this time focused on female heads, the contours all form heart-shaped faces, but the overall impression is of noticeably different faces.
Matisse lent a bit more detail to one of the exhibit’s larger drawings: a 1937 self-portrait, done in charcoal, that shows the artist wearing a suit and tie, glasses, and a serious expression, his head tilted to the left.
But even here, Matisse was playing with a conventional image: Behind his self-portrait is a shadowy, partially visible second image of his head, like a double exposure photograph.
An appealing proposal
Stromberg said the genesis of the exhibit can be traced to last winter, when he had a conversation with the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation in New York City, which has a huge collection of art — not just that of Henri Matisse — and lends items for exhibits. The foundation had given a three-year grant to Mount Holyoke for arts education, and Stromberg says staff there told him they’d also be happy to lend the college some of Matisse’s drawings for a show.
“That was a very appealing proposal, of course,” he said. “But I also thought it would be interesting to have an artist curate it.” His thinking was that an artist could bring a different perspective to the show than he would as an art historian.
With that in mind, he contacted Kelly, whom he’s known for some time; Stromberg helped coordinate a show of Kelly’s at Boston University when he worked there in the 1990s as the school’s art gallery director. Kelly’s drawings had also been paired with Matisse’s a few times in exhibits elsewhere.
Kelly, who lives in New York state just over the Massachusetts border, said he’d be happy to curate a show, for which he initially reviewed some 500 high-resolution Matisse images from the foundation’s collection, Stromberg says. Then, to get a sense for what he might select for the Mount Holyoke exhibit, and for how he’d display the work, Kelly had a scale model of the actual gallery space installed in his studio.
In keeping with the flavor of Matisse’s generally spare drawings, there are no wall labels, only numbers, for the 45 works on exhibit. An informational pamphlet, available for use in the gallery, contains titles and dates of the works, although a fair number of the drawings are undated. However, Kelly also requested the drawings be given custom-made frames to highlight the shape and size of each piece.
There’s no particular order or organizing theme to the exhibit, either, but Stromberg sees that as part of Kelly’s different approach to the show. “I think he basically picked what he liked,” he said with a laugh, “though he’s made some great choices.”
An inveterate drawer
In fact, the eclectic mix of drawings, and the fact they’ve been chosen by another artist, gives the show a certain sense of intimacy.
Aside from their detail, or lack of it, the drawings are made from a variety of materials — pencil, ink, charcoal — and Matisse’s lines can vary in intensity. One undated work, “Tête de femme” (“Head of Woman”), consists of just a handful of very thick lines of ink. But they clearly convey the face and neckline of a young woman, with neck-long hair parted to the side, and a slightly pensive look on her face.
Another, the more finely drawn “Nu à la fenêtre” (“Nude at a Window”), from 1944, could have been the first draft of one of Matisse’s colorful, semi-tropical paintings inspired by his long residence in southern France. A nude woman, seen mostly from the back and side, stands alongside a window frame that’s largely filled with the spreading foliage of a tree. Other greenery can be seen in the room; in the drawing’s lower left corner, the artist’s hand is shown sketching the scene.
There are a few detailed still life drawings, such as a bowl of lemons on a table, and portraits of women in hats and in various hairdos; somehow, even with just a few lines, they all look quite sophisticated, with something of the legendary “je ne sais quoi” often associated with French women.
Stromberg notes that Matisse, though an inveterate drawer, may have done less of it earlier in his career, and that many of those drawings have since made their way into private collections and museums. But those in the college’s show, predominantly from the late 1930s to early 1950s, are likely to be of considerable interest both to casual viewers and art historians, he added.
“I think it’s safe to say that many of these have seldom been seen,” Stromberg said.
As a bonus to the show, a collection of Kelly’s lithographs from the mid-1960s is displayed in an adjoining gallery — images of leaves, flowers and fruit that mix both detail and abstraction.
But the focus is on Matisse and what many consider his mastery of the “less is more” approach to drawing. As Stromberg said at the college when the exhibit opened, “A seemingly simple curve could simultaneously define a shoulder, establish its place in relation to the picture plane, suggest its volume, outline the shape of the upper torso, and lend an emotional tenor to the sitter.”