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26.10.07

Matisse: Painter as Sculptor


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

Henri Matisse, 1951

If there is any one artist to whom I most relate, it has to be Henri Matisse. Not because of a particular subject matter but because of process, the process of working through ideas of and about painting. The subject is of interest, of course, but it is often just the beginning, with no end. The middle is one great excuse to push, scrape, wipe, and mold paint, the same with drawing and printing and in the case of Matisse, clay.

Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, explores this process in great depth by juxtaposing some 160 sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints, as well as the work of a few contemporaries, such as Rodin, Degas, Cézanne, and Picasso. This exhibit is a rare studio visit allowing us, as closely as possible, to envision a work in progress, step by step.

This exhibit exposes a Matisse seemingly in perpetual exploration of singular themes, whether it’s a reclining nude, a standing nude, or a series of heads; he pursues a continuous flow from drawings to paintings to the sculpted form and back. Always adjusting and simplifying. The process could carry on for years, often returning again and again, moving us from the classical figure of the Serf to the flattened forms in the painting Large Reclining Pink Nude and eventually to his paper cutouts.


In between all of that is pure joy, and this exhibit has many fine examples, including a generous loan from the collection of the Hammer Museum at UCLA, an edition of the four Backs (shown above). This is a perfect example of Matisse returning to and refining an image, and it's a very interesting story. BackI was produced in 1909 but not cast until 1965, while BackII was produced in 1913 and cast in 1962; BackIII was produced in 1916 while WWI was in progress and Matisse was forced to give up his home to soldiers. Luckily, he had a plaster cast made and after the war he returned to it, filling the mold with clay slab and reworking the image: even in the plaster form he gouged and chiseled away, making adjustments until it was cast in 1964. The last version, Back IV, was made in 1930 and then cast in 1964. All the same image and format but an incredible transition to the smooth simplified form of the final version.

Matisse never saw these cast versions; he traditionally would cast his work only after there was an order from a patron and rarely exceeding an edition of ten. The casting of the series in this exhibit was undertaken by his heirs, as there was a burgeoning market for outdoor sculpture gardens in the late 50s and 60s, such as the Hirshhorn Museum’s.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
D. Kosinski, A. Boulton, S. Nash, and O. Shell, Matisse: Painter as Sculptor
Another aspect to this exhibit is that the staff of the BMA undertook a process known as technical art history, during which conservators and curators examined more than 120 sculptures at 13 different institutions, recording casting methods, mold lines, tool marks, and surface finish. They also did a laser scan to analyze structural variations. It kinda takes the fun out of pushing clay around, but it is interesting to see the results. A hands/mouse-on computer program developed in association with UMBC, How to Look at Sculpture, and a video display of the scanning of Reclining Nude (Aurora) are available for study.

Matisse: Painter as Sculptor opens this Sunday, October 28 (free admission on opening day!), and runs through February 3, 2008. I recommend the exhibit catalogue (available through Amazon via the link at right) and my Flickr site for more exhibit images and details.

The BMA also announced a gift this past week, of 77 Matisse prints from the Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Foundation. In addition to the Cone Collection, this will make the museum one of the finest collections of the artist's work in the country. The new prints are expected to go on view in 2009.

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