We arrived at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) to find a hive buzzing with activity. Two lines formed at the ticket counter – one for members, another for guests. Clusters of people in ones, twos, and fours lingered in front of the cafe menu or studied their tickets stubs and programs. The museum remained open only one evening each week, and clearly, patrons were taking advantage of the extended hours, especially just days after the opening of a new special exhibit, Matisse, Life in Color: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
My husband and I came to celebrate my birthday. We planned a whole evening at the museum: take in Matisse, browse the gift shop, and enjoy dinner. Once we picked up our tickets, we discovered a lonesome docent with no participants for the next scheduled tour. We jumped at the chance for a private showing. But when we entered the gallery, we realized why were alone. Everyone else was already there.
As our guide explained, the Matisse exhibit at the IMA presents a unique opportunity for viewing his work. First, because the pieces are not arranged chronologically, but rather thematically: landscapes, interiors, still lifes, nudes, etc. In each gallery, viewers can see the progression of Matisse’s technique, skill, and philosophy as his work in a specific areas evolves. And also, because nearly every piece in the collection was originally purchased directly from the artist by Claribel or Etta Cone, two sisters who inherited vast resources from their family’s textile business.
The modern world owes a tremendous debt to these two sisters who not only saw promise in this fledgling artist, along with another no-name called Pablo Picasso, but also put their money where their mouth is and paid him for the work. In the exhibition notes, the Cone sisters are credited with purchasing the art from the “then-emerging” artist. What that really means is that they supported him when Henri Matisse wasn’t yet the Matisse.
The exhibit chronicles the work from the time when Matisse was just a new painter trying to make a name for himself. In his early pieces, Matisse wasn’t afraid to try new things and to do them poorly at first. Early pieces in the landscape gallery seemed like little more than copies of masters he studied. It’s not until we see his shifting perspective (three dimensions become flattened and rotated) and his use of color (drawn more from how he feels than what he sees) – which Matisse himself credits to post-impressionist painters like Paul Cézanne — that we begin to see his own signature style emerge.
“The Impressionist painters, especially Monet and Sisley, had delicate sensations, quite close to each other: as a result their canvases all look alike,” Matisse wrote in his essay, Notes of a Painter.
The word ‘impressionism’ perfectly characterizes their style, for they register fleeting impressions. It is not an appropriate designation for certain more recent painters who avoid the first impression, and consider it almost dishonest. A rapid rendering of a landscape represents only one moment of its existence [durée]. I prefer, by insisting upon its essential character, to risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability.
And let’s be honest. Some of his works aren’t very charming. They don’t even appear to be complicated. Such basic lines, shapes, and colors look almost crude at times. In fact, the special collection of local children’s work inspired by Matisse in the last room of the exhibit looked a lot like, well, the original Matisse works.
But his work was not made to capture an impression, as he said above, nor an exacting representation. His work captures the essence, and he was known for his process, for his perseverance in seeing a piece through until the entire piece felt harmonious to him, and most of all, he was known for evoking in others what he himself experienced when he sat down to his art.
When we approached a sculpture of a nude lady reclining, our guide gave us several possible interpretations. “Some people feel she is relaxed,” he offered. “Some feel that she is balanced awkwardly and is about to fall. What do you see?” he asked us.
“Actually, I saw a chair,” I said. “Even though there wasn’t a chair there, I saw it because what was missing is in the shape of the chair.”
The docent laughed. “Matisse would love you for that!” he said, and then led us to a painting just beyond the sculpture with what appears to be the same nude woman reclining in a chair.
What I am after, above all, is expression. Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings. In a picture every part will be visible and will play its appointed role, whether it be principal or secondary. Everything that is not useful in the picture is, it follows, harmful. A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety: any superfluous detail would replace some other essential detail in the mind of the spectator. (Matisse, Notes of a Painter)
Perhaps the signature piece of the exhibit demonstrates this process best. The “Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude)” is a striking painting with varying patterns, flattened shapes, and brilliant colors. But the composition that Matisse finished in the fall of 1935 was not what the painting looked like in its earlier versions. Matisse photographed the various versions of the painting over a five-month period and sent the prints to his friend Etta Cone as a window into his creative process. When only what was “useful” in the picture remained, the work was complete. Etta Cone snatched up the painting for her collection.
When our private tour was complete, my husband bought me a small Matisse print from the gift shop, and we enjoyed salads, sandwiches, and iced tea in the cafe. But the real gift was the artist, whose commitment to the basics of his art have inspired me in mine.
If you are in the Indianapolis area during the next couple of months, check out Matisse, Life in Color: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibit runs through January 12, 2014.
Browse more art galleries and exhibits
Browse more Literary Tours
Painting (Les toits de Collioure) by Henri Matisse, public domain. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.
Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In December, we’re exploring the theme Night.