Henri Matisse at 150: Art as Comfy as an Easy Chair

Henri Matisse at 150: Art as Comfy as an Easy Chair
“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” —Henri Matisse, “Notes from a Painter,” La Grande Revue, LII, 24, 25, December 1908, pp. 481-485. (Translated in Matisse on Art, editor Jack D. Flam, E.P. Dutton, 1973) Nothing could be more welcome than a well-organized and “comfy” retrospective of Henri Matisse’s career during this dreadful Covid-19 pandemic. We need these bright colors and voluptuous shapes. Unfortunately, Centre Pompidou’s Matisse, Comme Un Roman, a perfect choice for our anxiety-ridden times, closed down almost as soon as it opened on October 21, 2020. I imagine the soul of Henri Matisse wondering through the beautifully installed galleries, devoid of visitors, inhaling and exhaling in long, drawn out sighs . . .  “Ugh! Picasso has had multiple exhibitions all over the world every single day. Now that it is my turn, this once-in-a-lifetime retrospective of 230 artwork and 70 documents, is shuttered until the first week of the New Year. Zut! But wait – Picasso’s whole museum in Paris is closed. Bon! But then, that means my museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis is closed too! Curses!” As of this writing, the French museums will remain closed through January 7, 2021. In the meantime, you can access podcasts and a video tour on the Centre Pompidou website here. Let’s hope Matisse’s exhibition will brighten the New Year before its scheduled closure on February 22nd. Matisse on art Jack Flam, cover of 1995 edition. Part of series Documents on Twentieth-Century Art (University of California, 1995) New Year’s celebrations are an integral part of Matisse’s life story. He was born at 8 pm on December 31, 1869, four hours before the dawn of France’s highly transformative year and decade. The first child and first son of a prosperous grain merchant Émile-Hippolyte-Henri Matisse and his artistically-gifted milliner wife, Anna Héloïse Gérard, Henri-Émile-Benoit Matisse came into the world while his parents were spending the holidays with family in Le Cateau-Cambrésis. At the time, they lived in Bohain-en-Vermandois, Picardy. By the next fall, this joyous family would see their government, the Second Empire under Napoleon III, collapse during the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870 through January 28, 1871). By the end of May 1871, the short-lived Paris Commune would be defeated and a more conservative government would take charge. In the wake of this tumultuous period, a bunch of 30-something artists would form the avant-garde modernist group called the Anonymous Society of Painter, Sculptors and Engravers, sarcastically dubbed the “Impressionists” by their unimpressed critics. As Matisse came of age several transgressive movements challenged acceptable art conventions. In time, Matisse would become the leader of their progeny, the Fauves (Wild Beasts). At the Centre Pompidou, a most august pillar of French culture, we ironically celebrate one of the most ferocious of these excoriated “Wild Beasts” with a spectacular 150th birthday retrospective, culled from collections all over France and some abroad, and thoughtfully organized by the museum’s curator Aurélie Verdier, who helps us discover the literary side of Matisse’s creations. Inspired by Louis Aragon’s Henri Matisse, roman (1971), she divided the artist’s life into “nine chapters,” each introduced by a well-known contributor to the arts: Louis Aragon, Georges Duthuit, Dominique Fourcade, Clement Greenberg, Charles Lewis Hind, Pierre Schneider, Jean Clay, and Henri Matisse himself. The curator’s tour is available on the Centre Pompidou website and on YouTube. Portrait of Henri Matisse in 1933. Taken by Van Vechten, Carl, 1880-1964, photographer. Photo credit © Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Picryl

Lead photo credit : Matisse Comme un roman exhibition cover

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.