Matisse cutout exhibit a celebration of genius

May 25, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

There are many reasons why it's difficult to leave the show of "Matisse Cutouts" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, but above all there's a reluctance to leave the sense of affirmation of life that comes through these works, which were created by an ailing old man.

Matisse produced all but two of the 30 cutouts in this show after 1941, when at 72 he had a major operation that left him largely unable to walk. From then until his death in 1954, bedridden or in a wheelchair, he created with scissors and painted paper a body of work that is beautiful and joyous. They stand as a tribute to his genius, and also his greatness of spirit.

The show corrects, temporarily, a gaping hole in the BMA's Cone collection. Despite its hundreds of Matisse works in various media, there are no cutouts, and consequently the BMA has long wanted to have a show of them. The opportunity offered itself when Paris' Musee national d'art moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou asked for the loan of the BMA's famous painting "Blue Nude" of 1907. The price extracted was the loan of the Pompidou's entire collection of cutouts (with the exception of one judged too fragile to travel).

The resulting show, which opens today, contains works covering Matisse's production from early experiments of the late 1930s until 1953, the year before he died. It contains works from major projects, including the entire series of 20 maquettes for the book "Jazz," designs for chasubles for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, wall-size tapestry designs "Polynesia, the Sky" and "Polynesia, the Sea," and two cutouts from the 1952 "Blue Nude" series that refers back to the BMA's "Blue Nude."

They confirm the greatness of Matisse's last period and clearly demonstrate how far he went toward abstraction in his later years.

Matisse was never a nonrepresentational artist. But with the cutouts he reduced objects to flat, silhouette-like shapes and increasingly used them less to represent something in the world than to act as part of an overall decorative scheme. Another indelible impression is of the cutouts' vitality, compared with reproductions of them.

The prints for the 1947 book "Jazz" were produced with extreme care to be as faithful as possible to Matisse's cutouts. The museum owns the book and has included a number of its pages in the show. Comparing them with the cutouts, the surfaces of the latter have more texture, their colors have more depth, and the line of the cut paper retains more life than the prints.

From these works, one also receives a sense of the artist's fertile imagination in old age. To do the enormous and complex "Polynesia" panels, he must have had most of the concept in his head before starting to cut the first piece of paper. Things got rearranged as the work took shape, no doubt, but the final entity is so much of a piece that it must have been created in the mind essentially whole, not bit by bit.

If "Matisse Cutouts" are beautiful and moving in their own right, they are even more moving for what they tell us of the artist who created them.

Although many of Matisse's paintings from the Cone collection have not been on view recently, due to construction of the New Wing for Modern Art, about 30 have just been reinstalled in the Cone's central gallery to be available to viewers along with the show of cutouts.

MATISSE AT BMA

What: "Matisse Cutouts from the Musee national d'art moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Aug. 14.

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

$ Call: (410) 396-7100

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