Works to touch with your eyes

October 28, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,sun art critic

It's hard to play favorites with an exhibition as visually luscious as Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, which opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Still, plenty of artworks in this show practically beg you to stop and let your gaze linger. Below is a short list of things not to be missed:

The Yellow Dress (1929-31) is Matisse's whimsical remix of a classic mythological figure, Venus, goddess of love, who was born from the sea of Platonic thought, then blown by Zephyrs to dry land atop a glistening shell.

Matisse ditched the shell for a dress with scalloped skirts, his sea is a red tile floor and the Zephyrs became just the suggestion of a breeze from an open window behind the perfectly poised woman, who remains as mysterious -- and as eternally unattainable -- as ever.

Matisse made a series of larger-than-life relief sculptures of women's backs over a 20-year period. The first, from 1909, was reasonably anatomically correct, but by the time he reached number four, in 1930, the figure was wholly abstract. These massive works are a tour de force.

The cut-paper silhouette was reinvented as an art form by Matisse, and there's no lovelier example than the delightful Blue Nude I (1952), which appears near the end of the show.

Not to be confused with the more famous painting The Blue Nude: Memories of Biskra (1907), also in the show, Matisse's quicksilver cut-out of a crouching female form is as light-hearted and joyful as anything he made.

Matisse was famous for his radical simplification of the figure, but some of his contemporaries went even further than he.

Constantin Brancusi, whose Torso of a Young Girl (II) from 1923 appears alongside Matisse's own minimalist renderings of the subject, pared down the body's contours to a perfectly smooth ovoid of white marble.

Matisse said he never knew when one of his small sculptures was finished until he felt it in his hands. You can't touch the dozen or so diminutive little nudes on display, some of which are only a couple of inches long.

But let your eye caress them anyway -- and imagine Matisse walking around with them in his pocket until he decided that they were done.

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