The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam owns perhaps the most impressive “cut-out” that Henri Matisse created: “The Parakeet and the Mermaid” (1952).
The work on paper, which measures about 12 feet by 25 feet, is a jewel in the museum’s permanent collection, taking pride of place in its Hall of Honor at the top of the grand central stairway.
So when two powerhouse museums, MoMA in New York and the Tate in London, asked to borrow it for their joint exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” last year, the Stedelijk’s head of collections, Bart Rutten, saw an opportunity.
Yes, you can borrow it, he said, “as long as it returns with friends” — by which he meant other Matisse works that the Amsterdam museum could use as the basis of its own exhibition.
MoMA and the Tate delivered the “friends”: 10 works from New York, and four from the Tate. It was a good start, and Mr. Rutten managed pull together another 90 or so works borrowed from about 30 other international collections, including the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Musée Picasso in Paris and Pushkin State Museum in Moscow. Four works in the show — one drawing, a version of Matisse’s limited-edition artist book “Jazz,” the painting “Odalisque” (1920-21) and the cut-out “Parakeet” — come from the Stedelijk’s own collection.
The resulting exhibition, “The Oasis of Matisse,” on through Aug. 16, is a retrospective that places the artist in art-historical context and shines a spotlight on his most inventive and popular body of work. For a visitor, the experience is much like meandering through a cheerful carnival before advancing to the giant roller coaster up the hill.
There is much to contemplate and enjoy along the way, but the true exhilaration comes at the end.
It has been more than 60 years since there has been a Matisse show of any magnitude in the Netherlands, and Mr. Rutten felt it was time to present one at the Stedelijk. But how to follow a blockbuster like “Cut-Outs” and at the same time offer a new perspective on a modern master? “I wanted to add something to the conversation,” Mr. Rutten said.
MoMA and the Tate spent six years pulling together 250 cut-outs for their monographic show and had the gravitas of both institutions to leverage loans. The Stedelijk didn’t have quite the same muscle, and Mr. Rutten had only a year and a half to pull it together.
Instead of presenting a monographic show, however, Mr. Rutten decided to intersperse Matisse works with other paintings, drawings and works of decorative art from the Stedelijk’s permanent collection of art and design.
“I realized that our collection display downstairs begins from 1860 and goes to 1955, and Matisse was born in 1869 and died in 1954,” Mr. Rutten said. “I thought, ‘This is his life: It fits in perfectly.”’
The concept, he added, was “to show the multidisciplinary approach of his work — unframe them as a single genre and put them back into the context that they were created in.”
Rachel Esner, assistant professor of the history of modern and contemporary art at the University of Amsterdam, said this curatorial approach marries two current trends in museum practice.
“One is, of course, the blockbuster, the thing big museums do to get in a large public,” she said. “And then you have the other trend which is that museums are putting the focus more on their permanent collections, to enliven them or show them in a different way, not just to get the works known but as a way of stimulating people who may have come to the museums already to come again.”
She adds, “The Stedelijk has done a fantastic job in this case of combining these two trends.”
The show begins in the first room of the Stedelijk’s permanent collection display, where Matisse’s “Woman Reading” (1895) is placed alongside an icon of the Stedelijk’s collection, George Hendrik Breitner’s “The Red Kimono.” A pre-Fauve landscape by Matisse is placed with pre-Fauvist and post-Fauvist works in the Stedelijk collection, one by Johan Jongkind and the other by Maurice de Vlaminck. Later juxtapositions include Matisse’s cubist works with Mondrian’s early cubist experiments, and Matisse portraits with Picasso portraits.
Some highlights include Matisse’s “Standing Nude,” painted around 1909, alongside an abstracted nude “Bather” (1911) by Kazimir Malevich. Aside from the obvious visual similarity between the shapes and the flatness of the paint in the two works, there’s a biographical connection: A similar Matisse work was owned by the Russian collector Sergei Shchuskin, who took it back to Moscow from France. Malevich, who frequently visited Shchuskin to view his collection, saw it and was probably influenced by it.
Matisse’s landscape painting “Notre Dame,” one of the works on loan from the Tate, is displayed between a Vincent van Gogh landscape and a Paul Cézanne landscape of the same period.
“If you had a cocktail shaker and you put this Cézanne and this van Gogh in, you’d get this work,” Mr. Rutten during a recent walk through the exhibition. “It was known at the time that these two guys were his heroes.”
In this case, the Matisse work may not be the most accomplished of the three, Mr. Rutten said. “It’s a constant exchange,” he said. “Sometimes he’s like the little student taking in his surroundings, and sometimes he’s the teacher.”
Throughout the downstairs rooms, visitors move slowly through the artist’s development: from Fauvism to early abstraction, from a flirtation with Cubism to representation, including a room full of figurative odalisques.
The exhibition compares not just paintings but also costumes, drawings and applied arts to works by his contemporaries. In one room, there is a long, blue silk skirt that Matisse had designed for a sitter in one of his portraits, “Woman in Blue” (1937). In another room, a piece of tapa cloth is displayed next to the painting “Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table,” which features some of the same patterns. The walls of Matisse’s studio were hung with such textiles.
As visitors move through the downstairs halls, they encounter more works by Matisse and fewer works by others. In the Hall of Honor, it’s all Matisse: an enormous open space filled with the monumental cut-outs. This is where they can find “Parakeet” back in its home environs, alongside works like “The Sheaf,” on loan from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and “Acanthuses,” a possibly unfinished work from the Beyeler Collection in Basel, Switzerland.
The exhibition includes a documentary film showing the artist, in his old age, working with an assistant who is helping him complete his cut-outs.
After putting all the pieces into place, Mr. Rutten said he came to appreciate just how much Matisse had influenced, and was influenced by, other artists for half a century.
“What is underlining the beauty of Matisse in this show is that this guy was influential from 1900 up to 1950, constantly,” said Mr. Rutten. “Everything is drenched in Matisse, and that’s what we show.”
Source: The New York Times