Magazine article The Spectator

Artistic Confrontation

Magazine article The Spectator

Artistic Confrontation

Article excerpt

Matisse & Rodin Musee Rodin, Paris, until 28 February 2010

Of the grand 18th-century mansions with spectacular gardens that once lined the rue de Varenne in Paris, only two have escaped the developers. The Hotel Matignon at number 57 survives intact as the residence of the French Prime Minister, but the Hotel Biron at number 79 owes its escape to an artists' colony. In the 19th century, the Marechal de Biron's former home became a convent school for young ladies; when the nuns moved out in 1905, the artists moved in. Isadora Duncan opened a dance school in the upstairs gallery, Matisse took over the classrooms across the garden, and in 1908, following a tip-off from another tenant, Rilke, the 67-yearold Rodin moved his studio to a suite of reception rooms on the ground floor.

'In this monastic retreat, ' reported the sculptor's amanuensis Paul Gsell in 1911, 'he enjoys shutting himself up with the nudity of pretty young women, making countless pencil drawings of the supple poses they adopt in front of him.' In 1912, Le Figaro expressed outrage that 'contrary to all propriety' the old satyr was 'exhibiting a series of libidinous drawings and shameless sketches in the former chapel of the Sacred Heart'. But it was the old satyr who saved the Hotel Biron for posterity, transforming it into the Musee Rodin, and his shameless sketches are now back on the chapel walls in an exhibition reuniting the building's two most famous artist tenants.

Organised in conjunction with the Musee Matisse in Nice, Matisse & Rodin is actually more of a confrontation than a reunion, as the two artists were not friends. Matisse never completely forgave the older artist for an early rebuff when in 1899, aged 31, he took some simple line drawings to show his hero and was told to come back when he'd done some more 'pernickety' ones.

Understandably, he never did. But later that year he spent precious money on a plaster bust of Rochefort by Rodin. It stands facing the exhibition entrance at the end of a long corridor of drawings, Matisse's labelled with blue tags, Rodin's with yellow.

The colour coding highlights the risk of confusing two artists who, across the age divide, had a lot in common. The 80 qsculptures Matisse produced - nearly all in the show - were mostly nudes, like the vast majority of Rodin's 6,500. Both sculptors modelled in clay from life, and both drew on antiquity. In later life Rodin relied increasingly for inspiration on his 'eleventh-hour friends', as he called his enormous collection of antique fragments. …

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