MATISSE comes to Paris. Or more accurately, Matisse comes home
to Paris. The French capital is where, in the first two decades of
the century, Henri Matisse's art flowered into its revolutionary
first maturity. The Pompidou Center has given over its entire 5th
floor to an exhibition concentrating on that period: "Henri Matisse
1904-1917." The exhibition continues through June 21.
It is a splendid show and proving instantly popular. The press
preview alone was invaded by more people (many definitely not bona
fide reporters) than the center's somewhat discontented staff could
cope with. Opening day was dogged by a strike, and thereafter long
lines snaked away from the entrance in spite of the bitter cold and
a ticketing system that doesn't seem to work too well. But
Parisians have long loved to line up endlessly for major
exhibitions - it's all part of the occasion.
Theoretically this is not a hyped show. Word of mouth among the
cultured Parisians generally works satisfactorily as advertising.
But gigantic billboards of "La Danse" do line entire walls in some
Metro stations. And the newspapers and television give plenty of
space to the show. Le Figaro's women's page even suggests the
return of Matisse chapeaux. Its weekend supplement features food
photographs a la Matisse still lifes.
But in one sense this show has already been upstaged by the
exhibition from which it derives - the giant Museum of Modern Art
(MOMA) retrospective in New York that ended in January, with its
900,000 visitor total. That exhibition, described by its instigator
and driving force, John Elderfield, as aiming to present for the
first time ever "the whole Matisse," is by definition a hard act to
Nathalie Garnier, the press contact for the Pompidou show,
emphasizes that the center "likes to organize `focus' exhibitions."
It is also, she says, one of the most wonderful periods of
Matisse's art that is on view. But she adds that, in all honesty,
questions of money also dictated the more modest size and scope of
the Paris exhibition.
Three places are especially rich in Matisses: Russia, France,
and America. For Mr. Elderfield's show to be the comprehensive
display he intended, he needed cooperation between these countries.
MOMA, the Pompidou, and the Russian museums in Moscow and St.
Petersburg have all lent substantially to each other: Yet another
version of the exhibition will be in Moscow (July 16 to Sept. 5)
and St. Petersburg (Sept. 25 to Nov. 8). Over and above the
arrangements between the main institutions, many small museums and
private collectors have lent works.
In fact, the Paris version of the show is big by most standards.
It has a different catalog from MOMA's book, but it is still
thorough and as physically weighty as anyone could wish. But
quality in art shows is more to the point than quantity, and some
critics are finding the Paris exhibition - even though it is still
incredibly difficult to actually look at the paintings because of
the milling enthusiasts - less of a roller-coaster ride and more of
an in-depth celebration of Matisse than the New York exhibition.
By concentrating on one period only, though, the Pompidou show
does what Elderfield wanted to avoid at MOMA. The thesis for his
show was that Matisse has already been shown in isolated fragments
many times. What was needed, he argued, to see Matisse afresh in
all his complexity and seriousness, was the ultimate: all of
Matisse in one place. Well, all of Matisse's paintings, anyway.
Well, most of them.
The truth is that certain key works were not available, "La
Femme au Chapeau" (1905) from the San Francisco Museum of Modern
Art, for instance. It's not available for Paris, either, which is
even more of a pity, as it was a cause celebre in the period
covered. And since all Matisses look far better in the original
than in reproduction, this has got to be a painting worth seeing
face to face. …