Parisians Welcome Back Their Matisse the French Exhibition, Derived from the New York Blockbuster, Has Its Own Luster

Article excerpt

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 follow.

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. …

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