This weekend we’re checking out Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art. And after the show we’ll stop for a drink around the corner at Papillon, a two-story French bistro on 54th Street. Update: The Matisse exhibition closed on February 10, 2015. To stay updated on what's going on right now, sign up for our #YourArtWeekend newsletter here.
THE ART /
When this exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs -- the painted-paper collages that became a late-career peak for the celebrated modernist -- occupied London’s Tate Modern this summer, it became the most successful show in the history of the institution, with more than half a million curious Londoners and tourists stopping in to see the hundred or so works in the show. It's not hard to see why: the walls of these galleries overflow with aesthetic pleasure, and walking through them is about as much fun as you're going to have in a museum this year.
The story behind the art -- which the wall panels and a couple videos make clear -- is a classic example of a great artist creating triumphant work in a time of personal despair. Matisse, living in the south of France during the Nazi occupation, was losing mobility and strength in old age, and could no longer paint with the ease and mastery of his earlier peaks. He turned to cut-outs (he called it “painting with scissors”), which he had earlier used as studies for larger compositions, and saw in them a new, independent art form. The videos of old bearded Matisse speedily cutting paper with comically oversized scissors make it look easy, but Matisse and his studio assistants labored over these collages, trying out hundreds of different combinations before arriving at a finished composition. Despite (or perhaps because of) all the personal setbacks -- which also included separation from his wife of forty years, major stomach surgery, and his daughter’s torture during the war -- the recurring impression of these cut-outs is a pure, uninhibited joy.
As you move through the different galleries here the pieces get bigger, bolder and more ambitious. Many of the smaller works in the first rooms were studies for theatre sets and painted murals, or designs for book and magazine covers. A middle room focuses on studies Matisse made for murals and stained glass windows in the chapel of Vence, which he called his masterpiece. By the end of the show, these cut-outs are assured, ambitious pieces themselves, massive collages that take over entire walls and require extended, focused viewing.
Perhaps the most iconic pieces here are the “Blue Nude” series, which manage to simultaneously seem ultra-modern and ancient in their abstraction of the human form. “The Swimming Pool” gets its own room, designed to replicate Matisse’s own dining room where the site-specific mural originally hung. “The Parakeet and the Mermaid” is about as joyful as a piece of art can get -- bright colors and organic forms that demand to be smiled at, a coral reef in collage form. With “The Snail” and “Memory of Oceania,” Matisse pushed himself further into abstraction than elsewhere in the show, and approaches compositions of pure color and form.
When we talked to Courtney Schaefer, who runs MoMA’s junior associates program, she emphasized that the excitement was felt on the behind-the-scenes side as well. She called the launch of this show “the most exciting time to be a part of the MoMA community since I started working here.” The press preview, which is usually held in the galleries, was so crowded that they had to move it to a theatre; they’re using timed tickets for the show to avoid overcrowding; she’s been swamped with requests from donors, community members and friends for a tour of the show, which she’s been through seven times already.
Like with all of the city’s big blockbuster shows, we are compelled to go see what all the fuss is about. Henri Matisse is already a big name -- he probably has a place on the Mount Rushmore of modern European painters, as a quick look at the awesome Artsy page dedicated to him shows -- but the magic of an ambitious exhibition like this one is its ability to make even familiar artists seem as fresh and powerful as when we first came across their work.
WHAT TO DO AFTER /
Papillon, a nearby French bistro, is a great place to stop for a drink after the show. Sit at the bar for a quick bite and a draft beer in a friendly and casual atmosphere, or head to the fancier restaurant area on the second floor if you're planning to stay for a while.
Photo credits: the Museum of Modern Art (link).