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Culture news
Swiss show features modern art pioneer's multifaceted career
05.12.2006 13:38

fauvism An explosion of colours shocked visitors at a Paris art show a century ago, and a critic spoke of an encounter with "fauves," the French term for wild beasts.

Fauvism became a synonym for the exuberant style of painting pioneered by Henri Matisse. It marked the first break with conventional concepts and made him, along with his friend and rival, Pablo Picasso, a leader of avant-garde art.

Works from all phases of Matisse's highly varied career are featured at a major exhibition by the Beyeler Foundation in suburban Riehen that promises to be a highlight of the Swiss art season.

The show combines some 160 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and paper cutouts, mostly on loan from museums and private collections in North America and Europe, that give visitors a close look at Matisse's multifaceted career.

On view through July 9 are works spanning 60 years and ranging from near-impressionism to near-abstraction. But the focus of public interest is likely on the various canvases attesting to his mastery of daring bright colours.

A great sample on display is a Still Life With Dance, a magnificent picture within a picture on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was created in 1909 for Russian industrialist Sergey Shchukin, who bought 14 paintings from Matisse and was his first big patron.

But before the First World War, interest soon shifted to cubism with Picasso its leading exponent. The name was actually coined by Matisse when he saw a painting in the new style that showed houses made up of cubes. However, the two remained in close contact during many years.

Matisse induces Madness and similar denunciations had been written on the walls of Paris' Montmartre section after the emergence of fauvism. Now, followers of the new cubist trend spoke of a "taming of the wild beast," claiming that Matisse's art was regressing. In the United States, student supporters of cubism burned effigies of Matisse works that had been on view, along with some Picassos, at the 1913 New York Armory Show of Modern Art.

In the 1920s, even defenders of Matisse feared he was shifting to a more naturalistic approach when he turned to his series of subtly erotic Odalisques, the name given to concubines in a harem. But eventually, the pictures gained support among critics.

One flamboyant display, titled Decorative Figure Against Ornamental Background, is regarded as a peak in Matisse's painting during that period. It has always been among the most reproduced of his works. Also bidding for attention are some 60 drawings selected from the thousands he created during his career. As in his paintings, interiors with nudes were Matisse's dominant motif.

Matisse once said that he "sculpted as a painter." Visitors can study four life-size bronze reliefs of nudes viewed from behind. The sculptures, done between 1909 and 1930, show growing abstraction over the years. The exhibition catalogue says they "mark four essential stations in his search of a 'more lasting interpretation of reality.' "

Equally impressive are the paper cutouts, a technique the aging Matisse developed toward the end of his life. Too weak to work at an easel, he scissored out shapes in coloured paper, which an assistant collaged into sometimes wall-sized canvases. He continued that work until the day he died in 1954, age 84.

Three years after the fauvist public debut, Matisse, in his oft-cited Notes by a Painter, had written about dreaming of a "soothing and calming" art designed to provide "something like a good armchair." It was an astounding self-appraisal by an artist believed to be leading a rebellion against prevailing academic realism.

The catalogue foreword says the exhibition "seeks to explain that Matisse's oeuvre is full of breaks without excluding the 'harmonious' Matisse. It shows that he was a great experimentalist who in no way intended to have his art remain an 'armchair.' "

In opening the exhibition at his Foundation museum, Ernst Beyeler pointed to the artist's ties to Picasso, recalling that the latter once said that "Matisse has got the sun in his belly."

They were the two extremes of avant-garde art and are often ranked as the greatest artists of the 20th century. They swapped paintings soon after they first met in 1906 and their relationship was marked by mutual respect. They often exchanged visits and are believed to have influenced some of each other's works.

"Matisse is a magician, his use of colour is uncanny," reads another oft-cited Picasso aphorism. And Matisse is quoted as once observing that "cubism is an enormous step toward pure technique. We'll all get there."

Matisse's works have been much less often on the art markets than those of the much more prolific Picasso. But even lesser known samples of his art have drawn high prices at auctions. Even a paper cutout, titled La Vis (The Screw) fetched almost $14 million at a New York sale in 1993.

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