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Review: Matisse, Life in Color at the IMA

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© 2013 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse, "Ballet Dancer Seated on a Stool" (1927)

Matisse: Life in Color, curated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Rebecca Long, includes more than a hundred works borrowed from the Baltimore Museum of Art's extensive Matisse collection. It focuses on the working habits of the monumentally important French artist, and begs the question: Is this borrowed body of work, by an artist with whom many have at least a passing familiarity, packaged in a fresh and engaging way?

Per the exhibition title, Matisse wasn't an artist overly enamored with earth tones. But, for Matisse, it was never just about the color. Take a look at his painting, "Ballet Dancer Seated on a Stool," which starts with a bored looking woman wearing a tutu with a white skirt. The skirt is dotted with clumps of dried white paint set against a deep blue background. If the white shock of the skirt resembles at all a splash in the water, then the clumped paint is the foam. The bored, abstracted face of the ballet dancer is far from the center of attention. The tutu pops off the canvas, and the wavelets of paint, rising above the canvas, have a sculptural quality.

"Paint not the object but the effect it produces," wrote French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. In this portrayal of a ballet dancer, Matisse took this dictum to heart.

Matisse was certainly aware of the rich physicality of oil paints. And through its abundant assortment of prints and sculptures - often sharing the same subjects across the 2D/3D divide - the show appropriately makes the case for his mastery of many different media.

The exhibition is divided by subject. Under "Nudes," you see dozens of photographs charting the evolution of the iconic painting "Large Reclining Nude" (a.k.a The Pink Nude), from realistic to abstract treatments. And in the same room, you see Matisse's bronze sculpture "The Serf." Matisse made the piece using the same well-endowed nude male model employed by Rodin, which speaks to the size of Matisse's ambition.

My favorite painting here is a landscape. In "Large Cliff with Fish," you see the shoreline jutting in elliptically from the right. Compositionally, this is mind-blowing when you think about it. Matisse's landscapes, less renowned than other facets of his work, are a particularly welcome part of this exhibition.

What comes across most of all in this exhibit is Matisse's restless exploration of many artistic mediums. So it seems appropriate is that this exhibition employs the iPad as a canvas as well as a teaching tool. That is to say, in the Inspired by Matisse contest you can try to out-Matisse Matisse by drawing something on an iPad.

There's no doubt that Matisse would've leapt at a chance to use an iPad. At least for a moment, that is, before moving onto the next big thing.

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