Archived Story

Henri Matisse exhibit now open

Published 9:00am Sunday, April 20, 2014

Art Is… by Bev Jackson Cotter

Matisse … aaah, Henri Matisse. I was thrilled to read recently that a Matisse exhibit would be coming to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. So, Michael and I decided to spend his birthday and our anniversary in the Cities visiting family (his idea) and the MIA (my idea).

Bev Jackson-Cotter
Bev Jackson-Cotter

When we tour an art exhibit together, we move at two different speeds. Me, very slow, and him, faster, with the hope of finding a comfortable place to sit and wait for me. We both succeeded.

Later in the day he told me about a book he had picked up while he was waiting. It was about Mootise who painted cow pictures and Pigasso who painted pig pictures. The two just could not get along and finally built a fence to separate their adjoining properties. Then to torment each other even more, they’d sneak to the other side of the fence and paint their own pictures. As the conflict resolves, they eventually find friendship and learn to appreciate each other’s art. How human. I don’t know which one Michael enjoyed more, the Matisse exhibit or the Mootisse and Pigasso book.

Matisse has long been my favorite artist. His works seem to demand a response from the viewer. It may be, “That perspective is screwed up,” “That doesn’t look very real,” “His art touches something deep inside,“ or even, “My grandchild could do that.”

I loved the atmosphere of awe that pervaded the galleries as I wandered, studying the art and reading the accompanying stories. We were there on a Saturday morning, and though there were many viewers, there was an aura of respect, quiet conversations and silent observation.

Matisse was born on New Year’s Eve, 1869 in Picardy, France. His father was a grain merchant and his mother a hat maker with a love for decorative textiles. His father’s dream was that Henri would become a lawyer or a businessman, so his education – so boring – and eventual position as a clerk in a law firm led him down a path that also included a lot of mischief, once spitting on his teacher’s top hat.

While he was working in the law firm, and writing stories and drawing rather than copying legal texts, one of his employers suggested that he might study art, and that was where he found his love. Legend has it that when Matisse left home for art school, his father shook his fist at the departing train and yelled, “You’ll die of hunger!”

Recently, one of Matisse’s paintings sold for several million dollars. One wonders if his father knows.

The present MIA exhibit is on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. When Matisse was a young, budding artist, totally lost in his paintings and sculptures and depending on an allowance from his father; two sisters from Baltimore, Claribel and Etta Cone, fell head over heels in love with his works. They were heiresses of a family textile business and for more than 40 years traveled often to Paris to visit him. Eventually they accumulated over 500 of his drawings, prints, paintings and sculptures. Their apartment walls were covered floor to ceiling with his art. He referred to them as “my two Baltimore ladies.” Eventually the Baltimore Museum became the recipient of their collections.

I can’t say exactly what it is about his art that is so fascinating to me.  He seems indifferent to perspective, with walls and floors blending together in a straight line, yet you feel the depth and distance that is in each painting. His figures are somewhat abstract, yet there is an aliveness in each setting.

In the exhibit, his painting “Reclining Nude” is accompanied by photographs that were taken over the period of several months that he worked on it. In those photos you watch the progression as the subject changes positions and as the upholstery and wallpaper patterns change. It’s as if he needed to work, then rework, over and over again to find the right moment that he knew the painting was complete. In one of the accompanying written descriptions, I read that he wanted each painting to “be alive and singing.”

In his later years, illness kept him from working on large vertical canvases, and from his bed or wheelchair he cut paper and arranged the designs, sometimes using a long pole to hang them on the wall. Several years ago, I saw an exhibit of his cut paper works in St. Louis. The large wall collages were mesmerizing, and with colored paper mimosa leaves, he had designed stained glass windows for a chapel and all of the accompanying robes and altar fabrics. Even with paper his art was “alive and singing.”

His exhibit will be at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through May 18. I highly recommend that you spend a day there and absorb his wonderful works.


Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center where the exhibit “Birds, Buds and Blooms” will be on display through May 9.