Surprisingly, no exhibition has ever been devoted specifically to Henri Matisse’s portraits, although they form a central theme in his oeuvre. The title »People Masks Models« already alludes to the captivating manner in which Matisse changed the traditional approach to portraiture. For Matisse, a person’s true character did not correspond directly to his or her outward appearance. The artist frequently abstracted the model’s facial features so that they became a mask. Matisse often extracted the model’s most important features in the course of countless sittings, that resulted in a profound relationship to his sitters.
We encounter Matisse on a more personal level than has ever been possible in the past. On the one hand, the exhibition focuses on how Picasso’s great rival revolutionized the means of artistic expression, for which Matisse is justifiably famous. It places equally strong emphasis, however, on the question – until now considered marginal – about the content of his art. In this context, a great deal of attention has been paid to recent findings on Matisse’s family circumstances and his relationships to fellow artists, collectors and professional models. A close look is thus taken at Matisse as a painter of people. Attention is also given to the techniques which enabled him to attain – as he explicitly desired – the generalization of his personal perceptions and sensations within this particular thematic complex.
Matisse aspired to find a harmonious balance between the reproduction of a specific person’s outward appearance and an »enduring«, essentially religious concept of art. It proved to be a painstaking task, and led to numerous revisions and variations in the case of nearly every portrait. This preoccupation with process is demonstrated thanks to the show’s inclusion of several drawings and preliminary studies for the paintings and sculptures on view. Matisse endeavoured to merge the depiction of the human being with the uniqueness of the individual portrait, and in doing so he faced a problem for which there were no easy solutions. Historical prerequisites for these condensed portrayals Matisse attributed especially to African sculpture, archaic statuary and icon painting.
The entire spectrum of Matisse’s portrait art is addressed, from early self-portraits of around 1900 to the late mask paintings and the studies for the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence. His famous »Self-Portrait in a Striped T-Shirt« of 1906 from the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen is shown alongside the portraits of his painter friends André Derain and Albert Marquet as testimony to the first and only group affiliation in the artist’s career. The reference here is to the »Fauves«, the »wild animals« which caused such a sensation when they emerged, with Matisse leading the way. Further self-portraits follow, among them one of 1918, the last to be painted in oil, from the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, along with affectionate depictions of his daughter Marguerite and other members of the family as well as friends. Almost iconic in quality, the double portrait of Sarah and Michael Stein from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art underscores the closeness of his relationship to his collectors, as does the highly expressive drawing of the Russian Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin.
One of the exhibition’s highlights is a group of portraits characterized by reductive colouration and a certain austerity, executed around 1914 and reflecting the artist’s exploration of Cubism among them »Mademoiselle Yvonne Landsberg«, »Marguerite Matisse«, »Head White and Rose« and the somewhat later »Italian Woman«. Likenesses of the models Laurette, Antoinette Arnoud, Henriette Darricarrère and Lydia Delectorskaya – some of whom worked for Matisse for many years and were on close terms with the artist’s family – form further richly nuanced workgroups. The latter are enhanced by a selection of grand charcoal drawings of a monumental painterly quality, executed by Matisse from the early 1920s onward and emphasising his addiction to new faces.
An exhibition of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and the Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg.
The exhibition was made possible with kind support from Baden-Württembergische Bank.
Under the patronage of Monsieur Bernard Kouchner, French minister of foreign and European affairs. Within the framework of the French EU council presidency from 1 July to 31 December 2008.
An exhibition catalog has been published by the Hirmer Verlag.