Parisians Welcome Back Their Matisse

The French exhibition, derived from the New York blockbuster, has its own luster

MATISSE comes to Paris. Or more accurately, Matisse comes home to Paris. The French capital is where, in the first two decades of the century, Henri Matisse's art flowered into its revolutionary first maturity. The Pompidou Center has given over its entire 5th floor to an exhibition concentrating on that period: "Henri Matisse 1904-1917." The exhibition continues through June 21.

It is a splendid show and proving instantly popular. The press preview alone was invaded by more people (many definitely not bona fide reporters) than the center's somewhat discontented staff could cope with. Opening day was dogged by a strike, and thereafter long lines snaked away from the entrance in spite of the bitter cold and a ticketing system that doesn't seem to work too well. But Parisians have long loved to line up endlessly for major exhibitions - it's all part of the occasion.

Theoretically this is not a hyped show. Word of mouth among the cultured Parisians generally works satisfactorily as advertising. But gigantic billboards of "La Danse" do line entire walls in some Metro stations. And the newspapers and television give plenty of space to the show. Le Figaro's women's page even suggests the return of Matisse chapeaux. Its weekend supplement features food photographs a la Matisse still lifes.

But in one sense this show has already been upstaged by the exhibition from which it derives - the giant Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) retrospective in New York that ended in January, with its 900,000 visitor total. That exhibition, described by its instigator and driving force, John Elderfield, as aiming to present for the first time ever "the whole Matisse," is by definition a hard act to follow.

Nathalie Garnier, the press contact for the Pompidou show, emphasizes that the center "likes to organize `focus' exhibitions." It is also, she says, one of the most wonderful periods of Matisse's art that is on view. But she adds that, in all honesty, questions of money also dictated the more modest size and scope of the Paris exhibition.

Three places are especially rich in Matisses: Russia, France, and America. For Mr. Elderfield's show to be the comprehensive display he intended, he needed cooperation between these countries. MOMA, the Pompidou, and the Russian museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg have all lent substantially to each other: Yet another version of the exhibition will be in Moscow (July 16 to Sept. 5) and St. Petersburg (Sept. 25 to Nov. 8). Over and above the arrangements between the main institutions, many small museums and private collectors have lent works.

In fact, the Paris version of the show is big by most standards. It has a different catalog from MOMA's book, but it is still thorough and as physically weighty as anyone could wish. But quality in art shows is more to the point than quantity, and some critics are finding the Paris exhibition - even though it is still incredibly difficult to actually look at the paintings because of the milling enthusiasts - less of a roller-coaster ride and more of an in-depth celebration of Matisse than the New York ex hibition.

By concentrating on one period only, though, the Pompidou show does what Elderfield wanted to avoid at MOMA. The thesis for his show was that Matisse has already been shown in isolated fragments many times. What was needed, he argued, to see Matisse afresh in all his complexity and seriousness, was the ultimate: all of Matisse in one place. Well, all of Matisse's paintings, anyway. Well, most of them.

The truth is that certain key works were not available, "La Femme au Chapeau" (1905) from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for instance. It's not available for Paris, either, which is even more of a pity, as it was a cause celebre in the period covered. And since all Matisses look far better in the original than in reproduction, this has got to be a painting worth seeing face to face.

Again, New York did not have "Luxe, calme et volupte," a seminal work of 1904-5. This one belongs to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, and it is in the Pompidou show. The reason some paintings are refused for large exhibitions is often their condition. With the San Francisco "Femme" however, it is the terms of the bequest that prohibit its traveling.

One gorgeous Matisse that wasn't in New York but is in Paris is the "Interieur aux Aubergines" of 1911. It belongs to the Musee de Grenoble. The problem there was that it required restoration, which the museum says could not be carried out quickly enough for New York. Completed in time for Paris, this is the last trip this painting will make out of Grenoble.

Any major international exhibition of this kind requires a remarkable degree of coordination among the participants. This exhibition brings to Paris a great many pictures that have been rarely if ever seen here, and that is the direct result of the barter-exchange system that makes such international bonanzas feasible. Without a substantial cache of works to lend, even the most reputable art institution is unlikely to find it possible to take part in a reciprocal exhibition of this kind.

In London, for instance, there have been public mutterings because the Tate Gallery, which made moves in the 1980s to borrow the Russian Matisses for a show, appeared to have lost out to Elderfield and MOMA. But Nick Serota, the Tate's director, said in an interview, "It would always be against the odds that the Tate could organize a major Matisse show of the kind being seen in Paris or New York." He points out that New York by itself can provide up to 150 Matisses. "And 250 will probably come from [othe r] American collections. If you set out to organize such a show from London, you have four Matisses at the Tate." (Actually the Tate owns 10 Matisses, but clearly that's still not enough).

Serota adds that, in spite of rumors, the anticipated London show would never have been very big because it would have been confined to the Russian Matisses. In the end, the Russians chose New York and Paris. Serota confides, however, that a major Cezanne show is planned for the mid '90s and that it will be shared among London, Paris, and Philadelphia. He promises this will be "one of those great exhibitions that happen once every 10 or 15 years. No doubt people in New York and Washington will then be as king why that exhibition is not in those cities!"

Meanwhile, in 1993, the Matisse show is in Paris, and one of its great virtues, as in New York, is that it brings together paintings otherwise permanently dispersed. The two versions of "La Danse" (1909 and 1910) are a striking example - one from the Hermitage, one from MOMA. One is lyrical and ecstatic, the other frenetic and orgiastic, yet both have the same basic organization, a nearly identical ring of figures, broad color spaces, and urgent vigorous drawing. It is differences of color and line, inte nsely subtle, which give to virtually the same subject not only a change of mood but of meaning.

This is Matisse's exploration by his own description: He wrote of his work as a struggle, as a reaction and rebellion against copying nature. "These rebellions led me to study separately each element of construction; drawing, color, values, composition; to explore how these elements could be combined into a synthesis without diminishing the eloquence of any one of them by the presence of the others, and to make constructions from these elements with their intrinsic qualities undiminished in combination; in other words to respect the purity of the means."

The Pompidou exhibition, though covering the so-called Fauve period in which color was liberated from mere description in a brilliant and excited extension of the earlier achievements of Gauguin and Signac, does certainly show Matisse as more than a colorist. It shows him ferociously attentive to the primitive force of African sculpture. We see him aware of cubism, investigating some of the essentially linear structures involved in that style. Particularly in about 1914-15, we watch him as he explores th e potency of horizontals and verticals as main structural elements.

Never an abstract artist, Matisse was clearly aware of the potency of abstraction, and as with anything from the outside that he absorbed, his struggle was to make it his own; to not relinquish his vision.

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