Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Irresistible Matisse

Fine Arts

La Conversation (The Conversation) (1938), oil on canvas by Henri Matisse, collection SFMOMA.
Photo: Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society
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Henri Matisse sure knows how to light up a room. Matisse from SFMOMA, a petite jewel-box of a show at the Legion of Honor, may occupy only a single gallery, but it brings the space alive with warmth, audacious color and adventurous forms.

The exhibition of mostly small-scale artworks, from the early days of his career through the 1930s, is yet another off-site venture for SFMOMA, which is sharing its collections with other venues during its three-year renovation. And there's certainly no arguing that these nearly 30 paintings, drawings and bronzes (the latter medium represents this French master's least impressive explorations) shouldn't be languishing in storage. While it's true the show is more of an appetizer than an entree, you can stay for hours should you be so inclined, and even then it's difficult to tear oneself away from the captivating shapes and irresistible beauty.

It was Sarah and Michael Stein, the forward-thinking, art-collecting expat sister-in-law and brother of Gertrude, who brought the first Matisse paintings back from Paris to San Francisco, shortly after the earthquake in 1906. In so doing, they triggered an earthquake of a very different sort; no one had seen paintings like these, and though they may seem tame by today's standards, people were shocked by works that would revolutionize the vocabulary of modern art. Many found Matisse's bravura color schemes and their application startling, his brushstrokes choppy and savage, and his aesthetics radical and uncouth. Of "The Girl with Green Eyes" (1908), which we're told was bought "still wet and unsigned" by the collector and brought to the Bay Area in 1911, the San Francisco Examiner, in its infinite wisdom, wrote, "Matisse paints faces crazed by absinthe drinking." That unenlightened interpretation is not one that visitors to the Legion are likely to share. Other collectors soon put their brave boots on, and it's to their daring that San Francisco owes its status as an important repository of his work.

Matisse repaid his visionary patrons, Sarah and Michael, in part by painting their portraits (1916). They're on view, as is "The Conversation" (1938), a vivid oil painting where two chic women are seated next to each other in a solarium. In Matisse's hands, they're exotic creatures integrated into a tropical paradise with palm fronds, bright, sunshiny yellows, vermillion, and deceptively childlike, playful shapes intimating his cut-out paper collages.

Portrait de Sarah Stein (Portrait of Sarah Stein) (1916), oil on canvas by Henri Matisse, collection SFMOMA.
Photo: Succession H. Matisse/ Artists Rights Society; Ben Blackwell

His favorite model may have been his daughter, Marguerite. He did 30 portraits of her, including a 1906 charcoal drawing when she was 12 in which she's seen in three poses on the same page. In one, she's napping, resting her head on her arms, and in another, she regards her father intently with an expression that implores, "Can I please go now, Dad?" These and other drawings are succinct and perfect. Like "Woman Leaning" (1906-07), nothing need be added, subtracted or changed.

Matisse brought his unerring eye for beauty and joie de vivre to every artistic pursuit. He could take a coffee cup and transform it into a thing of beauty ("Cafe Table," ca. 1899), and one can hardly lavish enough praise on what he does with a pedestrian white vase brimming with pink, orange and red blooms asserting themselves in a world of turquoise ("Flowers," 1907). The loose, free-flowing style and wild cacophonous colors of seascapes such as "Bord de Mer" (1906), and the fauvist "Le Bonheur de vivre," a primal setting where one might find Pan chasing nymphs through the bushes, make you wish you were there.

Matisse only visited San Francisco once, in 1930. The story goes that he was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd when his train rolled into the station. Visiting this small, intense exhibition is like being a member of that welcoming party, standing on the platform cheering his arrival, grateful for his presence.


Through Sept. 7.


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