Say It in French

Matisse comes to Denver -- via Baltimore.

Dr. Claribel died in 1929, but Miss Etta continued to collect up until a few weeks before her own death, in 1949. Though the most prominent museums on the East Coast were vying for the Cone Collection, including the Museum of Modern Art, Miss Etta chose to leave it to her hometown museum, and the BMA constructed a wing in 1956 specifically to house the collection. It's that same wing that is undergoing renovation now.

The Cone sisters collected broadly, but they developed a special relationship with the great modern master Henri Matisse, and they purchased in depth from his oeuvre. After Dr. Claribel's death, Miss Etta's friendship with Matisse grew, and the great artist advised her on how to improve her selection of his work. Matisse was well aware that the Cone Collection was going to wind up in a museum, and he wanted it to be a good reflection on him.

It is -- a fact that can be seen clearly in Matisse.

"Large Reclining Nude," oil painting.
"Large Reclining Nude," oil painting.


Through June 25


Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

The exhibit was co-organized by the museum's curator of the Modern and Contemporary department, Dianne Vanderlip, and associate curator Gwen Chanzit, who worked together with Jay Fisher, the curator of the Cone Collection. It has been installed in the Hamilton Galleries, which have undergone a light facelift -- mostly repainting -- that has entirely recast the formerly dignified space last seen during Impressionism. The fanciful new mood, like that of so many of Matisse's paintings, may remind some of springtime in Paris. Surely that was the intention of exhibition designer Jeremy Hillhouse, who came out of retirement to do the show.

The atmospheric effect begins in the reception room, where visitors line up to enter. The room has been painted yellow, with darker, Matisse-ian squiggles stenciled on top. The effect is like printed wallpaper. On the walls are quotes by Matisse, which have been translated into English and which concern the nature of his artistic struggle. One theatrical gesture in this room -- and the first of many seen throughout the show -- is the vignette created by the combination of an antique birdcage hung from the ceiling in front of several panels of sheer, multicolored drapery.

Vanderlip and Chanzit used the first gallery to briefly survey Matisse's career, and it's impossible to overstate how stunning this space looks.

We are immediately confronted with a pair of masterpieces. Ahead and to the right is "The Serf," a bronze sculpture from 1900 to 1903. Behind it, on the wall to the left, is "Purple Robe and Anemones," an oil on canvas from 1937. These two pieces are so distinct from one another that they could easily be the work of different artists.

"The Serf" is notably Rodinesque. It takes the form of a standing nude male, his massive muscular legs spread wide apart. Although his arms are missing, they were originally supposed to be part of the sculpture. But when the clay model was broken, the arms were lost, and Matisse had it cast in this way. (It turns out that the man who modeled for "The Serf," Bevelacqua, often posed for Rodin as well.) It is finished in a rich dark-brown patina.

"Purple Robe and Anemones" is expressively painted and brightly colored. It features the use of flat planes of color standing in for the illusion of three-dimensional space. A woman is seen reclining on a chaise next to a metal vase of flowers. Matisse has crammed the picture full of decorative motifs including stripes, checks and curlicues.

Before you're drawn into the next gallery -- and drawn you will be -- you might want to ponder the quiet charm of one of several superb drawings in the show, "Self-Portrait," a charcoal and estompe on paper from 1937. With some smears and a few lines, Matisse created a credible portrait that looks just like him, as we can see when we compare it to the many photos of the artist that are also included in the show.

Now, prepare yourself for the second gallery.

Ahead, beyond a jungle of low showcases in which lovely small sculptures have been placed, is the magnificent "Blue Nude," an oil on canvas from 1907. From an art-history standpoint, this is the most important painting ever to have been hung in Denver, and when I first caught a glimpse of it, I did a double take. If this show had been nothing more than "Blue Nude," it would be worth the price of admission and the hassle of long lines.

"Blue Nude" is an example of Matisse at the height of his powers as a modernist painter. It was one of his greatest and most renowned examples of the Fauvist style, the movement that propelled him to the status of a legend and led to a lifelong rivalry with Picasso, his only competitor in the stratosphere of early modern art. Both artists -- Matisse with color and Picasso with line -- were attempting to deconstruct the traditions of pictoral space that had been handed down from the Italian Renaissance. And they succeeded, with abstraction serving as their combined legacy.

Behind us, to the left, is "Large Reclining Nude," formerly known as "The Pink Nude," an oil on canvas from 1935. This painting is displayed alongside a series of photos that record the various experimental states the painting went through. The photos reveal that the grid of white lines against dark blue that surround the figure are not emphatic composition devices (as I'd always assumed), but are meant to express the upholstery on the chaise on which the nude is lying. And that phallic form above her? It's a vase of flowers and the back of a wire chair! So there.

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