Story and Modigliani photos by Barbara Angelakis
Matisse photos courtesy of the museum.
A Tale of Two Museums
Two of Philadelphia’s world-class museums have mounted exhibitions for two of the most beloved artists: Modigliani and Matisse, respectively opening October 16, 2022 and October 19, 2022 and both will run through January 29, 2023.
The Barnes Foundation is a gem of a museum with its must-see impressionist, post-impressionist and modern collection housed in an impeccable copy of the original Barnes home in Merion, Pennsylvania. This modern, beautifully designed building, has managed to maintain the intimate feeling of visiting a private home. Here the walls are festooned with art… not placed according to artist, subject matter, chronology or order of any kind other than the whim of the home’s owner. While the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a big imposing glorious building filled with art through the ages displayed in traditional museum groupings. Of course both museums have set their exhibitions in halls built especially for touring shows, separated from their Permanent Collections, so it is advised that when visiting these special exhibitions, allow extra time to experience the abundance of art housed in these two major museums.
“Matisse In The 1930’s” is showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The French impressionist artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was well-known for his brightly colored fanciful work but like many an artist, after years devoted to working in a singular style, in 1929 he fell into a creative slump. Luckily he was invited to serve on the award jury at the 1930 Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and undertook the journey from his home in Nice in the hope it would reenergize him. While in Pennsylvania, Matisse paid a visit to the prolific art collector and one of his loyal patrons, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, in Merion. Barnes had long considered Matisse one of ‘the principal living exponent(s) of modern French art’ and had many of Matisse’s paintings in his renowned collection. During the visit, perhaps on a whim, Barnes offered Matisse a commission to create a mural for the main hall of his museum.
Barnes showed Matisse the architectural restrictions he would have to work with but left the choice of filling the space and subject matter entirely up to the artist. Matisse seized on the challenge and threw himself into not only creating a new work but also a new way of working. He decided on a circle of nymph’s dancing hand-in- hand and viola The Dance was born! Matisse returned to Nice and worked for more than two years on the project. On display are the many sketched variations on a theme he rendered until he was satisfied with the design. The mural was installed in the spring of 1933 but Matisse was still unsure of his path forward until in 1935 he found inspiration in his model Lydia Deloctorskyaya that ushered in a period of unbridled productivity. Matisse’s passion for his art continued and stayed with him until the end.
Matisse In The 1930’s exhibition is a collection of works produced during this prolific period in which his creative juices were recharged and resulted in some of his most innovative works along with his transformation to modernist methods. The well-informed easy to read piece descriptions in the exhibition lead you though the creative influences that resulted in the transition from his earlier works through his developing sense of what he wanted to convey and the manner in which he felt comfortable conveying it. Now he was off and running and this activity sparked a new vitality in his work. The exhibition contains about 140 works both from public and private collections and includes rarely seen paintings and sculptures; drawings and prints; illustrated books, plus documentary photographs and films. One film on display documents Matisse while he was working on the Barnes mural, climbing up and down a ladder puffing on a cigar with his dog Raudi joyfully joining in the activity. On display is also a black and white film of the Red and Black ballet he created in collaboration with the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. Matisse designed the costumes and the stage curtain while the dancers supplied the movement that brought his designs to life.
For information on Matisse In The 1930’s exhibit and general information about the Philadelphia Museum of Art visit: https://philamuseum.org/
“Modigliani Up Close” is on display at The Barnes Foundation. This exhibition is ground-breaking in that it not only showcases the art of the artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) but with the help of scientific investigation, gives the viewer the opportunity to explore what was behind his creative process. Revealed for the first time are his working methods and the materials he used. In this exhibition the viewer is invited to view the struggles that an artist passes through on his way to greatness using the tools that are available to him. This is a fascinating study of the artist’s humanity and his ability to “make due”. In one finished study Nude with a Hat we can see that he reworked one side of a canvas possibly previously used and discarded by another artist, and in the same year of 1908, possibly to save on materials, he used the reverse side upside down to work on a different portrait of Maud Abrantès. In some instances when canvas was not available, he painted on cardboard or whatever else was at hand.
This exhibition was the brain child of an international team of art historians, conservators, curators, and conservation scientists that was conceived while mounting a retrospective of Modigliani and his works in 2017 at the Tate Modern in London. Through the use of advances in scientific analytical techniques such as X-radiography, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) the team was fascinated to uncover previously unknown facts about how Modigliani worked.
The Barns was a perfect venue to showcase this new found information since it is home to 16 original works by the artist, one of the largest groupings of his work in the world. Plus, this fall The Barns celebrates the centennial of the Foundation. What better way to honor Dr. Barnes vision for his foundation than with this melding of art and science so the art lover can get up close and personal with one of his favorite artists to view his work in this new way? The exhibit features nearly 50 works organized into thematic sections.
I entered into the exhibition and was immediately struck by the large carved stone sculptures so reminiscent for me of early Cycladic art carvings with their flat face, elongated neck and sharply defined nose. Modigliani added eye and mouth definitions and in some cases head coverings but the comparison to this ancient art for me was compelling. From there the exhibition leads thematically and chronologically through some of his portraits to his prolific paintings of nudes and it was fascinating to see how his choice of base layer (or ground) canvas material and color was used to create different emotional outcomes even though he used similar poses and in some cases even the same modal.
Also fascinating was the way in which he chose to paint his models eyes… or not, as in Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hèbuterne, 1917) leaving them a pale blank blue possibly to suggest that eyes are the mirrors to the soul which is unknown to the viewer.
There are many modern new ways to engage with art at The Barns, visit their website for Education Initiatives, free programs and mobile guides. https://www.barnesfoundation.org/
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