Matisse exhibit celebrates the full-figured
UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum houses one of the nation’s best kept secrets. Okay, maybe it’s not a secret, but as curator Will South says, people keep rediscovering it over and over as if it’s new to the gallery.
The Weatherspoon Art Museum owns 73 original pieces by artist Henri Matisse ‘— 67 lithographs and etchings and six bronze sculptures. The pieces were given to the museum by sisters Claribel and Etta Cone in Etta’s will to what was known in 1949 as Woman’s College. The Cone sisters were part of the Cone textiles dynasty, and the two were given the task of gathering art to decorate the Cone household. That task would lead to a lifetime of collecting art.
The Cone sisters met Matisse in 1906 and Pablo Picasso in 1905, before either was famous. The sisters also left to the college collections of Picasso, Felix Vallotton, Marie Laurencin, Jaques Villon and John Graham, totaling 240 works in all.
According to South, the pieces are rotated for display throughout the year to minimize their exposure to light. The Matisse collection on display now at Weatherspoon is of 21 nude pieces ‘— 19 lithographs and etchings and two bronze sculptures. In a spacious, dimly-lit room the prints hang from the walls in golden frames and large off-white mats. South tells me years ago the prints used to hang unframed by thumbtacks along the walls in the art department. Now, of course, the school realizes the prizes they have on their hands.
Etchings, done on small metal plates, are printed in reverse onto paper in a limited number. In one small etching, Nude with Necklace and Long Hair, completed in 1920, Matisse has etched his name, from left to right as anyone would. But in the print it is backwards. It’s the only one I see like this. His signature is in pencil below the etching.
Lithographs are also printed in limited number. The ink is applied via a large, hand-cranked press. Upon looking closely one sees simple black lines, curves, shapes and squiggles that seem quickly and carelessly drawn. But stepping back to view these larger prints shows the nudes done in what appears to be great detail. Matisse’s simple form strips away all but the necessary lines; the viewer’s imagination fills in the empty spaces.
Today some artists spend time Photoshopping out the blemishes and excess weight of their models. Matisse’s simple pencil could have left out anything he wanted, yet he chose to draw the form as he saw it. Some women have large, unflattering hips and excess weight. I wonder what these models thought when they saw themselves in Matisse’s finished pieces. Most in the display give little detail to the facial features, concentrating more on bodily form.
One lithograph in particular captures my attention. It is Woman with a Necklace done in 1925. This woman, reclining in an armchair, is adorned with necklaces, rings and bracelets. There are three or four small patterns scattered about her body from what appears to be a sheer top loosely spread across her. Her fingers play with the beads of her necklace while she stares off in thought. Though the form is simplistic, I seem to notice this beautiful woman as if she were painted in full color before me. What particularly strikes me about her, however, is her face. Her hair in a short bob, her narrow eyes and nose, crafted eyebrows and delicate lips give her a personality not found in his other prints. Matisse has paid particular interest to this womans facial features, features he has left distorted or almost blank in many of his other works.
On the wall behind me is Seated Nude with Arms Extended, also done in 1925. This woman, too, has great detail in the face and eyes. Her hair is cut in the same fashion. I believe it is the same model, although there’s no placard of any kind to confirm this. It makes me wonder, did Matisse see something in this woman he did not see in the others that modeled for him? Did he have special feelings for her; did he love her? He seems to be more intrigued by her and seems to give her something in his work he doesn’t give to the others.
I could be wrong, I guess. But it does to me what art is supposed to do. It makes me think.