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Monday, 19 September 2011

Barnes Connection



Tributes to Matisse at his gravesite in  Nice, France.
 Photo: Richard Carreno/Writers Clearinghouse
Matisse's Revenge

By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Nice, France
Think the Barnes Foundation. For a devotee of Henri Matisse (1868-1954), that shrine to Impressionism in Philadelphia comes readily to mind when visiting the artist's eponymously-named museum here. In many ways, the Musee Matisse, founded in 1963 with donations by Matisse's family and with works earmarked by the artist himself, could well be considered a book-end to Dr. Alfred C. Barnes' more inclusive pantheon of Modern Art greats.

On one hand is the Philadelphia-based museum, the world's finest one-stop bully-pulpit of Impressionism, an amalgam of dozens of its stalwarts, an elite cadre from Cezanne (69 pictures), Modigliani (16), period Picasso (46), to Matisse himself (59), an erstwhile associate of the insatiable American collector. On the other is the artist's equally single-minded effort here showcasing the early-20th century genre, filtered through Matisse's own unrivaled lens of sharply-focused color, light, and line. The result: A rich, solipsistic journey through the artist's life-span.

Both museums, finally, are houses of worship. (Though in keeping with more conventional religious practice, entrance to the Matisse chapel here is free, funded by the French state, the city of Nice, and by private donations).

Some comparisons are superficially interesting. Both galleries are located in provincial capitals. The Matisse Museum is located in Nice's Cimiez neighborhood, an affluent residential area in the hills overlooking this otherwise Cote d'Azur resort city. Until recently, since its relocation to Philadelphia's downtown, the Barnes was even more remote, fixed in its original home in suburban Lower Merion, Pennsylvania.

In addition, both museums are located in villas, more like private homes of grandees than public spaces for artistic treasures. At least, the Matisse still is, housed in the Villa des Arenes, a 17th century home of local plutocrats. Its setting is bucolic, set among Roman ruins and a 17th century Franciscan monastery. Until the Barnes Foundation's move to Philadelphia (the new property on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will debut in early 2012), its museum collection filled a Paul Cret-designed, purpose-built villa in leafy Lower Merion. Dr. Barnes' living quarters were attached.

Significant, too, the museums are conceptually crafted as singular private domains. The Barnes, of course, driven by the vexing, but brilliant vision of its namesake, the fabulously wealthy patent medicine inventor. Matisse himself, his widow, Amelie Matisse-Parayre, and their children were instrumental in creating their family memorial here. The museum includes, on two floors, scores of works in oils, engravings, and decoupages. (Thankfully, it excludes all the crazy-quilt presentation gimmicks that Barnes favoured).

That said, an even greater twinning -- an almost co-sanguine bloodline -- between the two institutions can be argued, given Matisse's professional and personal relationship with the irascible Barnes (1872-1951) and the artist's intimate knowledge of the Barnes venue in Lower Merion. Enter son Pierre Matisse.

In 1930, Pierre was operating an art gallery in New York. En route to Tahiti (in search of sunlight for his palette and inspiration for his metier), father Henri stopped by. Matisse was on another mission, as well, as a judge at the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. That second journey providently involved a side-trip to the Barnes Foundation, where he was welcomed with open arms by Dr. Barnes in full flower and at his vitriolic best. (Barnes attempted to sabotage a lunch date that Matisse had with a Philadelphia grande dame on the same day of of their meeting. Barnes hated all grande dames. Actually, he hated anything grande).

Despite the meeting being truncated (Matisse, in the end, was hauled off to the swank luncheon), the artist and collector hit it off. Barnes spoke fluent French. No intermediaries were necessary. Their liaison was also fortuitous, in that Barnes on the spot commissioned his new associate (the megalomaniacal Barnes would probably think of him simply as a minion) to contribute a mural to the museum's inner court.The result, of course, was the iconic La Danse. (Early studies are on display here).

The languid La Danse, an archetype of Matisse's interpretation of line and figure, actually comes in two completed versions. The first is at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. That's the one that couldn't fit the dedicated wall space in Cret's villa. Instead of tinkering with this work, Matisse just created another. Well, not just. The effort was time-consuming and arduous. In keeping with his character, Barnes had no sympathy for the artist, though Matisse readily admitted that the error in measuring was his alone.

There was more. Though he allowed the masterwork to be installed, Barnes cattily made it known that he actually didn't like it.

This rejection of Matisse, soon after, was at best odd. (OK, not for Barnes). Only a few years later, in 1933, Barnes and his putative mistress, Violette De Mazia, wrote what may still stand as the most definitive (and seemingly sympathetic) treatise of the artist and his oeuvre. Despite the authors apparent good will to the painter, The Art of Henri-Matisse, published by the Barnes Foundation Press, often serves more as a paperweight of almost 500 pages than a readable analysis. (On doctor's orders, bite-sized samples are recommended). La Danse is never mentioned in the book. Ouch!

Barnes' dissing of Matisse was probably for the best as it allowed the artist to escape the toxicity that Barnes had created in correct art circles in Philadelphia and New York. (Barnes had no shame. In the 1940s, he hired then fired eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell as a foundation instructor. Russell sued the litigious Barnes for breach of contract, and won).

Nice, not surprisingly, was a more agreeable venue. Matisse moved here in 1916, and, for the most part, was a resident ever since. He came in search of light, a warming glow that still washes over the azur-colored ocean of the Baie d'Anges and the Promenade des Anglais.

In a sense, Nice is more than simply a museum mecca. It's more like a Matisse mosaic, a patch-quilt of his former residences, all of which are still standing: From the Hotel Beau Rivage on the Avenue des Etats Unis, overlooking the Mediterranean; to the 1 Place Charles-Felix, where Matisse installed new windows in his top-floor studio. The artist never lived at Villa des Arenes. From 1938, he lived nearby at the still-elegant Le Regina, a former hotel that had been converted into apartments. (They still are).

In 1954, Matisse, 85 years old, died, and was buried in a secluded spot in the Cimiez cemetery not far from his museum. His widow, Amelie, joined in him in the sepulcher 1958.

The horizontal stone slab is modest, citing only the Matisses names and birth and death dates. On top, are numerous commemorative do-dads, pine cones, stones, and memorial messages. I left mine.

Appropriately enough, Barnes has no memorial -- other, of course, than his museum. The only official recognition of his death was the flag draping of a suburban Philadelphia fire house. His body was cremated.


 

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