Major Matisse exhibition at Indianapolis Museum of Art

“From the moment I held that box of colors in my hand, I knew this was my life.”

— Henri Matisse

You don’t have to be an art expert to enjoy the wonderful Matisse exhibit that’s currently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The paintings, sculptures and works on paper are colorful and accessible and come from one of the most comprehensive collections of Matisse’s art in the world. Subject matter ranges from landscapes and still lifes to interiors and portraits.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an artist of his caliber who really helped change art,” said Anita Harris, an enthusiastic docent who was taking a group of youngsters through the exhibit on the day we visited. “His paintings are happy, not at all depressive.”

The official title of the exhibit, which will be on display through Jan. 12, is “Matisse, Life in Color: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art.” Due to the show’s popularity, the museum is extending its hours and also will open on Dec. 30 — the Monday between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

It’s important to remember that if you have a reciprocal membership to many of the museums in our area, your membership card will get you into the Matisse show free of charge. It’s definitely worth checking.

Why Matisse?

Matisse was one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century and is known for his bold use of color, form and space. The exhibit is organized thematically with an emphasis on the artist’s process.

“It’s so nicely curated, and well worth the drive,” said Jim Gottman of Oakwood, who came to the exhibit with his wife, Judy. “The Museum of Modern Art in New York did a huge Matisse exhibit but this one is great because you can really view the larger works from a distance the way they were meant to be seen. And I like that the subject matter is grouped; in too many exhibits it’s simply chronological.”

More than 100 works of art are on display and you’ll also see fascinating videos of Matisse at work — drawing his grandson, for instance, in three different styles. In the gallery featuring his famous artist book entitled “Jazz,” you’ll see footage of the artist doing paper cutouts as well as the book illustrations.

Take the tour with one of the museum’s docents or pick up the terrific audio guide that let’s you walk through the exhibit with Rebecca Long, the museum’s Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture. You’ll also hear the voice of an actor portraying Matisse.

About the artist

Long says Matisse is important in the history of art because of his fame during his lifetime, the great length and heights of his career, and his tremendous creative energy.

“Together with Picasso, he became the face of modern art in the first half of the 20th century but he is also so notable because of the way in which generations of artists have been influenced in many different ways by his achievements in painting,” she said.

What’s special about his artwork, she says, is that he was a great colorist, a great sensualist and lover of harmony, pattern, and beauty across many different stylistic periods in his long career.

Long’s favorite piece of art in the exhibit is “Large Reclining Nude,” painted in 1935.

“It is a tour-de-force example of his artistic sensibilities,” she explains. ” The composition is dominated by the massive, abstracted, curving forms of the nude model, with her bright pink flesh barely contained by the frame. She’s set against the dark cool blue behind her, and the curves of her form are balanced by the rigid lines of the grid patterns behind her.”

The museum has installed that painting with a series of photographs showing how it evolved.

“It really allows a glimpse into Matisse’s thinking as he worked out the composition, and reveals how complex his artistic vision was,” says Long.

Matisse actually trained as a lawyer before he became interested in art; he moved to Paris to study painting in 1891.

It’s not surprising to learn that he was the grandson and great-grandson of weavers — so many of his paintings incorporate pattern and textiles. He was an amateur musician who related the interaction between colors to the harmonies found in music.

Art patrons

It’s thanks to two remarkable sisters from Baltimore that the city’s museum has such a vast collection of Matisse and other famous modern artists— 3,000 works of art collected by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone over a 50-year period and donated to the museum in 1950.

In one of the galleries, you’ll learn more about the sisters and their relationship with Matisse.

“Museum collections are hugely indebted to generous collectors and patrons, and often as a result, a museum’s personality is closely linked to its patrons,” Long said. “In the case of Baltimore, their reputation as housing an incredibly strong collection of modern art is almost entirely thanks to the vision of the Cone sisters, who embraced modern art in a period in which most American collectors still found it confusing or problematic.”

Other ways to learn

In the galleries you’ll notice benches with iPads that provide in-depth information about Matisse’s life and work. You can investigate Matisse’s artistic strategies through “Focus on Composition ” cards in a number of locations. There’s also an interactive gallery called “Who is Matisse?”

Note that this museum now has a policy that allows visitors to take photos in the galleries, as long as you don’t use flash.

“We’re in this era of social media and sharing, so we want people to share their visit here,” explains the museum’s Candace Gwaltney.

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