Matisse at the Katonah Museum of Art

The Katonah Museum of Art hasn’t had a good exhibit in a long time. And Once Removed: Paintings by Sophie Matisse doesn’t break the dry spell. Fortunately, it’s just dessert for the main course, Henri Matisse: A Celebration of French Poets and Poetry, which is terrific.

Painful Pretext. Sophie Matisse is Henri’s great-granddaughter and technically quite proficient. Her skill is apparent in her faultless recreations of famous paintings sans people and animals. Think of Rembrandt’s Dutch Masters without the masters, Cezanne’s Card Players with no players, or Jamie Wyeth’s Portrait of a Pig without the porker — none of which Sophie has done, yet. Hopefully, she’ll find her soul one day and drop the painful pretext. Meanwhile, we suggest you skip dessert.

La Chevelure by Henri Matisse, from the Poesies series drawn to accompany symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé's work.

Two Extroadinary Books. When you think of Matisse, you don’t think of line drawings, at least I don’t. In fact, Matisse illustrated a dozen books, two for Swiss publisher Albert Skira. The first, done in the early 1930s, was the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, with the Museum showing 16 of the resulting 29 etchings. Called the Poesies, the line drawings illustrating Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry include Plate 25, La Chevelure (The Hair) at right. The second, done in the 1940s, was the love poems of 16th-century French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard — which Matisse translated into modern French, selected and arranged himself — with the museum exhibiting 47 of the original 126 lithographs. Both reflect Matisse’ mature style and outlook.

Decisively Rounded. Matisse’ line drawings are powerfully evocative, concentrating on his main interests — portraits, the female form, and flowers. With a spare, rounded style reminiscent of Picasso’s sketches, and an eye for personality as clear and witty as Hirschfeld’s, Matisse creates forms and shapes that harmonize with the poetic themes but generally don’t illustrate them directly. The drawings — some with fewer than a dozen lines — express an irrepressible joie de vivre bursting with richly sculptured sensuality. Sheer wizardry. No wonder Etta and Clarabelle Cone were so generous in their support of this mischievous master.

Worth a Second Look. We didn’t leave enough time to take in the drawings, read the poetic passages, and absorb the relationships. So we’ll be back at the Museum before the Matisse exhibit closes on September 18, 2005. Perhaps we’ll see you there? And if you don’t enjoy the exhibit as much as we did, the great scenery on the Post Rd around Katonah will make the trip worth taking anyway.

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About Louis J. Bruno

I studied English and psychology at Columbia College and stayed at Columbia, doing postgraduate work in psychophysiology, then teaching and doing research for several years. To keep the wolf from the door, I migrated into retail sales and management, at first for Radio Shack, briefly for Savemart, and finally for Newmark & Lewis. When N&L collapsed, I went into business for myself, providing sales, service, and maintenance of computer systems; designing, hosting, and maintaining websites; providing custom software, mailers, and database services to the real estate industry; and serving as a business consultant. My interests include writing, traveling, jogging, swimming, biking, hiking, gardening, photography, history, art, jazz, swing, country and classical music, investing, management theory, civic activism, sustainability, particularly energy conservation, good government, the environment, and technology. And more to come, I hope.

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