Matisse in the Stedelijk

The Dutch museum goer has had to be patient over the last decade. So many of the big museums have been closed or offering greatly reduced collections during rebuilds and renovation. But that period seems to be passed now and the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are open and better than ever. The last months have also seen some major exhibitions of painting at these museums. We have the Frick Collection in the Mauritshuis, Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum and Matisse at the Stedelijk, all currently open, not to mention the major Rothko exhibition that has just finished at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. 

 The Matisse show at the Stedelijk is an interesting exhibition, very different to the large retrospective that was seen in Paris a couple of years ago. The Paris show was an extensive retrospective charting many areas of Matisse’s work. In a way the Amsterdam exhibition does the same, but in a rather different way. We are taken through all the stages and periods of the Frenchman’s work, maybe with a few less examples. But these are accompanied by the work of others who were experimenting with similar ideas at the same time. So we see a Matisse street scene hanging next to a Vlaminck street scene, a Matisse nude next to a Picasso nude or a striding figure painted by Malevich next to one by Matisse. 

  

 In this way you find yourself journeying through twentieth century art history and simultaneously following the development of the bearded Frenchman. The later stages of the show bringing you into the large, upstairs gallery spaces of the Stedelijk and rooms full of exclusively Matisse work and in particular his paper cuts, both the large scale pieces and the pages of his Jazz publication.

Colour is pretty much everywhere to be found in the work of Matisse whether it’s in an early figure painting or portrait, or later in the interior paintings with their decorative details. In the later collages the colour sweeps across you, it’s what you expect from a Matisse exhibition. 

  

 But sitting watching the film of Matisse working with his young assistant to arrange collage elements and freely cutting his paper shapes with his large pair of scissors the role of line in his work is emphasized. I guess that in my own work line and drawing is generally more important than colour. Maybe this makes me a little more receptive to the quality of line in Matisse’s work. But retracing my steps back to the earlier work it becomes still more evident. 

The looseness and economy of the line in the portrait chalk drawings or pencil figures, they all seem so carefree and confident. Picasso is often talked about in terms of his interest and relationship to the creative confidence that young children have. But Matisse has that too, there seems to be a certainty that he will be able to make every line and form work for him. The teenagers I work with seem often to be the absolute opposite of this, the wave of uncertainty that engulfs them when confronted by a sheet of white paper.

It would be interesting to bring them here. I know that they would be troubled by the simplicity of the collages, it all looks too easy. But there lies the crux, they are ready to appreciate the creative ease that Lionel Messi shows us when passing a defender to score for Barcelona and they recognize that they don’t have such an ability. However, show them an artist with a pair of scissors and they are a lot more suspicious. How can such simplicity be good, when in so many other areas we acknowledge complexity?

Some of my older pupils at school are currently working on an assignment that I have, perhaps slightly mischievously, given them. It asks them to consider the qualities of all the various artistic and cultural disciplines. I’ve asked them to choose to present a discipline (say film or architecture for example) that is in a state of progression with the most modern and up to date being the high point of achievement. A second one has to be picked where they feel the quality is in regression, where the work being produced now is inferior to that of the past. In both cases they have to choose examples to argue their case.

In truth this assignment is a bit of an experiment, I’ll be curious to see what they make of it. I suspect some may well feel that the history of painting is in regression. Teenagers are indefinitely impressed by the technical skill of the past and struggle with more abstract or work that is visually reduced to simpler forms. In this context Matisse’s work may well make an appearance, which would probably be reason enough to give them some coloured paper, a pair of scissors and an invitation to have a go themselves.

The Dutch museum goer has had to be patient over the last decade. So many of the big museums have been closed or offering greatly reduced collections during rebuilds and renovation. But that period seems to be passed now and the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are open and better than ever. The last months have also seen some major exhibitions of painting at these museums. We have the Frick Collection in the Mauritshuis, Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum and Matisse at the Stedelijk, all currently open, not to mention the major Rothko exhibition that has just finished at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

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4 thoughts on “Matisse in the Stedelijk

  1. I really want to see the exhibition of Matisse. I find it disturbing that students think stuff that matters should be complex. Less is more, is a difficult lesson.

  2. I very nearly wrote less is more in the text Jeske. The problems with pupils is of course explaining that producing a reduced and refined image is not quite the sane as doing a little!

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