A collection of 100 works of art by Henri Matisse and his contemporaries is now on display at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and it’s the only exhibition of its kind outside of Europe.
Museum Registrar Maury Ford pulls out a screwdriver and gives it a few quick pulls on the museum’s second floor earlier this month.
“It’s going to be very loud,” Ford warns before unboxing one of dozens of wooden crates holding works by Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso and other 20th century artists.
Massive crates crowd the freshly painted rooms, the colors chosen specifically for “Matisse in His Time: Masterworks of Modernism from the Centre Pompidou, Paris.” On the walls, brown paper cutouts mark where each work of art will eventually hang.
You can feel the tension in the room. Several museum employees stand in silence as Ford removes the screws one by one. Once Ford cracks the crate open, a worker steps in to peel away layers of foam and plastic. Underneath it all: a masterpiece.
An employee snaps a picture of “The Algerian” by Henri Matisse. Two others, wearing crisp white gloves, remove the art from its casing.
“We've been looking at them on computer screens and on sheets of paper for over two years, and to see them in person, it's really spectacular,” Ford says.
“The Algerian” shows a dark-haired woman donning a light blue dress with a deep neckline.
“This is actually a work that's incredibly important because it predates when Matisse was most focused on the subject in the 1920s or even when Picasso was emulating him much later in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Director of Curatorial Affairs Michael Anderson says. “This is 1909, so it's a really important work historically.”
‘A great rivalry’
The exhibit has several different sections spanning the French artist’s extensive career – one focuses on Matisse’s paper cutouts, another on cubism. “The Algerian” is part of the Odalisques room, a series of art devoted to female harems.
“In this section, you’ll see two Matisses face off against two Picassos. Those were two Picassos that were created in direct response and, the latter, in homage to Matisse. This is the Picasso versus Matisse section of the exhibition,” Anderson says.
Picasso and Matisse often painted similar subjects, like the ones you’ll find in the Odalisques room, but the finished pieces ended up remarkably different.
“They're two artists that really had a great rivalry over the course of decades, so it's fun to see them side-by-side,” Anderson says.
“One artist would paint one painting and so the other would see it as a challenge and paint something in their own style to kind of respond to it, and they did that for years.”
Anderson says when Matisse died in 1954, Picasso lamented the death of his friend for years.
Matisse pushed boundaries. He used bold, deep colors directly out of the tubes.
“Matisse was the bridge between the world of the impressionists of the late 19th century and modern art of the 20th century,” President and CEO of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art Michael Whittington says.
Whittington says Matisse even offended people with his use of color. There are several paintings in the exhibit, even some not by Matisse, that give you a sense of the artist. But there’s this one that leaves a mark on most who see it.
“There is a very, very important work in this exhibition, and it’s in the cubist portion of the exhibition, in the middle portion of the exhibition, it’s: ‘A view from the French window at Collioure,’” Whittington says sitting on the other end of the museum but clearly recalling the piece’s every detail.
Collioure is an idyllic French riviera village near the Spanish border. The town’s rocky coast collides with crystal blue waters.
“In this view, Matisse painted an open French window, but instead of a beautiful seascape beyond, it's totally black,” Whittington says.
Black. The painting is hard to miss in such a colorful collection.
“It stands out to most of us because it's not the Henri Matisse that we think we know, but it really is the Henri Matisse, it was the revolutionary Henri Matisse,” Whittington says.
Most of the art is on loan from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. There are also pieces from the Musée d’Orsay and a private collection. Four are from Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art teamed up with the Inasmuch Foundation to mark the centennial birthday of its founder, Edith K. Gaylord.
“There are masterworks that have never traveled outside of Europe and will never be seen in this configuration ever again,” Whittington says.
“This is a unique experience, we knew the appeal would be national and probably international.”
People from as far away as Hawaii have bought tickets.
Whittington isn’t surprised the collection landed in the heart of the United States instead of New York or Washington, D.C.
“Oklahoma City is a very sophisticated, highly desirable place to live where anything is possible. So why wouldn't this be in Oklahoma City?”
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