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Exhibition at Kunsthaus Zurich presents Henri Matisse as sculptor
Henri Matisse, Nu couché III, 1929. Bronze, 18.7 x 46.5 x 15.1 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966. Photo: Cathy Carver, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden © Succession Henri Matisse/2019 ProLitteris, Zurich.

ZURICH.- From 30 August to 8 December 2019 the Kunsthaus Zürich presents Henri Matisse as sculptor, in an exhibition that brings bronzes in various states together with the sources of his inspiration, including nude photographs and African sculptures. The art education programme is designed to appeal equally to newcomers with an interest in art, specialists and families.

Over 70 works, accompanied by reproductions of historical photographs, films and music, offer a vivid presentation of Matisse’s artistic method. Installed in the large exhibition gallery of the Kunsthaus, the exhibition opens with sculptures by Rodin, Maillol and Bourdelle whom Matisse – known for his colourful paintings – strove to emulate before breaking free and striking out on his own. His figures undergo a transformation that is akin to a metamorphosis: while the earliest works still bear the influence of naturalistic ideals, later creations and reworkings of the same motif become increasingly abstract.

A formal progression – as in the bronze reliefs ‘Nu de dos I–IV’ – from a seemingly naturalistic approach to radical stylization can also be seen in reclining nudes (‘Nu couché I–III’), graceful figurines (‘Madeleine I–II’) and voluminous busts (‘Jeannette I–V’).

There are parallels in the work of Matisse as painter and draughtsman. For the first time this exhibition examines the relationships between the sculptures and his paintings, cut-outs and drawings through the prism of metamorphosis. One striking fact is that Matisse did not simply document the processes of transformation for his own private use, but actually exhibited the documentary photographs together with his paintings (e.g. ‘Nature morte au coquillage sur marbre noir’, 1940). The Kunsthaus Zürich explores the rationale behind this public displaying of the creative process – an aspect that no exhibition has examined in detail before.

In addition to the artistic method of metamorphosis, the exhibition looks at other key aspects of Matisse’s sculptural oeuvre. It shows how he engaged with Rodin and the art of Antiquity and the Renaissance, and reveals how the creative process was preceded by an intensive engagement with photographs and African sculptures.

The stylistic devices of the arabesque that are much in evidence in ‘La serpentine’ (1909) characterize almost all of Matisse’s sculptures. The blurring of sexual characteristics, as in the four ‘Nus de dos’ and the ‘Petit torse mince’ (1930), is a further distinctive element of his approach.

In the case of the bronze ‘Nu de dos’ reliefs, it took Matisse 20 years to work through the metamorphosis of a single motif to its ultimate conclusion. The protracted nature of the process tells us that the creation was never intended as a series – whatever the visitor standing before the four larger than life-size reliefs today may think.

Curator Sandra Gianfreda has put together this enlightening presentation with the help of loans from famous collections in Copenhagen, Washington, Baltimore, San Francisco, Paris, Moscow and Nice. As cooperation partner, the Musée Matisse in Nice has contributed the bulk of the loans and will take over the exhibition after it leaves Zurich (7.2.–6.5.2020; co-curator Claudine Grammont). As this exhibition demonstrates, Matisse was an artist who was capable of much more than simply painting. His sculptures are a milestone in modern art.

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