From 13 September 2017 to 14 January 2018, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt will be presenting two outstanding artists – Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) – in an exhibition that is the first in Germany to bring these key modernist masters together.
At the heart of the special exhibition “Matisse – Bonnard. ‘Long Live Painting!’” is the friendship between the two French artists which lasted for over forty years. Both painters shared a preference for the same range of subjects: interiors, still lifes, landscapes and the female nude. With a selection of more than 120 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, the exhibition opens a dialogue between Matisse and Bonnard and offers new perspectives on the development of the European avant-garde from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end of the Second World War. The selection of works is enriched by a series of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who visited the two painters in their country houses on the French Riviera in 1944.
For this year’s major autumn show, the Städel has been able to secure a wide range of outstanding loans from internationally renowned collections, among them the Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Also on display will be a host of major works from private collections, which are not normally accessible to the public.
An absolute highlight among these are the two paintings which the artists owned from one another:
Pierre Bonnard’s Evening in the Living Room (1907, private collection)
and Henri Matisse’s The Open Window (1911, private collection).
They are being shown together for the first time in Frankfurt.
Another exhibition highlight is Matisse’s Large Reclining Nude of 1935, on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has not been seen in Germany for more than thirty years. This iconic nude was a milestone on the artist’s journey towards an aesthetic of highly simplified forms and shows his studio assistant and last important model, Lydia Delectorskaya. It is very likely that the painting was inspired by
Bonnard’s Reclining Nude against a White and Blue Plaid (ca. 1909), which it closely resembles in composition, and which has been in the collection of the Städel Museum since 1988. The opportunity to show these two paintings in dialogue was key to the planning of this project.
The title of the exhibition, Long Live Painting!, is based on the programmatic exclamation “Vive la peinture!” with which Matisse saluted his friend Bonnard on 13 August 1925. Those three words on a postcard from Amsterdam were the beginning of a correspondence that went on for more than twenty years and that testifies to the depth of the respect and appreciation the two artists felt for each other. In the first decade of the twentieth century, both artists left Paris, then the capital of the avant-garde, for the Côte d’Azur, where they continued to cement their reputation as protagonists of the European art scene.
Despite the near-contiguity of their lives and careers, art historians tend to correlate the two artists with opposing trends: Bonnard’s breezy, loose brushwork and scintillating soft pastels give rise to the construct of the painter as the last great heir of Impressionism, while Matisse’s preference for strong colours and flat, heavily contoured compositions earn him the accolade of being named a pioneer of twentieth-century abstraction.
In thematic chapters, the exhibition focuses on different interpretations of major genres: interiors, still lifes, landscapes and nudes. The aim of presenting Matisse and Bonnard together is to allow comparative contemplation, to create a space in which commonalities and differences emerge – but not to engender any kind of competition. Such a thing would be quite at odds with the relationship between the two artists. “When I think of you, I think of a mind cleansed of every old aesthetic convention, and it is that alone that permits a direct view of nature, the greatest joy that can befall a painter. I enjoy a little of that, thanks to you” wrote Bonnard to Matisse in January 1940. The value which the latter attached to the judgement of his friend is documented in a letter of November of the same year: “I need to see someone, and you’re the one I want to see.” Matisse did not want to discuss his pictures with anyone else. Seldom have two artists complemented one another so well.
The exhibition extends over two floors and is arranged around a series of different artistic themes: interiors, landscapes/nature, still lifes and women/the nude. An introductory section, occupying the first rooms on the ground floor of the exhibition, is devoted to the friendship between the two artists, featuring portraits by the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, self-portraits, and the two works painted by one artist and owned by the other.
The following rooms are devoted to interiors and, in particular, to the motif of the window, where the close exchange of ideas between the two artist-friends is strikingly apparent. Among the outstanding works here are Bonnard’s paintings The Bowl of Milk (ca. 1919) and The Window (1925), both from the Tate Modern in London, and Matisse’s Large Red Interior (1948), one of his last iconic works in oil, which is on loan from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The last room on the ground floor is devoted to the letters exchanged between the two artists, a selection of which can be heard in dramatised readings, and all of which can be digitally viewed.
Upstairs, the exhibition continues with the theme of landscape and nature, in which the lifelong fascination of both artists with the light and atmosphere of the French Riviera plays an important role.
Here, a highlight of the exhibition is Bonnard’s The Sun-Filled Terrace (1939–1946, private collection). The painting is unusual because of its extremely horizontal format. It shows a terrace, on either side of which a garden landscape stretches away in vibrant, almost pink tones. While many of Bonnard’s late works depict views taken straight from the surroundings of his home at Le Bosquet, this large-scale work has the feeling of a timeless idyll. Matisse was deeply impressed when he saw the as yet unfinished composition in his friend’s studio. In January 1940 he wrote to him: “Your work is still clear in my memory, in all its details. Never before has it seemed to me so complete, and I can still picture quite distinctly the decorative passage with the rose branches. I like it very much.”
Another theme in which the dialogue between the two painters is reflected is still life. Like few other artists of their generation Bonnard and Matisse harboured a lifelong fascination with this centuries-old genre. Taking inspiration from predecessors such as Jean Siméon Chardin and Paul Cézanne, they aimed to release it from a naturalistic depiction of everyday objects and instead used it as a starting point for radical artistic experimentation with colour and form.
The works on show here include Matisse’s still life from the Städel Museum, Flowers and Ceramic Plate (1913) – an early masterpiece and a firm favourite of visitors to the collection – and Bonnard’s luminous Bouquet of Mimosas (ca. 1945, private collection), which makes a perfect pendant to it. As in many paintings in Bonnard’s late, almost abstract style, paint itself seems to be the real subject of the composition, in which the thickly applied hues of yellow and orange blend the vibrantly glowing flowers with the surrounding interior.
In their approaches to the female nude, both artists developed their respective “signature paintings": Bonnard’s were sensuous nudes in baths or boudoirs, while Matisse’s were dreamlike odalisques, women of the harem in exotic settings. Bonnard’s model is typically his wife, Marthe, whom he immortalised in almost 400 paintings over a period of more than 50 years and whom he continued to paint even after her death. Her perpetually youthful body appears again and again in oneiric bathing pictures, permeated with a dreamlike and often disconcerting atmosphere of mystery. Matisse’s odalisques are completely different in tone – works of intimate theatricality, full of shimmering colour, where figure and interior are meshed together in vividly ornamental compositions that give vibrant expression to the artist’s vision of an art of perfect harmony.
The exhibition also allows insight into the creative process behind one of Matisse’s masterpieces, Large Reclining Nude. Using a camera, the artist documented the development of the painting from May to October 1935. In a total of 22 black-and-white photographs, we can see how he gradually reworked essential elements of the composition, continually simplifying it and making it and rendering its elements more planar. This work is also one of the very first oil paintings where Matisse used cut-out stripes of paper as aids to composition – a technique which was to become decisive for his late work and which completely superseded his painting on canvas after 1948. Perhaps the best-known work to have been created using these so-called “cut-outs” is Matisse’s artist’s book Jazz (1947), devoted to the brightly-coloured world of the circus, clowns, and the theatre, which is also on display in the exhibition.