A little over a year ago, we discussed in this very column the Fauves, or the ‘Wildcats’ movement, in France that took the art world by storm at the end of the 19th century. The celebrated artist Henri Matisse played an important role as a Fauve and also as an enthusiastic organiser of the retrieved art masterpieces soon after the end of the Second World War, when a large number of these paintings, drawings and sculptures were either carried away to Germany or were quite simply hidden in unknown places in France itself.
Alongside many outstanding figures of the epoch, such as Pierre Bonnard, Jean Cassou, Bernard Dorival, Georges Salles and, of course, Pablo Picasso, Matisse devoted his services to the Mediterranean Union of Modern Art — an association created in 1946 with the project of putting back into form all the painters and sculptors who were in bad shape because of the war crisis.
The other personal triumph of Matisse was the inauguration, in 1950, of the Galerie des Ponchettes in Nice, where a huge quantity of the above-mentioned paintings and sculptures were placed — not to forget Matisse’s own chef d’oeuvres.
Now, to celebrate its 60 years of existence, the Matisse Museum, in the famous southern French city of Nice situated on a picturesque beach by the Mediterranean Sea, looks back at its own history through an exhibition dedicated entirely to Matisse.
The Matisse Museum celebrates its 60 years by remembering the artistic legacy and contributions of Henri Matisse
To talk about Matisse’s artworks here is futile, since most are already well aware of his corpus. Hence, it is perhaps more appropriate to delve into the facets of Matisse’s life brought forth through this exhibition that may not be common knowledge.
Shortly before his death in 1954 at age 84, Matisse purposefully transferred practically all of his artistic creations to the above-mentioned gallery, making it a point that they belonged to art lovers and were not for sale as merchandising objects.
Given the ever-increasing number of visitors following Matisse’s death, the organisers of the gallery later transferred the collection in 1963 from the modestly spaced Ponchette to the vast and elaborate Villa des Arenes — a former palace with large halls — which very rapidly turned into the passionately visited Matisse Museum in Nice.
Matisse’s adventures were not limited to France only. After being named Chevalier by the Legion of Honour in 1925, he travelled regularly all over Europe and even to the United States, where he was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 1927, following a ceremony at the Andy Museum in Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania. Three years later, to everyone’s surprise, he was invited to become a member of the jury, which soon conferred the same award to Matisse’s well-known enemy Picasso.
Practically all the art enthusiasts of the era were aware of the extreme jealousy and rivalry between the two most reputed painters of the era but, eventually, following the day of the ceremony, the two celebrated enemies would become the closest of friends and would remain so for almost 30 years — until the day of Matisse’s death.
Despite Matisse’s lifelong and untiring efforts to dedicate his creations essentially and exclusively to art lovers and museums, and definitely not to art markets, the prices of his works have continued to rise ceaselessly, even seven decades after his death.
To give you only two examples, in 2009 his painting Sunflowers on Bleu was sold for 41 million dollars in Paris and, shortly later, one of his black bronze sculptures, Nue du Dos, was auctioned at Christie’s in New York, bringing in an astonishing sum of 49 million dollars — making it the fourth most expensive art piece ever sold at an auction anywhere in the world!
‘1953-2023: History of a Collection’ is on display at the Matisse Museum in Nice, France from June 23–September 24, 2023
The writer is an art critic based in Paris. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 3rd, 2023