An extract from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Henri Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning, edited by Federico Freschi and published by the Standard Bank Gallery, 2016.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is probably one of the best-known and most widely appreciated artists of the 20th century. Even in his own lifetime, Matisse enjoyed considerable prestige as one of the undisputed leaders of modernism, nationally and internationally. Indeed, by the 1940s, he was considered something of a ‘national treasure’ in France, a status that was officially confirmed by his designation, in 1947, as Commander of the Legion of Honour.
Indeed, the allure of his work and the mystique of his mastery increased substantially in the decades following his death, and today we are likely to encounter at least one major exhibition of the artist’s work somewhere in the world every year. A quick Google search reveals that in 2016 alone, in addition to the Johannesburg exhibition, there are exhibitions devoted to Matisse at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, and the Palazzo Chiablese in Turin, with a host of other important museums – from the Royal Academy in London to the Art Gallery New South Wales to the Hermitage Amsterdam – featuring Matisse in the titles of their main exhibitions.
Against this backdrop, an exhibition devoted to Matisse in Johannesburg is not an insignificant event. Not only does it expand, in a general sense, the geographical scope of locations associated with viewing the artist’s work, it is also the first time that an exhibition of Matisse’s work has been held on the African continent. This is despite Matisse’s early interest in African art and its enduring legacy in the ‘mask’ drawings and cutouts, as well as the long shadows cast by his visits to North Africa in the early years of the 20th century.
While this is not the first time that Matisse works have been exhibited in Johannesburg, bringing a full-scale Matisse exhibition to Johannesburg (and, by extension, to Africa) for the first time creates an opportunity to reflect on a number of questions that would not necessarily be brought to the fore in exhibitions in more obvious locales. Not least, this exhibition asks us to consider the influence of African (and other non-Western) cultures in a very direct way.
The current exhibition proceeds from the understanding that Matisse’s art continues to have wide appeal across cultures. It also provides an opportunity to consider the expanded scope of of his early interest in ‘primitivism’, and particularly in African art objects: the interest in non-traditional and ephemeral material, the interest in pattern and rhythm, and the interest in the conceptual rather than the perceptual as the primary principle governing art-making. These are all elements that animated Matisse’s art throughout his career, and left an indelible mark on 20th-century art history.
The celebrated Jazz suite, presented in its entirety, is a key work in the exhibition. Not only are its images among the most recognisable in Matisse’s extensive oeuvre, the work itself was a seminal turning point for the artist. In a 1952 interview with the artist André Verdet, Matisse declared that ‘It’s not enough to place colours, however beautiful, one beside the other; colours must also react on one another. Otherwise, you have cacophony. Jazz is rhythm and meaning.’
This exhibition takes this notion of ‘rhythm and meaning’ to introduce Matisse to a South African audience through an exposure to the full range of his work. The works on exhibition come from the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, the town in the North of France where he was born in 1869, as well as from the Matisse Museum in Nice, where he died in 1954. In addition, there are works on loan from French private collectors, as well as three works from the collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Henri Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning, curated by Federico Freschi and Patrice Deparpe, Director of the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France, will be on display at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg from 13 July to 17 September 2016.