top of page

Matisse exhibition at Standard Bank gives credence to design-turn in SA art

If there is one art work at the Henri Matisse; Rhythm and Meaning exhibition that best encapsulates the French artist’s place in art history it might ironically be the one that is least Matisse-like. Titled Nu Debout (1892) it is classical study of a male nude. As such it is completely bereft of any of the characteristics of Matisse’s art; his bold use of colour and a reduction of form. This is not surprising; this drawing was made by Matisse long before he settled upon his modernist voice or distinctive language and was made by the artist as part of his application to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of the arts).

This was a time when an artist’s talent was measured against his or her ability to faithfully capture reality. To an uneducated eye Matisse’s figure looks passable, good even, however, if you study it closely there are ‘flaws’; one of the feet and hands are not rendered in any detail. This prevented Matisse from being accepted, according to Patrice Deparpe, one of the co-curators of the exhibition. Matisse was later admitted to study art but held onto this drawing. It did not function as a reminder of his failure, but in his mind, encapsulated his rejection, revealing an early resistance, or maybe inability to conform to the criteria for good art as set by the academy.

Today, we are so familiar with his modernist art, with the impact it had on graphic, textile and interior design, that we overlook his rebellious spirit, his desire to upturn accepted notions of art. In this drawing he is mindful of conforming, though he can’t completely do so. This makes it such an interesting, though superficially banal document.

However, in the absence of any large, bodly coloured artworks at this exhibition, which would better capture his irreverent spirit in full throttle, you are forced to seek out the hidden value in this collection on display at the Standard Bank gallery. A rich encounter with a Matisse artwork or works is all about ‘feeling’ the sensations that his bold use of colour and forms evoke – the artist famously spent over a decade trying to recapture an underwater experience in Tahiti.

Ill health seemed to have paid dividends for the artist Henri Matisse. It was while recupe