Watch me Work: Bernini and Matisse at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bernini, Fountain of Four Rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome.  Courtesy Bruce Oz

Bernini, Fountain of Four Rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome. Courtesy Bruce Oz

Bernini, Sculpting in Clay and Matisse, In Search of True Painting feature two artists who worked roughly 300 years apart but were foremost in their time and mediums.  Both exhibitions focus on the artist’s process.  In the case of Bernini before he created larger than life marble sculptures of saints and angels he needed to understand the technical aspects of his work. For Matisse he was searching for an answer to what exactly “true painting” was to him.

Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1914. Oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, Bequest of Baronne Eva Gourgaud, 1965© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1914. Oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, Bequest of Baronne Eva Gourgaud, 1965
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Since I worked in the Modern Master Print department of my gallery for roughly 11 years and one of our featured artists was Matisse, I have a predilection for him.  It’s not necessarily because I love his work, I do like it, but mostly because I am familiar with his prints, life and work.  When I went to The Met my instinct was to see the Matisse show first. The exhibition traveled from Pompidou Center, Paris and the National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen before reaching the Met in a different version.  The premise of the show is straightforward: here are paintings of the same subject but painted with different colors, more paint, less paint, different position for this figure or that bowl and through these we will see Matisse working until he is satisfied, more or less.  The beginning of the show is tight.  There are groups of two or three paintings for you to compare with the differences between them being obvious.  There are still lifes, landscapes, landscapes with figures, interior scenes with lots of patterns interiors with seated models and just seated models, all the stuff Matisse is known for, but I got weary.  And maybe this is where my long experience with Matisse is sometimes a disadvantage.  My head zones out and I focus less on looking because I’ve seen it before.  I found myself less excited than when I first walked in and ready to look at something else.

One of the last rooms recreates part of a show Matisse had at Galerie Maeght in 1945.  Matisse hired a photographer to shoot the paintings as he worked on them.  You see Matisse sketching out his subject on the canvas and the subsequent reworking he did.  I thought of Old Master print artists like Rembrandt and Durer who would etch or engrave a copper plate adding or subtracting elements resulting in states leading up to the final, artist approved work.  It’s fascinating that Matisse documented his working process like this as oppose to keep it a mystery.  He wanted us to know what he was thinking and to see it translated on canvas.  I think he was well-aware of his impact on the art world and was happy to leave something for posterity so that we would get it right.

Bernini, Self Portrait, 1635.  Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England

Bernini, Self Portrait, 1635. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England

I’m so happy I wandered over to the Bernini show.  None of his marble sculptures are on display, one must go to Rome to see those, but seeing his drawings and the models in clay I could feel the energy that went into them.  The above Self Portrait is on display at the beginning of the show, and wow!, he’s handsome.  Between the preparatory drawings, clay models (bozzetti and modelli) and photographs of the final sculpture it is evident that Bernini was a talented artist.  To see his impact on the city of Rome one may see his works in the Villa Borghese, the Piazza San Pietro in front of the St. Peter’s, inside St. Peter’s and the Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona to name a few.

A few models from The Hermitage did not make it to The Met show but there are 39 clay models and 30 drawings to see.  Scanning the exhibition catalog I learned that the show really came together when the Harvard Art Museum was able to lend 15 terracottas, the largest collection of Bernini terracottas in the world, on loan for the first time!  Apparently you can see Bernini’s fingerprint on some of the models if you get really close but with the plexi boxes around all the pieces it was a little difficult.

After reading every label (something I don’t normally do) and looking through the catalog I am in love with Bernini.  I’m already in love with some 15th century Florentine sculptors:  Nanni di Banco, Donatello, Andrea del Verrocchio and Lorenzo Ghiberti (see the Orsanmichele in Florence for their brilliant sculptures).

I can’t wait to go to Rome next week!  Yup, we’re going to Rome.  Stay tuned!

Bernini, Lion, c.1649-50. Model for lion in Fountain of Four Rivers, Rome. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum, New York

Bernini, Lion, c.1649-50. Model for lion in Fountain of Four Rivers, Rome. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum, New York

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