When the Art Institute of Chicago decided to refurbish its Modern art wing, it needed a place to park its collection of nearly 100 masterpieces. The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth was more than happy to oblige. The exhibition, which opened over the weekend, is “The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters from the Art Institute of Chicago.” Nearly every important artist of the first half of the 20th Century is included. But one painting dominates the show:
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When you enter the exhibition, it’s the first thing you see. It hangs on the wall furthest from you, 100 feet away.
“It’s like this great beacon at the end of the gallery,” says Kimbell deputy director George Shackelford
The picture he’s talking about is Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River. At 12-feet-wide by 9-feet-tall, it fills the wall. It features four faceless women whose shapes are outlined in thick, black strokes. Behind them are four vertical bands of color – light blue, white, black and green. Had Matisse not named the painting Bathers by a River, it’s hard to say if viewers would be able to figure out the scene.
The Art Institute of Chicago acquired the piece in 1953. The museum’s Modern art curator at the time wrote to Matisse to let him know. And Matisse wrote back, calling the work one of the five most pivotal of his career.
That word – pivotal – has long puzzled Stephanie D’Alessandro, the Curator of Modern Art for the Art Institute.
“Because he could have said, ‘It’s a very beautiful picture, one that I’m very proud of.’ Or something like that,” she said. “But he used the word ‘pivotal.’ And it took me a long time to kind of understand what that meant.”
Learning its history helped. The painting was supposed to be part of a three-piece commission for a Russian collector, who decided he really only needed two. But Matisse had already begun sketching out Bathers and didn’t want to give up on it. So the canvass hung in his studio for nearly a decade. And as X-rays of the piece show, it served as both laboratory and creative palate cleanser.
“As he needed refreshment, as he needed to find a kind of different avenue to continue on a painting, he would stop what he was doing and go back to Bathers and work on it for a period of time and then return back to a sculpture or a painting or a drawing or a print and then vice versa,” D’Alessandro said. “So we can see a dialogue with the layers below the surface we see today with works in his studio and then back into the painting. So a kind of beautiful back and forth between them. So it was a very pivotal work in that way.”
The exhibition features a encyclopedia of 20th Century artists. Picasso, Kandinsky, Braque, Chagall, DuChamp, Mondrian, Dalí, Miró, Giacometti – they’re all here. And their works benefit from the Kimbell’s defuse, natural light. But it’s especially appropriate that Bathers hangs directly beneath the skylights that run the length of the museum’s barrel vault.
“Matisse’s studio in Issy-les-Moulineaux, where he painted this work had a glass ceiling. So natural light was actually very important for him,” D’Alessandro says. “When we see it, as it gets illuminated here, and when the lights change as the clouds go by, different aspects of the picture become visible to us. Color combinations, the palate changes, the brushstrokes open up in other areas, some of the forms from below become clear to us, and I think that it gives the picture a kind of living quality – you know, a sense of history that it really has.”
So consider it kismet that this masterpiece has finally visited the Kimbell nearly 100 years after Matisse completed it. That’s how Shackelford, who designed the exhibition, sees it.
“My good friend Stephanie may hate me for saying this, but I think that the wall of Louis Kahn’s great Kimbell Art Museum has been waiting for Matisse’s Bathers by a River all of its life,” he says. “And by the same token, I think this painting has been waiting for this wall all of its life.”