By Art Lavah, 

Matisse and Friends
Immediately upon entering the “Matisse and Friends” exhibit, we get a glimpse into Matisse’s French studio apartment. The journey begins.

Thank goodness the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. had some renovations to do. Their sprucing up means that the Denver Art Museum got the wonderful opportunity to painting-sit some beautiful masterworks with “Matisse and Friends: Selected Masterworks from the National Gallery of Art.” Running October 12 – February 8, 2015, the exhibit is relatively small but that’s to our advantage. Just 14 paintings large, the viewer is encouraged to linger over each painting, learning more about the artist and the painting itself, but more importantly, discovering their own relationship with the painting.

Although there is a free-flow of rooms for the exhibit (no need to go in a certain order) and comfortable seating available near each, it is the audio tour that really sets this exhibit apart from others. Located in a basket by Matisse’s famous “Open Window-Collioure” painting, the 5-6 minute audio is meant to be universal, applicable to any of the paintings in the exhibit (and really, to any painting you see from now on!). The soothing man’s voice on the recording reminded me a lot of a meditation coach or recording, talking calmly, slowly, encouraging us to take a deep breath, notice the colors, shapes, imagining ourselves in the scene. What do we see, smell, hear? Without giving one word of history of the artist or the painting, we are free to experience the art in a more complete, visceral way. At first I was a little put off by the recording telling me to breathe deeply (I’ll breathe deeply whenever the heck I want, mister!) but then I gave in, seduced by the opportunities to enjoy the artwork in a different way.

Matisse and Friends
It’s not that the exhibit is so large, you need frequent rest stops. You’re supposed to stop, sit a spell and enjoy.

While Matisse is the main focus of the exhibit, contemporaries are also present including Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy and Albert Marquet. Scrap books of a sort are available at each seating area, along with blank journals to explore our own reaction to the art.

Both the audio experience and focus on seating areas is an experiment for the museum. The idea is great, to invite the viewer in to really enjoy and contemplate the artwork. Will people be lined up, waiting for others to get off the loveseat so they, too can have a seated experience? Maybe,  maybe not.  Hopefully the beauty, happiness and calm of the subject matter, loose brushstrokes and vibrant colors will soothe any savage beastliness that starts to pop up.

And speaking of beastliness, looking at these pretty pictures, it’s hard to believe that the style was so shocking and upsetting back in the day (early 1900’s) that art critics called the artists “Les Fauvres” or “the wild beasts.” Really? It’s a reminder of how the things we find shocking change with the times.

Be sure to spend some time really looking at Matisse’s “Still Life with Sleeping Woman.” You can totally imagine Matisse standing there, making straight brushstrokes to fill the empty space around the table, making curved lines of the woman, her outfit, edges of the chair, fronds of the plants. You can almost feel him choosing the gorgeous colors.

Matisse and Friends
Look closely at Matisse’s “Still Life with Sleeping Woman” to see the artist’s every sketch and brush stroke.

Take note of the colors on the walls in the exhibit too. At the National Gallery, these paintings are against white walls. At the Denver Art Museum, walls were painted gorgeous, bold colors, found consistently throughout the paintings like teal and aubergine. They beautifully serve to accent the colors in the paintings.

It may be a small exhibit, a more minor thing as compared to the upcoming “Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century” opening November 16. But “Matisse and Friends” is deserving of attention and time to take it in as you take a seat.

The Denver Art Museum is located at 100 W. 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver.

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