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Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard exhibition

Heike Mund cmk
September 13, 2017

For 40 years, French painters Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard shared a close friendship, discussing art and women in letters and postcards. A new show at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt highlights this artistic dialogue.

Frankfurt am Main - Städel Museum: Ausstellung „Bonnard – Matisse: Es lebe die Malerei! - Vive la peinture!“ - Henri Matisse - Stillleben mit „Der Tanz“, 1909
Image: Succession H. Matisse/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016/V. Terebenin

In 1944, in the midst of World War II, Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson traveled to the south of France to visit two famed modernist painters. Armed with his camera, he gained a private look into their studios and their worlds.

At the time, the painters were getting on in years: Henri Matisse was already 75, and Pierre Bonnard was 78. The black-and-white photos shot during that trip are a part of the new exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, which features around 120 paintings, drawings and sculptures by both masters.

The exhibition plays out as a dialogue between the longtime friends. Matisse and Bonnard enjoyed a lively correspondence over their decades-long friendship, exchanging ideas about art in the 20th century, painting and their personal perceptions on recurring motifs in their work. Among them was the female nude, which they saw as a form of still life embedded in a corresponding surrounding.

Pierre Bonnard's "Reclining Nude Against a White and Blue Plaid," is extremely small, measuring just 60 by 65 centimeters (about 24 by 26 inches). It belongs to the Städel Museum. (VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017)
Pierre Bonnard's "Reclining Nude Against a White and Blue Plaid" typified his fascination with the female formImage: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

Nudes and abstracts

Pierre Bonnard was born on October 3, 1867 near Paris. His studio was in the Cité des Fusains artists' colony in Montmartre and he almost always painted his own wife, who often sat patiently for him as his model. Despite his fame in the art world, Bonnard was an intensely private person and rarely appeared in public.

Having undertaken many journeys across Europe, and after traveling to Tunisia and to the US, he brought back many ideas for paintings and other works. In 1926 he relocated to the south of France and worked from his sunny home in Le Cannet, near Cannes. He died there on January 23, 1947, at the age of 79.

In contrast to Bonnard, Matisse used countless models for his paintings. He was particularly interested in the female form, which he immortalized in numerous nude paintings and drawings. His "Large Reclining Nude," completed in 1935, is one of the main attractions of the Frankfurt exhibition. On loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art, the painting is on show in Germany for the first time in 30 years.

For Matisse, the painting was a milestone, marking a turn toward the abstraction of human figures and landscapes. He would only work with bold primary colors, giving his works a graphic quality.

The model for "Large Reclining Nude" was his Russian studio assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, whom he often portrayed. Matisse also created powerful sculptures and began experimenting with paper cutouts in the early 1940s.

Cartier-Bresson also frequently visited Matisse in his studio in nearby Vence, and took many photos of the painter, often in quite private settings. Here, the famous artist has been snapped in his bathrobe while relaxing at home. The black-and-white photo was also taken in 1944
Henri Matisse relaxing at home in southern France in 1944Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, Courtesy Fondation HCB/Agentur Focus

Distinctive styles

Born in December 31, 1869, Matisse first studied law before turning his attention to painting. He honed his craft at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris.

At first, he diligently copied paintings by the great masters hanging in the Louvre. But his own style quickly brought him to the forefront of the so-called fauvist movement, characterized by vivid colors and fluid lines.

He founded a private art school in Paris in 1908, which soon began attracting young artists from all over the world. In 1917 he relocated to the southern French city of Nice on the advice of his doctor, and the Mediterranean climate helped ease his chronic bronchitis. He died there in 1954.

Daniel Zamani, co-curator of the Städel exhibition, sees Matisse and Bonnard as pioneers of a new, modern art movement in Europe. "Both artists developed a distinctive individual form, driven by an incessant enthusiasm for their work and a lifetime of experimentation," he said.

The name of the exhibition — Vive la Peinture!" ("Long Live Painting!") — comes from a postcard that Matisse wrote to Bonnard on August 13, 1925. Those brief words summed up a deep friendship, mutual appreciation and lifelong inspiration.

The exhibition "Matisse - Bonnard: "Es lebe die Malerei! - Vive la peinture!" is on show until January 14 at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.