Sunday, June 1, 2014

Engaging with Matisse

Purple Robe and Anemones (1937)
There was no missing that a major Matisse exhibition was in the Twin Cities recently. For more than 3 months, every walk, bus ride, or freeway trip was in some way in view of a poster of Purple Robe and Anemones. Matisse, Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art was at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from February 23 to May 18, 2014.

Organized and circulated by the Baltimore Museum of Art, the exhibition spans 6 decades of Matisse’s career. It features 50 works of painting and sculpture, 30 prints, and the artist’s book, Jazz.  Most of the artworks came from the Cone Collection. Two Baltimore sisters–Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone–acquired an exceptional collection of 3,000 modern works (displayed in their apartments) including 500 works by Matisse.

With the exhibition’s announcement in April 2013 and its review on February 22, 2014 in the Star Tribune, visiting Matisse was on everyone’s A-list, especially this cold bleak Twin Cities winter stretching into April. The exhibition was high on my list as well. I have long loved Matisse’s vibrant patterns, broad blocks of color in unusual combinations, and emphatically flat compositions.

Drawing with scissors activity
Due to a busy couple of months for most of the exhibition’s run, I only made it to Matisse on a rainy Sunday afternoon in late April. When I did finally visit and with only 3 weeks before closing, I kept finding successive ways of engaging with Matisse and his work. Altogether, I toured the exhibition twice, listened in on a docent’s tour, eavesdropped on my husband’s audio guide, heard friends’ impressions, took photos, talked with a guard, observed families drawing with scissors, browsed in the museum shop, and visited a companion exhibit, Chasing Matisse, one floor up. This group of multiple experiences differs significantly from my typical pattern of a single visit to an exhibition as it does for most people, I think. While some of my encounters were serendipitous, I nevertheless enjoyed them and valued the intense and extensive engagement they all provided and they added up to.

Now, three weeks later, impressions of the exhibition are strong and surface pleasantly in both substantive and fleeting ways. I continue to make connections and solidify understandings grounded in Matisse. I'm following connections between comments and text, find a question, and recall a fragment from a painting. I am aware of feeling greater interest in the artist's smaller paintings than in his larger paintings, prints or sculptures and to some paintings like Interior, Flowers and Parakeets (1924) especially. At certain moments, I can conjure up the feeling of being back in the exhibition space and enjoying the sensation of a portrait dissolving into pure pattern.

Still Life, Compote, Apples, and Oranges (1899)
An image of the awkward hands folded gracelessly in the lap of The Yellow Dress (1929-1931) persists as well. This detail of the painting troubles me, insisting I explore the reason: its unfinished quality? its clumsiness? something else? I also hear a voice expressing how Matisse feels upon completing a composition, “Each picture, as I finish it, seems like the best thing I have ever done…and yet, after a while, I am not so sure.” It captures perfectly the highs and lows of finishing an exhibition, a master plan, a garden bed, or blog post.

In a daily way, patterns and colors of fabrics surrounding me vibrate more. I want to buy oranges because I remember their rich color in Still Life, Compote, Apples, and Oranges (1899). 

Durable Experiences
Through multiple exposures to an exhibition and its elements, we gather more pieces of information, draw on others’ perspectives, and anchor ideas in other knowledge we hold. The deeper, richer, possibly transformative experiences we hope exhibitions offer visitors rely on aligning a multitude of factors that are intended and serendipitous and that we can and can’t control.  But when exhibitions do manage this choreography of various entry points, complementary opportunities, and extended engagement, they create durable experiences that carry high personal value and lasting impact for visitors and resonate over time.

The character of durable experiences is sufficiently complex that it can't be collapsed into a quick list of criteria and folded into exhibition planning. However, identifying factors that might support durable experiences for visitors could help us understand how to increase the impact and value of experiences museums create. The four qualities below came through in my extended encounters with Matisse. Broadly speaking, they seem to support durability in ways that reflect the complexity of exhibition experiences and our growing understanding of learning in museums. 

The Necessity of Time. Learning, making connections, or incubating ideas needs time. Even though I had an interest in and some familiarity with Matisse, I found I had little background for the focus of this exhibition. A second visit afforded me another opportunity to build up background knowledge. For instance, I needed to read some panels multiple times and on both visits to build the vocabulary for following the panels and consolidating ideas the exhibition covered. Also, it wasn’t until the end of my second visit that the interconnectedness of the artist’s work came into focus. His investigations of issues in sculpture informed his paintings; he drew models and then did paintings of them; in his prints Matisse explored formal concerns related to his sculpture.

Conversation as Intensifier. Whether occurring within or outside an exhibit, conversation and dialogue serve as intensifiers, the way really is an intensifier that adds emotional context to a statement. Conversations introduce new perspectives, create openings, and activate possibilities for making connections and meaning in an exhibition. My friend told me Matisse’s creative process interested her most which I hadn’t thought about on my first visit. On my second visit, I looked for evidence of his creative process and glimpsed it in the 22 highlighted changes that Matisse made to Large Reclining Nude (1935). Nina’s interest alerted me to this propensity to return to and rework compositions, making his thinking about form, color, and line visible. Moreover, I saw this as documentation and how creative thinking might be made visible in an exhibition.

Accumulated Experiences. Multiple, related, and complementary experiences sampled over the course of several weeks extended my engagement with Matisse to open up his remarkable body of work. When accessible, accumulated experiences can be sticky. It is as if each collected experience sets down another adhesive layer with the possibility of more, deeper, and lasting connections. An audio guide, a reading area, the MIA website’s Exhibition Preview, interactions with other visitors, text panels, and the artworks themselves are not unusual experiences for a museum to offer with an exhibition. Most visitors, however, typically accumulate only one or two of the many experiences available. A guard at the MIA told me about Chasing Matisse, the MIA’s companion exhibit one floor up. The reading area prominently located in a corner in the last gallery was well used on both visits. 

Sustained Attention. Eric Siegel of the New York Hall of Science uses the term, sustained attention, in his recent interview with Museum2.0 blogger Nina Simon. Sustained attention, the several hours of attention we give a book or a movie, is one of the goals behind NYSCI’s experiment with a new medium for museums, an ebook. An ebook on the challenging subject of forensic science and the problem of false convictions and my extended engagement with Matisse are vastly different experiences. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, they help illustrate the importance of sustaining interest and attention in a topic, question, or issue to increase durability. Both point to the need for exhibitions–in fact for a substantial portion of museum work–to be compelling, have impact; and for the experience to leave the museum with the visitor, move into everyday lives, inform daily choices, and influence the future. 

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