A story about the conservation and installation of such a celebrated landmark in the history of modern and contemporary art as Matisse‘s “The Swimming Pool,” 1952, needs to be a “show-and-tell.”
My article in today’s Wall Street Journal—Trying to Turn Back Time—is the “tell” part, in which I describe what has been accomplished by Jodi Hauptman (above left) and Karl Buchberg (above right), the co-curators of the Museum of Modern Art’s glorious Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, opening Sunday.
Now comes the “show” part.
The photos below, taken by me at this week’s press preview, make visible in pictures what I tried to paint in words after my reunion with “Swimming Pool,” now installed at MoMA after an almost 22-year absence from its galleries. In italics are excerpts from my WSJ text, accompanied by added commentary for my CultureGrrl readers. I’ve badly neglected you, art-lings, due to my recent California travels (about which I tweeted), followed by my uninterrupted focus on researching and writing the WSJ article.
Matisse’s shift to creating cut-outs as autonomous works marked “the invention of a new form,” as Ms. Hauptman explains in the show’s sumptuous and informative catalogue. Before turning to decoupage as his primary means of expression during his highly productive final years, Matisse had used paper shapes in preparatory maquettes for monumental compositions, including the Barnes Foundation’s celebrated “Dance” mural.
At the start of my meeting with Hauptman and Buchberg, I literally gasped at the site of the most curvaceously seductive of all the pool’s denizens, when I caught sight of her splayed horizontally atop a table in one of the storage drawers created by MoMA for the nine panels of “Swimming Pool.”
It was the euphoria of reuniting with a long-lost love, whom I’d last seen in 1992:
Because of the installation’s reflective glass, the above photo does not begin to capture what I had ogled in private. I was not allowed to photograph the “naked” swimmer, and my ardent request to see the entire “Swimming Pool” in the galleries, before it was clad in protective glass, was (understandably) denied.
The attempt at a faithful recreation [of the work’s original installation in Matisse’s dining room] resulted in a major miscalculation: Approaching the entrance to “The Swimming Pool,” one sees a gray grid on the stark white wall at the far end of the gallery, interposed between the unfurling cutout on either side. More Sol LeWitt than Matisse, this is meant to evoke the dining room’s window. But it’s a jarring eyesore:
UPDATE: Yesterday afternoon, a MoMA spokesperson informed me that the grid “was a design concept that was up during the preview phase of the show but in the end we decided to go with a blank wall instead, which was how visitors, starting Wednesday morning, have experienced the installation.” (My WSJ article was online Tuesday evening.) At Tuesday morning’s press preview, when I asked Mr. Buchberg about this evocation of Matisse’s dining room window (without stating my opinion), he said nothing about any possible changes.
Here’s a closer look. (The yellow tinges are my camera’s fault; it’s actually bright white.)
Below is the astonishing passage (also seen in the two photos above, to the right of the grid) where the swimmers reconstitute, not in the form of blue shapes, but as a disembodied white figure in a void that is defined by the surrounding blue cut-outs. Matisse expert John Elderfield once marveled at this “absence of body” as being “unlike any object that exists in the world.”
Ms. Hauptman had described this as “a play of positive and negative”:
At MoMA, enticing evocations of the frieze’s former sculptural glory [before the Matisse family’s posthumous 1955 remounting, in which the formerly pinned blue shapes were firmly glued to the new white strip] can be glimpsed in the few passages where the tops of the blue cut-outs rise freely above the white strip, casting shadows.
My eyes were repeatedly drawn to this lively, loosely attached shape:
Here’s a close-up of another passage, where you can clearly see the shadows:
The nine sections of “The Swimming Pool” have now been pinned [to new panels constructed by MoMA, faced by new burlap over a layer of cork], using hundreds of the original pinholes in the blue shapes. Those piercings, Ms. Hauptman noted, provide us with “a record of [Matisse’s] process”—his rearrangements of the cut paper to refine the composition.
In the lower-left corner of the shape below, you can clearly see the jutting pin, inserted by Buchberg:
“The Swimming Pool” (which didn’t appear in a version of the Matisse cutouts show that recently closed at London’s Tate Modern) has been temporarily reunited with a related decoupage from the same year—“Women and Monkeys,” which Matisse had installed over the doorway of his dining room in Nice. That work was likely intended “to complement the effect of ‘The Swimming Pool,’” Mr. Elderfield has written.
Astonishingly, MoMA had owned “Women and Monkeys” but disposed of it in connection with the complicated transaction whereby “The Swimming Pool” was acquired. Its lender to the current show is Cologne, Germany’s Museum Ludwig.
You need only see that work restored to its commanding position in this ensemble to mourn MoMA’s self-inflicted loss:
The added layer of protective glass masks the paper’s imperfections, but also imposes new impediments that are harder to ignore: The illusion of swimming amidst the pool’s inhabitants is disrupted by reflections of lights and visitors, not to mention ghostly images from the facing wall of “Swimming Pool” itself.
Below you can see not only the disruptive reflections of the lights, but also the refractive effect of the seams between the sheets of glass at the corners. I first thought the light vertical stripes that you see to the right of the seam were defects in the white paper (which has significantly yellowed with age). Then I realized they were caused by the projection of light by the seam’s edges:
Here’s a closer look at another seam and its distracting effect:
The reviews of this exhibition will be rightly rapturous, as they were for the version of the show at the Tate Modern, where (even without “Swimming Pool”) it was that museum’s most successful exhibition ever. The lead curators in London were Nicholas Cullinan, now curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, and Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s director.
A blog post on MoMA’s website outlines the conservation of “The Swimming Pool” in greater detail. It also features the following video about its restoration and installation (which visitors can view in the exhibition gallery):
I told a white lie at the end of my WSJ piece: I probably won’t wait until the next showing of “The Swimming Pool” to take my 16-month-old grandson to see it. He may not remember it, but he’ll probably enjoy it!