A Collaborative Model at MoMA

February 5, 2015
Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool, 1952. Maquette for ceramic (realized 1999 and 2005).  Digital image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art. Artwork: © Les Heritiers Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Harvard Art Museums have long supported collaborative work between curators, art historians, and conservators. So the museums were the perfect setting for the recent talk “The Anatomy of an Exhibition—Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” about the co-curation of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs by MoMA senior conservator Karl Buchberg, senior curator Jodi Hauptman, and assistant curator Samantha Friedman. (Friedman was not present at the talk.)

The largest and most extensive exhibition of Matisse’s colorful paper cut-outs ever mounted, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (on view until February 10, 2015) includes more than 160 works from the collections of MoMA and Tate Modern (which co-organized the exhibition), as well as other public and private collections around the world. (The Harvard Art Museums have an extensive collection of Matisse’s works as well, including prints in designs similar to his cut-outs, such as Forms.) Matisse’s 1952 The Swimming Pool, a work that was mounted to the walls of Matisse’s studio in the Ancien Hôtel Régina, in Nice, is central to the exhibition.

The Swimming Pool offers a dynamic and immersive visual experience: the work is composed of ultramarine blue gouache-painted paper cut-outs in abstract shapes, set on a frieze of white paper over burlap-covered walls. He had created the work in response to his own unsuccessful attempt to visit a pool in southern France on a brutally hot day (“I will make myself my own pool,” he was said to have declared). The resulting work’s blue forms are delightfully open to interpretation—looking closely, one might spot a swimmer on one wall, a diver on another, and waves elsewhere.

After Matisse’s death in 1954, The Swimming Pool was removed from the studio wall (MoMA acquired it in 1975). French mounters decided to permanently affix the cut-outs to burlap. Although this was in keeping with the original look of the work, burlap is an inherently unstable material, and over time it not only became discolored, but also led to some damage of the paper. Thus, MoMA had not displayed the work in quite some time.

As the museum prepared for the exhibition, however, Hauptman and Buchberg began to reacquaint themselves with the work. Studying archival photographs and individual Matisse cut-outs led them to think deeply about Matisse’s methods—namely, his practice of pinning cut-outs in place and often adjusting and revising them. This method allowed him to “see all the possibilities” of his various forms, Hauptman said. The Swimming Pool had clearly come together in this manner.

After close consultation with Hauptman and her curatorial team, Buchberg decided to completely remove the white frieze and blue cut-outs of The Swimming Pool from the discolored burlap (a painstaking process that took about 2,000 hours). “Why not, we thought, reintroduce to this work the act of pinning?” Buchberg said. He decided to pin the work to specially designed cork panels covered with fresh burlap, at the precise height the cut-outs originally were displayed, inside a gallery whose dimensions and layout were similar to those of Matisse’s Nice studio. Though Buchberg had run a trial of this technique using mock cut-outs before the actual installation, he said that he was still “thunderstruck” upon seeing the completed work.

Now, when visitors enter the room containing The Swimming Pool, the blue forms of the cut-out are above their heads, seemingly arrayed on a sparkling mass of water, as Matisse would have seen them. The perspective raises interesting questions for the viewer, Hauptman said: “Are we at the bottom of the pool looking up? Are we treading water looking at the swimmers? Are we above, looking down, seeing the light pass through the water?” The strength of the new installation of the work, Hauptman said, is that it “allows us to say yes to [all of those questions] at once.”

Besides representing the first time a conservator has served as a co-curator of an exhibition at MoMA, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs offers a new model of collaborative work that other institutions may wish to build upon. It also provides an interesting point of comparison for thinking about the Harvard Art Museums’ Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, which also draws upon a novel approach to conservation and curation in order to return important works to public view and academic study. As this increased level of creative, collaborative work spreads, the possibilities may be endless.