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Color and Rhythm: Henri Matisse’s “Jazz”

POSTED BY , ON March 02, 2011, Comments Off

Henri Matisse’s Jazz is often considered the pinnacle of livres d’artiste, or artist’s books. Livres d’artiste are typically collaborations between artists and authors resulting in limited edition, fine-crafted, beautifully printed books with original graphic work. The tradition was particularly strong in France in the beginning-to-mid 20th century.

Like many of his contemporaries, Matisse was part of this movement; Jazz was by far his most ambitious and beautiful book. He composed the copy and then hand-wrote the curvy, playful calligraphic text in addition to creating all of the images. The images are the primary focus, and as Matisse himself explains at the beginning of the book, the role of the text “is purely visual.” I think people will be surprised to learn that so many of these iconic images (including the one of the horse shown here) come from a book.

The Art Institute was savvy enough to purchase one of the 270 copies when they were produced in 1947. For the first time in more than 20 years, this beautiful book will be exhibited in the museum. The Ryerson and Burnham Libraries will display 10 of the book’s 20 pochoirs—plates that were hand-colored using a stenciling technique—between March 15 and April 11, and the second half between April 12 and May 10. A variety of motifs—the circus, the sea, algae, leaves—runs throughout the book, displaying Matisse’s famous technique of brightly colored cut-outs. The end result is a lush, lively creation that feels as fresh today as at its conception.

—Susan A., Head of Reader Services, Ryerson & Burnham Libraries

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A Parting Gift Before Matisse Leaves for MoMA

POSTED BY , ON June 17, 2010, 4 COMMENTS

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Unbelievably, Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 is closing this Sunday, June 20. So it may seem strange that we are only now happily announcing the debut of an accompanying website rich with extensive information from the exhibition, including information about the artworks Bathers By a River and Back and featuring videos excerpts from A Great French Painter, Henri Matisse, 1946.

This resourceful website derives from the information kiosks that are currently installed in the exhibition’s reading room. As you read in my previous post Matisse Web Share, the research spanned years of collaborating and examining digital technical documents and source materials leading up to this major exhibition. And just as the research phase had been supported by online collaboration, the show’s co-curator, Stephanie D’Alessandro, also believed in supporting the exhibition with an interactive program. Kiosks were developed and placed in the exhibition’s reading room where a visitor can sit down and learn more about the exhibition’s themes. Larger monitors allow onlookers to watch the kiosks.

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Initially, the kiosks were developed specifically for these large high-resolution screens and not intended for the web. But exhibition visitors immediately enjoyed the kiosks and it became quickly obvious that the interactive should also be a resource for our web audiences—especially for visitors who would not be able to see the Matisse exhibition in person.

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Some Good Old-Fashioned Research

POSTED BY , ON April 06, 2010, 6 COMMENTS

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It started with a quotation that can be found all over the internet, but with no evidence of a source: “It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else”—Henri Matisse. This sentence was proposed by the Art Institute’s ad agency as the basis for the campaign for Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917, a monumental exhibition that opened on March 20. The problem was that no one quite knew the source of the quote. And so the ad agency called me,  a librarian at the museum, to verify it. This proved to be a perfect example of how good old-fashioned research skills can be catapulted to a new level with the assistance of the internet, digitized books, and a great collection of print books.

One of the folks from the ad agency had found a similar Matisse quote in a book listed on Amazon.com. He said it was followed only by a “#38,” referring to a footnote, and that the title of the book was The Unknown Matisse, which I had no problem finding in the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, the second largest art museum library in the country.

When I pulled the book, I saw that every chapter had a #38 footnote! I went through each chapter one at a time and luckily discovered the match early on—in chapter 3. That led me to a book of correspondence between Matisse and two of his patrons, Père Couturier and Rayssiguier.

The original quote in this book was from one of Couturier’s journal entries. He recorded a conversation with Matisse who told him “je croyais que je n’arriverais jamais a peindre, parce que je ne peignais pas comme les autres.” The second half was a good fit, but the first part was so different that I concluded our quote was coming from another Matisse line. Or perhaps this was something Matisse said many times in various ways. Still, I wanted to find a better match.

By searching for amalgamations of this quote online, I found a web page with snippets from a contemporary book, including this one: “Toute ma vie, je me suis senti traqué parce que je ne peignais pas comme les autres.” This perfect match gave me the language to start searching library databases and Google Books for the origin of the quote. I found two books in Google with the line—both by the same Père Couturier(!), including one owned by the library called Se Garder Libre. The full text was not available online, as the book is still in copyright, but I was able to pull it off the shelf, turn to the page referenced in Google, and discover Couturier quoting another conversation with Matisse where the artist had said the “Toute ma vie…” line.

The source was verified! Since the original is in French, the translation was done in-house, creating a slightly different quote than what we started with: “It has always bothered me that I don’t paint like everyone else.”

—Susan A., Head of Reader Services, Ryerson  Burnham Libraries

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Matisse: The Beginning for Some, The End for Others

POSTED BY , ON March 22, 2010, 2 COMMENTS

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Recent visitors to the Modern Wing may have noticed that one of the highlights of the modern collection has been off view. Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River has been deinstalled from the permanent collection galleries so that it can be incorporated into the Art Institute’s landmark exhibition Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917, which opened to the public on March 20.

Installing a special exhibition takes a large team that includes a complex cast of characters, including, but not limited to: the exhibition curator, exhibition manager, research assistants, museum registrars, conservators, carpenters, painters, electricians, lighting specialists, art installers and packers, and exhibition, web, and graphic designers. As the manager for this exhibition, I have the great privilege of being in the center of the culmination of a project that has taken over five years to organize.

What the public doesn’t see is the carefully orchestrated chaos that brought together 115 works from private and public collections in 9 countries. 29 couriers with 64 crates in 24 shipments arrived in the first two weeks of March, spurring the work of packers and art handlers opening crates, conservators writing condition reports, and curators placing works of art. Other staff will adjust lighting, touch up paint, make final revisions to wall text and labels, place graphic materials, and install computers and monitors featuring our conservation research. While the focus of Matisse: Radical Invention is of course the art, all of these details are necessary to show the exhibition in its best light.

Installation is the most exciting and labor-intensive time for all of us who have been dedicated to this exhibition. The most satisfying part of the project is showing off the final product—and the hard work of many—to the public. I hope you’ll see the show before it closes on June 20, and please do tell us what you think. Your feedback is invaluable to us!

—Jennifer P., Departmental Exhibitions Manager, Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture

The Matisse WebShare

POSTED BY , ON March 04, 2010, Comments Off

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Developing an exhibition always requires an intense amount of collaboration, but the groundbreaking research involved in the museum’s massive spring exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917, pushed us to use new technical tools. For the exhibition, curators and conservators approached Matisse’s work like a forensic case, closely examining the artist’s working methods, experimental techniques, and compositional choices—all of which required extensive historical, scientific, and technical research. These were shared efforts undertaken by the co-organizers of the exhibition, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

This research produced literally volumes of information, and curator Stephanie D’Alessandro at the Art Institute recognized the challenge of keeping the research team informed of one another’s complex and sophisticated work, which included hi-res composite images of x-rays of paintings, infrared photographs, three-dimensional modeling, and even algorithmic restructurings of paintings from old photographs. And curators and conservators both in Chicago and New York needed to have complete and immediate access to all of this material.

To facilitate this research collaboration, the Art Institute set up a “Matisse WebShare.” The WebShare allowed curators and conservators to securely share large image files via the Internet from any place in the world. Many of these images were huge unwieldy files—some so large they can’t be opened on a standard desktop computer. To make this material accessible, we used a tool called Zoomify, which allows quick microscope-like access to the images. Kristin Lister, a paintings conservator at the Art Institute, noted that using Zoomify on the WebShare revealed information she would have not otherwise seen—a clear case of science serving art.

The Matisse WebShare was so successful that we have since set up other WebShares to facilitate collaboration for exhibitions and scholarly publications. You’ll find much of this “evidence” in the forthcoming catalog and upcoming exhibition, which opens on March 20th and promises to be one of the definitive exhibitions on Matisse.