You and I find something interesting in a curiosity shop, souvenir store, or maybe even at Target.

So we buy the thing, lug it home, and it sits on a shelf somewhere.

You and I are not Henri Matisse.

The great French artist loved to shop for what other people might call bric-a-brac. Yet his relationship with those pieces—a vase, a Chinese carving, a small table—became incredibly important to the painter and sculptor.

Most artists derive inspiration from nature, religious imagery, a bowl of fruit, or a beautiful woman. For Matisse, his inspirations also included a pewter jug, a chocolate maker, a Spanish vase, Islamic textiles, and African masks.

In fact, to understand Matisse’s art, you need to grasp his relationship with these pieces, which he loved so much that he actually arranged in a group photo. You can find that photo on display near the entrance to a stunning Matisse exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, now through July 9, 2017.

Matisse fussed almost obsessively over these objects, including each in multiple works of art. He said that they were like actors who could appear in many different roles. It’s possible to have been familiar for decades with Matisse’s work. Without an awareness of his remarkably emotional connection to these various curios, it’s impossible to thoroughly understand him.

The brilliance of the exhibition is combining displays of the curios in Matisse’s collection and the artwork in which he painted those objects, along with models, still lifes, cutouts, and the other imagery for which Matisse is well known.

Many of the other items belong to private collectors or museums.

For example, there is a portrait of a woman, and behind her is a vase that you might never have noticed, were it not for the fact that the vase itself is on display adjacent to the painting.

Matisse was well liked, not just by collectors but also by those who knew him. And yet, some complexities in his personality are awfully hard to fathom.

For example, you’ll find in the exhibition a portrait of one of his models, a young Russian woman with whom he may or may not have had a sexual relationship. The painting might not draw massive attention except for the fact that Matisse added thick black slashes to the image for reasons he chose not to explain.

The result leaves you wondering just what sort of relationship the artist had with that particular model, or perhaps with women in general.

The exhibition also offers insight into Matisse’s place in art history. You can see African-influenced paintings, reminiscent of Picasso’s interest in art from that part of the world.

You can see Matisse’s outstanding sculpture, which calls to mind earlier pieces by Edgar Degas. You see him trying Cubism on for size. Another portrait of an Italian model recalls the elongated faces and figures of Modigliani.

In all, the exhibition offers 34 paintings, 26 drawings, 11 bronzes, seven cutouts, three prints, and an illustrated book, all major works.

This is the only American venue where the show will appear. So if you want to crack the Matisse code, head on over to the Museum of Fine Arts, and you’ll understand the artist as never before.


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