Matisse in Space -- and Switzerland

by John Maynard
Washington Post
Sunday, March 19, 2006

ON EXHIBIT:  "Henri Matisse: Figure Color Space" at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland

WHY GO: French master Henri Matisse liked to break the rules when it came to perspective and space, through his revolutionary use of color and the ever-present figures in his paintings.

For that, the entire art community is grateful. "His openness and open-mindedness is extremely appealing," says Ulf Kuester, a curator of the Matisse exhibit at the Beyeler Foundation, an eight-year-old museum with more than 200 modern paintings and sculptures accumulated by master collectors Hildy and Ernst Beyeler. "He is an extremely influential artist, even for many artists today."

The exhibit -- which homes in on how figures and color in Matisse's works pushed the concept of space to its limit -- comprises more than 160 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints from throughout his career and collected worldwide.

The unique countryside setting of this museum, designed by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano and situated just outside downtown Basel, adds yet more flavor to the exhibit. The show's works cover his early years -- when quiet interiors dominated his work -- to his exquisite cutouts from the 1940s onward.

DON'T MISS . . . the iconic "Blue Nude I," one of the artist's cutouts. Depicting a crouching woman, the 1952 work is a study in erotic contemplation. While nudes were certainly not an original subject matter by the time Matisse came along, his depiction of them based primarily on the use of color was something entirely new.

Local art lovers may be familiar with 1935's "The Pink Nude," because it's on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art and is considered a 20th-century masterpiece. "The Portrait of Olga Merson" (1911) depicts the Russian woman who was deeply in love with Matisse in real life. Her unfinished face suggests a complex person whom Matisse found enigmatic.

EXTRAS: Time your trip for mid-June, when the annual international art show Art Basel ( ) takes place. The event overtakes Basel, a city of nearly 200,000 on the Rhine River in northern Switzerland. It runs June 14-18 and features contemporary works from more than 2,000 artists from 300 art galleries in 30-plus countries.

Every other Friday night beginning April 7, visitors can take an exclusive evening tour of the Matisse exhibit, including a four-course dinner at the foundation's Berower Park Restaurant ($68 per person). The museum also offers a similar brunch package on selected Sundays.