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  • Aliena Abernathy

Saint Louis Art Museum Brings the Sea to St. Louis

By: Aliena Abernathy

The Saint Louis Art Museum is bringing the blue and black rolling waves of the Mediterranean Sea and the South Pacific Ocean to Forest Park. That is, the sea as depicted through the artwork of 20th century French visual artist Henri Matisse. Starting Feb. 17, an exhibit on Matisse will be displayed at the Saint Louis Art Museum which is inviting audiences to view his work and consider Matisse’s role as both a world traveler as well as a French colonialist and habitual appropriator of African art and culture. The exhibit is the first to analyze Matisse’s relationship with bodies of water concerning the African culture he submerged himself in.

Photo by Saint Louis Art Museum

Henri Matisse was born in 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France, which is notably a landlocked village almost 120 miles away from the nearest body of water. It wasn’t until Matisse began studying on the coast of Brittany that the sea would prominently feature in his paintings, often serving as a backdrop to his primary human subjects and interiors. 

“I think for him the sea was a freeing element,” said Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum and organizer of the exhibition. “Often in his paintings, you can see boats littering the coast which represented a sort of freedom for Matisse. The introduction of water into his paintings coincided with a lot of bright vibrant blues and oranges,” he said. 

Matisse would move from studying in Algeria to Morocco in 1912 to Tangier in 1913 and ultimately to Tahiti later in his life, taking inspiration from the traditional native African artists he encountered during his study. He would often take artistic pieces and ceremonial statues from other cultures to inspire his artwork, which spans a range of mediums.

Photos by Aliena Abernathy

“At his core, Matisse was an anti-academic; He really was not interested in the traditional style taught in Académie Julian (Matisse’s Parisian art school),” said Kelly. Matisse opted to take guidance from the various statues, tribal masks and cloth paintings he’d gathered during his travels. “It really was about going against the academic institutions, but it’s also important to consider the power dynamic there as a French man visiting French colonies in Africa.” 

The Matisse and the Sea exhibit is divided into distinct sections which progress through Matisse’s life and travels. It begins with a showcase of his work from the mid-1890s as he worked in and around France, before moving into his two-year stint in the fishing village of Collioure, France where he would paint the exhibition’s centerpiece: “Bathers with a Turtle.” The next exhibit explores Matisse’s later years on the Mediterranean Coast, before moving onto two sections dedicated to the artist’s time in French Polynesia, French colonies in Africa and Oceania. 

Photos by Aliena Abernathy

“I’d like people to come to this exhibit and experience a journey through France, French Polynesia, and particularly the colonies that Matisse visited. Travel is a key theme,” Kelly said. Within each exhibit is a collection of works from the indigenous peoples who lived in the colonized territories Matisse visited. Often, the pieces were lent to the exhibit directly from Matisse’s own personal collection. “When Matisse visited these places, very often not a lot of painting would actually come out of it. It was mostly him consuming the scenery and the culture of North Africa.” Kelly continues to explain that the exhibit aims to reflect the importance of African art to Matisse’s style by juxtaposing it directly next to the artist’s most famous works. “We really are the first exhibit to both explore Matisse’s relationship with the sea, and especially how that relates to colonialism and North Africa. Matisse’s work in many ways is an appropriation of the visual language of Africa,” Kelly said.

Photo by Aliena Abernathy

Matisse was not just a painter; the exhibit showcases his work with sculptures, art produced for books and poetry, printmaking, paper cut-outs, and textiles. 

Photo by Aliena Abernathy

“I think, to an extent, Matisse’s understanding of the sea changes with different mediums. Maybe the watercolors especially do a lot to illustrate the crashing of the waves and the fluctuating nature of the sea, while his cut-outs might better depict the color of the sea that he fell in love with,” Kelly said. 

The exhibit also gives visitors an opportunity to create their own Matisse-like art using magnets shaped in the style often used later in Matisse’s career, which can be removed and rearranged. The magnets span a single large wall, taking on blue, orange and green tones to evoke the imagery of the sea. “We’d like to invite people to have their own understanding of the sea after examining both Matisse and his influences, as well as their own personal connections with the sea,” Kelly said about the interactive portion of the exhibit.  

“Matisse and the Sea” also offers something for those interested in the technical aspects of art preservation. Preservation and analysis are an important part of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s mission in exhibiting artworks that require specific conditions to ensure the integrity of the piece is maintained. A short video is on display in its own corner of the exhibit which explains the intricacies of examining an artwork. The video goes in-depth on how this technology was used to examine “Bathers with a Turtle,” using X-rays to reveal earlier versions of the painting. 

“Matisse and the Sea” is a unique Saint Louis Art Museum exhibition in that it chooses to explore not just the artist, but also the cultures, places and mediums that shaped Henri Matisse’s own understanding of water. The exhibit places equal importance on the myriad of artworks from colonized cultures, sometimes even positioning those works at the center of a room while Matisse’s own works are displayed in less prominent areas. It’s an exploration not only of Matisse but also of the coastal worlds he visited. The exhibition invites guests to experience this exploration firsthand and gain their own understanding of the sea, even when they may never have seen it before in real life.  


“Matisse and the Sea” will be on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum from Feb. 17 to May 12. Tickets are available for purchase through Metrotix.


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