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Installation view, ‘Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse’ at the McMichael Collection (photo by Veronika Roux-Vlachova)

KLEINBURG, Ontario — With a much-lauded show of cutouts at MoMA and a group exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, Henri Matisse seems to be experiencing (yet another) moment in the North American art scene. Canada’s McMichael Gallery has joined the fray with its exhibition Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse, the first to bring together the works of Canadian painters John Lyman and J.W. Morrice with those of Matisse.

Organized by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, the show has been “reinterpreted and enlarged” (so says the release) in its current iteration at the McMichael by chief curator Katerina Atanassova, who added 49 works, mostly by Morrice. It’s a visual travelogue that jumps from France to North Africa and the Caribbean, including some beautiful works (particularly Matisse drawings) along the way. But it’s also overstuffed and desperately needs more context and a better sense of connection in order to illuminate the works (165 total; 13 by Matisse) in a fuller and more satisfying way.

James Wilson Morrice, “Olympia” (c 1912), oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, purchase 1957 (photo courtesy NGC) (click to enlarge)

To approach the exhibition, it helps to have a sense of history. American-born Lyman met Morrice at Paris’s Académie Julian in 1908. Lyman later enrolled at the Academie Matisse in 1909 but returned to Montreal some months later because of illness; that time — roughly two school terms, fall to spring — constitutes Lyman’s entire time spent around the French artist, though his experience in Paris was clearly important to his creative development. Throughout his life, Lyman eagerly referenced European styles, and in his role as president of the Contemporary Arts Society in Montreal in the 1940s, he organized exhibitions of work by Kandinsky and Modigliani (to lukewarm reception —  mid-20th-century Canada just wasn’t ready for that stuff). Morrice was born into a wealthy Montreal family in 1865 and lived, in many respects, a charmed life. He met Matisse and served alongside him on the jury for the Salon D’Automne in Paris in 1908. The two later shared a studio for a few brief months in Tangiers. The effect was less a bleeding of styles than an adventurous embrace, as Morrice moved to try on Whistler-style reality, Impressionism, Fauvism, and van Gogh–esque Symbolism.

What’s notable about the works of Morrice and Lyman is that they kill any preconceived notions of what Canadian art is “supposed” to look like by not focusing on mountains, lakes, or scenes of the Canadian wilderness — a trait that would come to differentiate them sharply from the famous Group of Seven, whose work centered almost entirely on nature. There is no predictable subject matter here and a distinctly formal, European style of painting.

Henri Matisse, “Nude on a Yellow Sofa” (1926), oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, purchase 1958 (photo courtesy NGC)

Yet the exhibition is missing a large number of works that might more meaningfully connect the Canadian artists with the French master, whose gorgeous “Nude on a Yellow Sofa” (1926) would have been better served had its space been better shared. The exquisite Matisse painting is hung on a dark wall, with his “Anemones and Peach Blossoms” (1944) beside it and a hefty quote from the artist (about models) squeezed in-between. It’s visually overwhelming. Hanging nearby are a series of female portraits by Morrice (including “Nude with a Feather” from 1911, which recalls Klimt but without his eye for sensuality) — they’re nice but stylistically jarring against the Matisse. Lyman’s “Still Life With Fruit” (1946), which betrays strong hints of Matisse’s influence in terms of shape, color, and perspective, and which hang elsewhere in the show, would have been a better choice to share wall space with “Nude on a Yellow Sofa.”

Henri Matisse, “Etude Mains” (1944), pencil on paper, 40 x 51 cm, private collection, Toronto (click to enlarge)

Considering creative connection is the primary theme of the exhibition, it’s disappointing how frequently it’s missed. A small section behind the yellow-sofa nude features (in addition to a tacky blue settee/flowered fabric set-up) a collection of exquisite, rarely seen Matisse drawings. After marveling at “Study of Hands” (1944), you begin to appreciate just how vital a thing connection is in art. The drawing inspires through both its magnificent simplicity and its relationship to the other Matisse works in the show, which, though few in number, continually remind the viewer how the artist linked outer variables like time and place with inner ones like personal experience and observation. A great many other choices in the exhibition, however, chiefly of work by Morrice and Lyman, highlight an odd disjuncture between painter and subject, painter and place, and painter and painter. Morrice may have shared a studio with Matisse, but there’s little here that implies a connection beyond the physical and the temporal.

In fact, the most obvious evidence of the Morrice/Matisse relationship is unfortunately represented only by wall text: a plaque explains the respective artists’ “Windows Onto Tangier” paintings, the same view done by each artist during their stay in North Africa. It’s a pity the McMichael was unable to get a hold of either — although one wonders how they would fare, hung on the turmeric-colored walls in this section (“The Subtlety of North African Light”), with its Arab-tinged Satie music tinkling in the background, map of North Africa, and litany of works pointing to a troubling, Orientalist-tinged notion of “the foreign.” The curator doesn’t seem much aware of or concerned with the racist overtones of the works on display, or their presentation here, both of which unknowingly illuminate the kind of white privilege still so disappointingly present in museums and galleries.

Installation view, ‘Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse’ (photo by Veronika Roux-Vlachova)

That subtext is evinced most clearly in the final room, called “The Endless Summer” and featuring idyllic Caribbean scenes of locals going about their work, at the beach, on a bench, hauling a boat. A number of Morrice works hang along a blue wall, while around the corner there’s a row of dimly lit Lyman works. The historical underpinnings of these frustratingly stereotypical paintings have been ignored: nowhere are we told that Morrice fled to Cuba at the start of World War One, nor that the Caribbean is where he began his descent into alcoholism (he died in 1924, at age 58). None of the subjects in the portraits have names; they’re a collection of brown faces and bodies that would be at home on a 1950s postcard. By keeping the focus on the superficial — pretty holiday pictures of a tropical climate — we’re allowed to simply enjoy them as such, with no contextualization of these places or people, or the relationships the artists may have had with them.

Installation view, ‘Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse’ (photo by Veronika Roux-Vlachova)

Quotes from Morrice, Lyman, and Matisse dotted throughout the exhibition try to provide that missing context, but in the end they do little to illuminate works nearby, much less their affinity with each other and the broader world in which they were created. If there are larger ties here — ones that go past unique light or bright colors — we don’t sense them, let alone how any of this may have contributed to the development of painting in Canada. Lovely pictures of faraway places aren’t enough to satisfy the appetite for a more meaningful show of history.

Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse continues at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg, Ontario, Canada) through January 4.

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Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine Kustanczy is a freelance arts journalist and broadcaster. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety of editorial capacities for film, TV, radio, and digital....