Lights, Camera, Cut: The Problems of Matisse on Screen

Matisse Live from Tate Modern, Francine Stock interviews Nicholas Serota All images courtesy of Arts Alliance
Francine Stock interviewing Nicholas Serota in Exhibition On Screen’s ‘Matisse: From Tate Modern and MoMA’ (all images courtesy Arts Alliance)

Matisse: From Tate Modern and MoMA aims to capture onscreen the blockbuster exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, currently at the Museum of Modern Art and previously at Tate Modern. The film, produced by Exhibition On Screen, is not the first art-show-as-movie attempt — previous efforts from Exhibition On Screen include Leonardo Live (from the National Gallery in London) and Munch 150 (from the Munch Museum and National Gallery in Oslo), among others. The basic premise of these films is a laudable one: to enable a wide audience to view art they might not see otherwise.

Installation view of Christmas Eve (1952), Black Leaf on Green Background (1952) and Black Leaf on Red Background (1952) in the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 12, 2014-February 8, 2015). Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art
Installation view of Matisse’s “Christmas Eve” (1952), “Black Leaf on Green Background” (1952), and “Black Leaf on Red Background” (1952) in the exhibition ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 12, 2014–February 10, 2015) (photo by Jonathan Muzikar, © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art) (click to enlarge)

Having attended the endlessly beautiful exhibition in person at MoMA, however, I was wary of how it might be translated into a film. “Exhibition on screen” is an oxymoronic phrase: doesn’t the nature of an exhibition necessarily encompass physicality? I kept an open mind, but within the first 20 minutes of Matisse I realized I had been correct to worry.

The film’s most bothersome issue is that it mixes an entirely unimaginative general approach with poor production values. Behold, the talking-head-based doc, now with the bonus of careless framing. Interviewees’ hands quickly appear in the frame and then disappear, only to pop up once again during an expressive gesture. This incessant jumpiness begins to resemble a Whac-A-Mole amusement park game — someone, hand me a mallet.

The first half of the film, which mixes interviews, close-up examinations of specific artworks, and tracking shots of exhibition galleries, often features the BBC’s Francine Stock interviewing Tate Director Nicholas Serota. Once again, their placement is terribly awkward. The pair stand at opposing three-quarter angles, a large Matisse cut-out in between them. They’re neither turned towards the camera nor away from it, and the view of the cut-out is partially obstructed anyway. The terrible lighting doesn’t help — too much focus on particular works, too many shadows elsewhere.

Zenaida Yanowsky performs original choreography by Will Tuckett and Zenaida Yanowsky  © James Morton-Haworth
Zenaida Yanowsky performs original choreography by Will Tuckett and Zenaida Yanowsky. (© James Morton-Haworth)

The second half of Matisse greatly improves as it moves away from the physical exhibition, offering viewers more depth of context. Historical footage of Matisse working on his cut-outs is lively, a welcome change from dry tracking shots and static interviews. Discussions with former studio assistants expand our understanding of the (oft-mentioned) tension of an artist at the end of his life reinventing himself in such a youthful, vital style. MoMA Senior Conservator Karl Buchberg describes five years of painstaking work restoring “The Swimming Pool.” Finally, original choreography and composition by, respectively, Royal Ballet members Zenaida Yanowsky and Will Tuckett and jazz musician Courtney Pine demonstrate the emotional, interdisciplinary inspiration of the cut-outs’ beauty.

Matisse is at its best when it’s not an “exhibition on screen,” but rather a more traditional documentary that probes both past and present, mixing archival footage with contemporary perspectives. And who knows, a successful “exhibition on screen” may yet be possible. But the director would need to take inspiration from Yanowsky and Pine, employing an approach that creatively uses the medium of film to capture the mood of the artwork, not simply the who, what, when, where, and why of the exhibition.

Courtney Pine in front of Icarus © Alexey Moskvin Henri Matisse Icarus 1946. Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Droits réservés © Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013
Courtney Pine in front of Matisse’s “Icarus” (photo © Alexey Moskvin) (“Icarus” courtesy Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Droits réservés, © Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013)

Matisse: From Tate Modern and MoMA is screening at movie theaters across the US. Check the website for locations and showtimes.

Matisse: The Cut-Outs continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown West, Manhattan) through February 10.

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