Henri Matisse, “Interior, Flowers and Parakeets” (1924), oil on canvas, 46 1/4 x 29 inches, The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. clarinet Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland

For almost half a century, I’ve been checking out Matisse’s “Interior, Flowers and Parakeets” (1924) at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which houses the world’s largest collection of works by the French master. I don’t remember ever thinking much about the birds in this image before, especially not as stars of the show. They tend to disappear. Or to sing background for a different lead: cage, cup, curtain, bouquet . . . each has had its day. But during a recent visit to the museum, after I heard about a fifteen-years-in-the-making show coming to town, the pair of parakeets took center stage. And then they flew away, seeking inspiration.

Well, they’re back. And they’re in the midst of their maker,  who is paired with the West Coast painter, Richard Diebenkorn. Matisse/Diebenkorn will remain on display through January 29, 2017. The two painters look as natural together as parakeets on a perch.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, “A Table of Desserts” (1640), oil on canvas, 149 x 203 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

At the core of this show is a conversation in paint about influence and individuality. The Frenchman has plenty to say. After all, it was his example that, at least in part, inspired Diebenkorn to discover his remarkable vision and voice.

Henri Matisse, “Still Life After Jan Davidsz de Heem’s ‘La Desserte” (1915), oil on canvas, 180.9 x 220.8 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift and Bequest of Florine M. Shoenborn and Samuel A. Marx, 1964, ©2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Matisse (1869-1954) welcomed his forebears. The creative spirit of 17-century Dutch artists like Jan Davidsz de Heem, 18th-century French artists like Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 19th-century Post-Impressionists like Paul Cézanne, as well as many of  his own 20th-century contemporaries, kept him company within the solitude of his studio. And he was just as inspired by African sculpture, Japanese prints, Indian miniatures, and the dazzling patterns of decorative art worldwide.

Janiform head crest, Cross River, Nigeria (early 20th century), The Baltimore Museum of Art. Matisse and Diebenkorn were both intrigued by the kind of simplified, stylized African art forms that are apparent in this Janus carving. The Janiform sculpture is not included in the exhibition, but it is on display in a nearby gallery within the BMA.

Like his predecessor, Richard Diebenkorn  (1922-1993) was good at being influenced. The Early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as more modern artists, like Cézanne, Pierre Bonnard, Piet Mondrian, Edward Hopper, and Willem de Kooning, were frequent guests and, sometimes, studio crashers. Close friends and fellow Bay Area painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff drew with him from nude models. But Matisse was Diebenkorn’s greatest inspiration.

Another pair, Katy Rothkopf, Senior Curator of the BMA’s Department of European Painting and Sculpture, and Janet Bishop, Curator of Painting and Sculpture from the San Francisco Museum of  Modern Art, have gathered more than ninety of the artists’ major paintings and drawings to create what Jay Fisher, the BMA’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, describes as “an unprecedented visual narrative that reaches across the twentieth century.” Baltimore and San Francisco (March 11-May 29, 2017) are the exhibition’s only stops.

Henri Matisse, “Sarah Stein” (1916), oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 22 1/4 inches, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sarah and Michael Stein Memorial Collection, gift of Elise S. Hass (© Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo by Ben Blackwell)

Matisse and Diebenkorn grew up in different cultures with different histories, architecture, customs, landscape, and cuisine. Twizzlers here, eclairs there. George Washington and Mount Rushmore here, Cézanne and Mount St. Victoire there. But connections abound between the artists. Within their individual compositions, both fought to reconcile seeming conflicts like tradition and innovation; drawing and painting; representation and abstraction; depth and flatness; vigor and poise; order and muddle; grandeur and humility.

Henri Matisse, “Study of Sarah Stein” (1916), graphite on paper, 19 1/8 x 12 5/8 inches, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sarah and Michael Stein Memorial Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter A. Hass

In her essay for the exhibition catalogue, Katy Rothkopf brings up yet another apparent conflict when she quotes Richard Diebenkorn on his artistic hero: “It’s the restraint coupled with the sensuousness that’s so utterly exceptional. It’s a musical thing: this transition here, this color here, a wild surprise here, that becomes, a little farther up—well, just a gentle part of the harmony.”

Both men loved music, which wove its way into their work. The busy beauty of Matisse’s “Interior, Flowers and Parakeets” (1924) is a concert of counterpoint that’s tough to whistle along with, unless you’re a duo of yellow-green parakeets, one looking forward, one looking back. The birds are resting, serene. But, despite the patterned pandemonium around them, I hear the thump of their fragile heartbeats.

About Matisse, John Berger once wrote: “He clashed his colors together like cymbals, and the effect was like a lullaby.” The same applies to his American successor.

I don’t know whether the older artist was even aware of the younger man’s paintings (not likely), but the charge going the other way was so strong it’s hard for some of us to see one without the other. Like a Janus figure, or Matisse’s parakeets on their perch, vision looks forward and back. Cézanne inspired Picasso and Braque, as well as Matisse and Diebenkorn. Although Cézanne had passed away before Cubism was born, many viewers see his paintings, to a significant degree, through Cubism’s prism — an art historical case of the future affecting the past. Likewise, past works in this BMA exhibition allow us to better understand future works. And vice versa. Because, for the most part, Matisse/Diebenkorn unfolds chronologically, I found myself repeatedly walking back and forth from the first gallery to the last.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Large Still Life” (1966), oil on canvas, 64 1/2 x 1/4 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of the family of Rochard Diebenkorn

Matisse’s “Interior, Flowers and Parakeets” and Diebenkorn’s “Large Still Life” (1966) occupy different galleries within the show, so the birds’ chirps from Matisse’s cage don’t vibrate the ink in Diebenkorn’s tiny black bottle one bit. At first glance, the paintings seem unrelated. But they are connected through visual metaphor: in the Matisse, a lush, raucous landscape  impersonates an interior; Diebenkorn’s landscape (or seascape) poses as a still life — lullabies orchestrated with cymbals, both.

If we read the Californian’s painting as an aerial landscape, the clay-colored table is the earth,  carved up by sprawling, field-like parcels beneath a severe horizon. Above, within a sky-blue band, lines loop like clouds. Or we can read the image as a spottily blanketed beachscape topped by sideways waves. There is an inkwell in front — in command. It is far grander in impact than in inches. It’s the shadowy tower of a child’s sandcastle. Being slightly askew, the bottle stopper animates the object and makes it look more real. The streamlined label, the scene’s whitest shape, as well as the one closest to the viewer, is the painting’s most resounding note.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Window” (1967), The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University (© 2016 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

In Matisse/Diebenkorn, a different kind of ink bottle-scale mismatch between actual fact and visual effect surfaced for me. After seeing the show, I was surprised to learn that there are thirty-six images by Matisse compared to fifty-six by Diebenkorn. I had thought the numbers broke down pretty much fifty-fifty, which is a testament to the older artist’s pictorial and historical power, especially when we consider that the Matisses are mostly modest in size, while the Diebenkorns, with their pigment thickly built-up, thinly brushed on, layered, scraped, wiped off, or dug into, are mostly large. When viewed next to each other, Diebenkorn’s paintings looked more expansive — but not more powerful — than those of the Frenchman, as if painted from the shoulder or torso, while Matisse’s, with their (often more subtly) rich and varied surfaces, looked like they were painted from the elbow or wrist.

Henri Matisse, “Reclining Model with a Flowered Robe” (c. 1923), The Baltimore Museum of Art (© 2016 Succession H. Matisse / ARS NY)

That said, a similarly sized drawing combo, Matisse’s “Reclining Model with a Flowered Robe” (c. 1923-24) and Diebenkorn’s “Untitled (Woman Seated in a Chair)” (1963), both owned by the BMA, hang side-by-side. Christopher Bedford, the Director of the BMA, asserts that these two drawings were “a particular impetus for this project.” Both artists drew incessantly throughout their careers, and this show celebrates their passion for this form of pictorial expression, experimentation, documentation, meditation, search, study, and joy. Boldly patterned fabrics, as well as mottled patterns of light and dark, invigorate the drowsy, bird’s-eye-viewed women. They rest. The compositions don’t.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Woman Seated in a Chair” (1963), The Baltimore Museum of Art (© 2016 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Groupings of artworks highlight connections. During sustained periods, both Matisse and Diebenkorn portrayed their own studios and merged inside and outside spaces. The parakeets’ cage in Matisse’s painting, where one room leads through an open archway into another, is a third interior within a single apartment. Turning to the Bay Area painter’s works, linear underpinnings (especially the geometry of the “Ocean Park” canvases) seem to slip decades back to the geometrical structure of the Frenchman’s compositions. The golden ochre bars of the birdcage — conspicuous by their absence in front of the birds — are part of this space travel, returning us, beneath a light-winged lull, to “Ocean Park.”

The museum’s expansive final gallery is filled mainly with these breathing, majestic works named for the seaside neighborhood of Santa Monica, California, where the artist had his Main Street studio. At the Pacific Ocean, two blocks away, you can hear the swoosh of Diebenkorn’s blue.


Richard Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park #27” (1970), oil and charcoal on canvas, 100 x 80 inches, Brooklyn Museum, gift of the Roebling Society and Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Blast and Mrs. William K. Jacobs Jr.

Pairing painting and place, and citing Vincent van Gogh’s Arles and Piero  della Francesca’s Florence, Diebenkorn once stated that certain artists are intimately bound to where they made their art. Accordingly, the sounds and sights of where the West Coast artist lived had a direct bearing on the forms that distinguish his work. The same goes for Matisse, who, in London, studied the art of J. M. W. Turner and basked in a different kind of colored light than that offered by his residences in Paris or Nice. In Algiers, Morocco, and Tahiti, the decorated fabrics that Matisse gathered (he called this collection his library) greatly inspired him as well.


Henri Matisse, “French Window at Collioure” (1914), oil on canvas, 45 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches, Musée national d’art moderne/ Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

In the closing “Ocean Park” section of the exhibit, Katy Rothkopf wisely included Matisse’s radically reductive “French Window at Collioure” (1914). From the curator’s wall text, we learn that the artist blackened out a balcony and landscape that had originally filled the central space. He planned on revisiting this area. Happily, he never did. This master of bold hues who once declared, “I wouldn’t mind turning into a vermillion goldfish,” also said, “I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors is black.”

During my art school years in the late ’60s, “French Window” left me in the dark. Only after I saw the lyrical angst of Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” canvases in the ’70s, did Matisse’s simple quartet of verticals make sense to me — a personal case of the future affecting the past.


Richard Diebenkorn, “Ingleside” (1963), oil on canvas, 81 3/4 x 69 1/2 inches, Grand Rapids Art Museum, museum purchase

Compare the way the Californian’s bold white pathways in  “Ingleside” (1963) reverse such time travel by zipping through the neighborhood on their way toward the atmospheric geometry of “Ocean Park # 27″ (1970). Very different paintings, they nonetheless speak to the all-of-a-piece nature of his oeuvre. When seen from a distance, unpredictable shifts in an artist’s direction — as from the painterly realism of “Ingleside” to the near-total abstraction of “Ocean Park # 27” — may seem not simply compatible but inevitable. As the car warning goes: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

Blurring distance and time, both men unapologetically embraced their aesthetic kindred spirits across oceans and ages, and brought them home. While passions enter artists’ studios, immaculate conceptions don’t. Connections, which give birth to creation, are at the core of influence and (ironically) at the origin of individuality. Connections permeate this gorgeous, important exhibition, showcasing two radical unoriginals in all their glorious, uncaged originality.

Matisse/Diebenkorn continues at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, Maryland) through January 29, 2017.

Barry Nemett, Chair of MICA's Painting Department from 1992-2017, has exhibited his artwork in museums and galleries throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. He lectures internationally...

One reply on “Origins of Originality: ‘Matisse/Diebenkorn’ at the Baltimore Museum of Art”

  1. Very much enjoyed reading your review.
    However much I appreciate Diebenkorn I cannot in any way put him in a comparable category with Matisse. Comparing them as equals is how I read your article. (Maybe I am mistaken in that.)
    Matisse WAS immaculate conception ( to use your word ) to a large extent. His creativity has never been matched. And what he created from no precedent is truly mind boggling.

    Maybe an odd metric, but I do measure the two by how many “mistakes” they made. Those mistakes to me show how far ahead of themselves they are willing to travel. Matisse made several. Diebenkorn in all his beautifully conservative work didn’t seem to make any. His careful editing or careful work makes it hard to find a single failed piece. Paradoxically as that sounds, it is a weakness.
    He was never capable of making that leap into ‘the abyss’. But, hey, not many have! Not many at all. That is why Matisse, among others, stands above.
    I speak of Diebenkorn with deep empathy. As one who admires Matisse tremendously and also finds it difficult to move out of his orbit myself.

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