“The jewels or the arabesques never overwhelm my drawings from the model, because these jewels and arabesques form part of my orchestration.”
Henri Matisse told critic Gaston Diehl in a letter dated 1947 that "la révélation m'est venue d'Orient": but this revelation was by no means a sudden shock. As we can tell from his paintings and drawings, it was spawned by a growing familiarity with the Orient and gradually developed in the course of the artist's travels, encounters and visits to exhibitions and shows.
Hosted by the Scuderie del Quirinale and promoted by the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo and by Roma Capitale - Assessorato alla Cultura e Turismo, the exhibition is produced by the Azienda Speciale Palaexpo in conjunction with MondoMostre, while the catalogue is published by Skira Editore. The exhibition will be showcasing 90 works by Matisse, including several of his most outstanding masterpieces – on display in Italy for the very first time – from some of the world's leading museums such as the Tate in London, the MET and the MoMa in New York, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Centre Pompidou and the Orangerie in Paris, and the leading museums of Philadelphia and Washington, to mention but a few.
Curated by Ester Coen with a scholarly committee comprising John Elderfield, Remi Labrusse and Olivier Berggruen, Matisse Arabesque aims to offer visitors a perception of the influenced exercised by the Orient on the painting of Matisse – an Orient which, with its artifice, its arabesques and its colours, suggests a vaster space, a truly plastic space, infusing his compositions with a new breadth, freeing it from all formal constraint, from the need for perspective and for "lifelikeness", opening up a space made of vibrant colours, a novel conception of decorative art resting on the idea of pure surface.
Henri Matisse was not born to become a painter – “I am the son of a seed merchant, and I was supposed to take over the business and run it in my father's place” – in fact, he set out on a career as a lawyer before becoming an artist. It was his health that altered the course of history. He was working as a clerk in a legal practice in Saint-Quentin in 1890 when a bad attack of appendicitis put him on his back for almost a year. He took up painting, and began to frequent symbolist painter Gustave Moreau's studio with his friend Albert Marquet in 1893, going on to officially enrol at the École des Baux Arts, where the teaching staff included numerous Orientalists, in 1895.
He saw a great deal of the Orient in these years, visiting the Louvre's vast collection of Islamic art on permanent display as well as the various exhibitions devoted to Islamic art hosted by the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, in 1893–4 and especially in 1903. And at the Exposition Universelle in 1900 Matisse discovered the Muslim countries themselves in the pavilions devoted to Turkey, Persia, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. He also frequented such avant-garde galleries as that of Ambroise Vollard, where in 1899 he purchased a drawing by Van Gogh, a plaster bust by Rodin, a picture by Gauguin and a painting by Cézanne, who was to have a major impact on his work.
Matisse travelled to Algeria in 1906, bringing back the ceramics and prayer mats that were to fill his canvases with their designs and colours from that time on. In 1907 he visited Florence, Arezzo, Siena and Padua: “When I see Giotto's frescoes, I am not concerned to find out which scene of the life of Christ I have before my eyes, but I perceive instantly the feeling which radiates from it and which is instinct in the composition in every line and colours”. His visit to the great "Exhibition of Mohammedan Art" in Munich in 1910 – the first exhibition of Muslim art that was to influence a whole generation of artists from Kandinsky to Le Corbusier – was what truly inspired him to develop a form of decoration based on a style of composition light years distant from Western tradition. Travelling to Moscow in the autumn of 1911 to oversee the installation of his La Danse and La Musique in Sergei Shchukin's home, Matisse returned to Africa in 1912, this time to Morocco and in particular to Tangier "la blanche". It was here that the tailleur de lumière, as his son-in-law Georges Duthuit was to nickname him, was bewitched by the soft light and lush vegetation that were to underscore his harmonious, almost musical cadence: “One tone is just a color; two tones are a chord, which is life”.
Turning his back on the destructuring and distortion typical of the contemporary avant-garde, Matisse showed a greater interest in links with the models of "barbaric" art. Decoration became the primary raison d'être of his radical exploration of painting. It was in the interwoven motifs of ancient civilisations that Matisse grasped the principles for depicting a different spatial environment that allowed him to "transcend the intimistic painting" of 19th century tradition.
Morocco, the Orient, Africa and Russia in their most intensely spiritual essence, their essence most distant from the purely decorative, were to suggest new compositional patterns to Matisse. The arabesques and intricate geometrical designs found in the Ottoman world, in Byzantine art, in the Orthodox world and in the early painters whose work he had studied in the Louvre were all elements that Matisse interpreted in an extraordinarily modern manner, formulating an artistic vocabulary which ignored the precision of natural forms in order to brush with the sublime.