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Art: French Riviera and modern art

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened its Perelman building in the fall of 2007, I wondered how it would be able to program the new exhibition spaces in addition to those in the main building that already were keeping its curators occupied.

"Window on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice," a 1938 oil painting by Raoul Dufy, is part of the exhibition.
"Window on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice," a 1938 oil painting by Raoul Dufy, is part of the exhibition.Read more

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened its Perelman building in the fall of 2007, I wondered how it would be able to program the new exhibition spaces in addition to those in the main building that already were keeping its curators occupied.

The answer, logically, is to produce more exhibitions like "Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera," which is drawn primarily from the museum's permanent collection, augmented by a few loans.

Such a show is not only easier to organize than a major loan exhibition, it also offers the considerable benefit of expanding visitors' appreciation of the scope and depth of what the museum owns but hasn't been able to display regularly.

Many of the 34 paintings and six sculptures that curator Michael Taylor has installed in the Perelman's largest gallery come from storage and have not been on view for a long time, or possibly since the museum acquired them.


by Jean Souverbie, a 1926 study of Picassoesque figures by the sea, is such a work. It was given in 1955 by former museum director Fiske Kimball and his wife, Marie.

Raiding the storeroom doesn't by itself justify characterizing the result as an exhibition. The curator must devise a plausible theme. Taylor decided to focus on modernist artists who worked along France's Mediterranean coast. Ideally their paintings would reveal the influence of shimmering sun and sparkling sea. If not, at least the show might illuminate the extent to which artists were attracted by the languid ambience of the Cote d'Azur.

The 20th century's two most famous modernists, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, lived and worked in the south of France for decades. However, the region's penetrating light and vivid colors had a more profound effect on Matisse. Consequently, this exhibition is built around his so-called Nice period, when he developed a highly decorative and sensuous pictorial style.

Matisse is represented by 11 oils and one bronze sculpture of a female nude, Picasso by one late oil and a large bronze sculpture called

Man With a Lamb,

which he created in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II. Two of the three castings ended up on the Riviera, one on the grounds of Picasso's villa in Cannes, La Californie, and the other in the town square at Vallauris, where he made ceramics, as a memorial to the French Resistance.

The images in the exhibition tend to diverge along a natural fault line between art that expresses the geography and

joie de vivre

of the Riviera on one hand and the simple fact of an artist's residence there on the other. Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Raoul Dufy and Chaim Soutine represent the former, with Picasso, Georges Braque, Aristide Maillol and the American Max Weber typifying the other.

As a result, the show isn't pure Mediterranean sweetness and light. It also contains more sober and formal passages, exemplified by Braque's small, dark

Seated Bather,

Soutine's portrait of fellow painter Moïse Kisling, and even Matisse's small oil of a seated female nude.

Yet if you hunger for vibrant, shimmering color, there's plenty here, especially from Matisse. Paintings from the 1920s, such as

Still Life on a Table, Two Models Resting


The Moorish Screen

present the master of exuberant decorative excess at the top of his form. Bonnard's luminous depiction of his companion, Marthe de Méligny, after the bath is equally sumptuous in its chromatic harmonies.

Soutine is something of a wild card here. One thinks of him more as a portraitist than a landscapist - there are three portraits in the show - yet his two landscapes, especially a relatively restrained (for him) view of Cagnes-sur-Mer, are more enchanting and definitive of the Riviera spirit.

This might not be a show of drop-dead masterpieces but it does offer lots of discoveries - fine paintings by lesser-known artists that one is pleased to encounter. Edouard Pignon, who died just 15 years ago, is such an artist, and his intensely expressionist

Olive Trees

is such a painting.

Jean Metzinger's

The Bathers

is a handsome and forceful, cubist-inflected synthesis of a classical subject (bathers) and modern industry, a factory smokestack and a railway bridge. It sounds improbable, but Metzinger pulled it off smoothly.

You might also be surprised, and pleased, to find several American artists in the mix of Europeans, especially William H. Johnson, whose mildly turbulent view of Cagnes-sur-Mer owes something to Soutine's example. Besides Weber, Marsden Hartley and Alexander Archipenko are included in the Riviera cohort.

Born in Ukraine, Archipenko was seasoned in Paris before emigrating to America in 1923. His two painted, mixed-media reliefs, made in Nice during World War I, are among the show's most quintessentially modernist statements.

The aspect of the exhibition that ultimately I found most delightful was the relationships among works and artists that Taylor has created in his installation. There are more of these than one usually finds in a show of this size - three rooms of pleasing proportions and, with natural light and views outside, soothing domestic ambience.

The first room is anchored by Matisse's bronze nude in the center. On one side wall hangs his painted nude, and on the wall opposite Bonnard's intimate portrayal of Marthe drying herself.

On the front wall hangs André Derain's small portrait of Matisse on the beach at the village of Collioure, as garishly flamboyant as a Fauve painting can be. And on the wall opposite that, a Matisse classic, a view from his Nice hotel room out a window to the sea, hangs next to a Dufy of a similar subject.

In the third room, a Bonnard still life of flowers and a small sculpture hangs on one wall, facing a similar still life by Edouard Vuillard on the other side of the room. Each still life includes a small bronze by Maillol. Displayed adjacent to each painting is the Maillol sculpture that each artist used.

In large part because of consonances like these, "Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera" generates an impact greater than the sum of its parts. It's an energizing tonic for the darkest season of the year, but I expect that it will maintain its allure even when the local weather becomes more Riviera-like in a few months.

Art: Riviera Moderns

"Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera" continues in the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues, through Nov. 1, 2009. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission to the Perelman building is $7 general, $6 for visitors 65 and older, and $5 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or