“If I met a woman in the street who looked like my paintings, I’d faint.”
It’s not clear which of his pictures Matisse had in mind with that remark. There are plenty of candidates in the show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, so you can take your pick.
The exhibition is far smaller than the 1992 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It includes barely 70 works and confines itself to a particular aspect of Matisse’s output -- pairs and series.
That painters vary the same theme again and again isn’t unusual. Monet’s haystacks, poplars and cathedrals are famous examples: His aim was to explore the change of light at different times of the day.
Matisse wasn’t interested in the effects of light.
The two versions of the Pont Saint-Michel in Paris that open the show mark the moment when he emancipated himself from the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists: The forms were simplified, and the colors became independent from nature.
When his father, a grain merchant, discovered the stylistic turnaround at the 1901 Salon des Independants he cut off his son’s allowance. At the 1905 Salon d’Automne, a dismayed critic dubbed Matisse (1869-1954) and his soul mates “fauves,” wild beasts.
Fortunately, in the same year Matisse found more open-minded sponsors -- the U.S. expatriates Leo, Gertrude and Michael Stein and the Russian collectors Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. Later, the drug manufacturer Alfred C. Barnes from Philadelphia became an important backer.
There are 16 items in the show, which will later travel to New York, that come from U.S. collections.
Some of Matisse’s most celebrated pairs were painted in his Fauvist years -- such as “Le Luxe.” The second version was done after a trip to Italy where he admired Giotto’s frescoes in Padua: Its colors are even more vivid than those in the first.
The difference between the two interiors with a goldfish bowl, both from 1914, is that the second version is a close-up of the first with the palette and the thumb of the artist appearing on the canvas.
By then, the Fauvists had drifted apart, and Matisse had developed his own, unmistakable style, not necessarily to the delight of the critics: Many were repelled by his bold distortions; others dismissed his pictures as easy on the eye and superficial.
Not all of Matisse’s pairs were planned: In 1931, Barnes commissioned “Dance,” a mural for his foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. Because of an error in the measurements, it turned out to be unusable, and Matisse had to do it again.
The murals aren’t in the exhibition, nor are the wonderful reclining nudes from the mid-1930s. When the ailing Madame Matisse found out that the model, her hired companion Lydia Delectorskaya, had become her husband’s mistress she got up from her sickbed and walked out on him.
After a cancer operation, in 1941, Matisse himself was confined to bed and a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Finding painting increasingly difficult, he embarked on a new, original kind of expression -- paper cutouts, arranged into almost abstract forms.
The show ends with four of those cutouts: “Blue Nudes,” from 1952, are a worthy conclusion to a glorious career.
“Matisse -- Paires et Series” is at the Pompidou Center in Paris through June 18. Later, the show will be on view at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen (July 14-Oct. 28) and the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Dec. 4-March 17, 2013). Information: http://www.centrepompidou.fr, http://www.smk.dk, http://www.metmuseum.org.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)