This week, the hotly anticipated exhibition Henri Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning opened at the Standard Bank Gallery. Excitement has been whipped up by a marketing campaign eager to point out that this will mark "the first Matisse exhibition in Africa", underscored by the social media hashtag #MatisseinSA.
It would be strange not to highlight Matisse’s relationship to the continent , seeing as his revolution of colour and line was partly inspired by African art.
But when it comes to crediting African influence in European modern art, Standard Bank has a tainted track record. Ten years ago, it brought us Picasso and Africa to spark "innovative dialogue between Picasso’s work and his African inspiration", but came under fire for downplaying the Cubist’s debt to African art.
By uncritically presenting Picasso’s work alongside African sculptures akin to those from his collection, the show did not do enough to challenge Picasso’s dismissal of African art: "L’art negre? Never heard of it!"
The press release before the Matisse exhibition immediately addresses this shortcoming, saying: "A decade later, it is opportune to complicate the somewhat essentialist questions (and criticisms) posed by the Picasso exhibition" — a comment from Federico Freschi, co-curator and executive dean of the faculty of art, design & architecture at the University of Johannesburg.
Yet, when asked why the African connection is not mentioned in this exhibition’s title, which Freschi came up with, he shrugs: "Why go there?"
He says Rhythm and Meaning is "not at pains to stress this debt because there are many debts. Yes, Matisse had an interest in African objects, which found their way into his work some way or another, but let’s look at the broader sense of how he fits into history."
The final part of the press release reflects Freschi’s line of engagement:
"We can remain aware of the problematic politics of modernist ‘appropriation’ of African or other non-European cultures and art forms. But we are also free to gain pleasure from the striking colours, simple lines and basic forms we find in Matisse’s work — enjoying them, as the artist recommended, in the same way that we would enjoy sitting in ‘a good armchair’."
The impression is that we have a Western artist presented to Africa on Western terms, or, as the press release more subtly puts it, "as the artist recommended".
Rhythm and Meaning might be presented by Standard Bank, but it is brought to SA in partnership with Musée Matisse in France, the Embassy of France in SA, the French Institute of SA, Air France, Total and the French gas company, Air Liquide. That’s rather a lot of fingers in one pie.
Wits art history academic Anitra Nettleton is "sceptical" of any SA agency behind Rhythm and Meaning, but admits to finding herself "in a difficult position" as a contributor to the book accompanying the exhibition. Nevertheless, she perceives that Standard Bank had to "make do with the works they were offered by Musée Matisse, with whom they have long-standing ties."
This idea is unwittingly fuelled by Freschi, who describes his involvement as having "no key curatorial point". The co-curator and director of the Musée Matisse, Patrice Deparpe, seemed to call the shots.
It was Deparpe who chose the centrepiece of the show — the Jazz cut-outs which Matisse famously published in a limited edition book in 1947. Jazz is an exciting body of work taken from an interesting time in history and Matisse’s career, but Deparpe’s reasoning suggests a contrived Western view of an "admirably improvising" "new SA" and appeals to a bygone rhetoric associated with the so-called "rainbow nation" of the 1990s:
"One of the topics of the exhibition, that makes sense in SA, is the idea of freedom: freedom of Matisse to the establishment, freedom in his creations, freedom of the line. Jazz was done to the liberation of France during World War 2. It is therefore logical that it is a central element of the exhibition in terms of this idea of struggle for freedom."
On a level, Deparpe is right. When Matisse made the Jazz portfolio he was grappling with personal adversity and endured a limited freedom of expression under occupied France, which bore some similarities to apartheid SA.
And, it cannot be denied, Jazz is viscerally uplifting and complex in meaning. On the one hand, it is immersive fantasy art where figures float on the surface of pure colour while leaves and lines dance and a horse and chariot appear to be anthropomorphic, simultaneously lifting a leg and a wheel, with humorous aplomb.
Yet, in and among its abstract, colour-abounding compositions, a tension is at play. We oscillate between freedom and constraint both in terms of form, as Matisse re-defined positive and negative space with the swoop of his scissors, and in terms of subject matter, where it is not always clear if a figure is falling or flying, choking or singing.
Whether Deparpe’s conceptual connection to SA resonates or not, the question remains: where are the works that speak to the show’s declaration to "complicate" a conversation about African art and European Modernism prompted a decade ago?
Paintings like The Young Sailor II (1906) and The Green Line (1905) are interesting examples of African mask influence in Matisse’s early works, but do not feature. Why?
"Because they do not match the topics we want to develop in our exposure," Deparpe says. He goes on to describe a curatorial mantra driven by a perceived need to promote "an artist whose influence is worldwide — the most simplest, most accessible, the more free the SA public" [sic] and adds that "there is no selection by money or knowledge but rather the desire to discover a universal art which aims to bring happiness."
Nettleton sees this patronising approach as systemic. She recalls that "of all the major modernist exhibitions that have come here, the works are interesting but certainly not major. When Picasso came here we got nothing major. Now Matisse is here, we are getting nothing major. Condescending is what it is — ‘Here! We are bringing you these works by Matisse. You must be overwhelmed!’"
Freschi says in defence that this is a unique exhibition because "some of the works haven’t travelled much at all, such as the design for the stained glass window, Maquette du vitrail Vigne (1953), and the Escargots design (1993)", but seems to prove Nettleton’s point as these are lesser-known works.
On the plus side, the Matisse educational outreach programme, which runs parallel to the exhibition, has taken a progressive approach to bringing the French Modernist to disadvantaged primary school children in Soweto.
Arts educator and curator Wilhelm van Rensburg runs the programme according to the humbled view that "Matisse is part of the narrative of Modernism in the early 20th century. I want the learners to see the significant part Africa played in forging this narrative.
"It is a form of decolonising knowledge."
Sadly, the approach to Rhythm and Meaning is not as innovative.
Freschi reiterates that "Patrice [Deparpe] is insisting ... or rather trying to promote the African connection. I’m saying let’s focus on the abstract significance."
Unfortunately, Freschi’s reluctance to run with context as a curatorial initiative, coupled with Deparpe’s vision of a 21st century SA (which just wants to smile), has resulted in another ambivalent exhibition of a European Modernist at Standard Bank.
Had the Matisse and Africa dynamic been squarely unpacked, audiences would be truly free to explore Matisse and all his fascinating facets, from his pleasurable aesthetic to his colonially loaded lens.