Skip to main content

On 'Matisse: Radical Invention' at the Art Institute

I went to see the Matisse show at the Art Institute of Chicago recently. I have good things to say about the show, but bad things to say about the attitude to the public on the part of the show’s organizers.

The show is called ‘Matisse: Radical Invention’ and it gathers together an amazing selection of Matisse’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints from 1913 to 1917. At least half of the pieces I was seeing for the first time, even though I’ve known about them for many years. It was particularly satisfying to see so many of his prints in one place. There is a whole room of his monoprints, done using a very simple technique (basically rolling a flat layer of black ink on a copper plate, then removing some of the ink with thin strokes to leave a white line drawing). When en masse, these prints show how closely related Matisse’s printmaking was to the problems he was considering in other media. There are the sculptures, with their lumps and their clumsiness and their apparent haphazardness: the reclining nude, closely related to the painting ‘Blue Nude’; and the heads of Marguerite and the colossal nudes seen from the back, with each version becoming more abstract than the preceding one. It’s a great idea to collect a lot of work from one short period to demonstrate Matisse’s discoveries in each of these media. Quite often it felt like I’d walked into a show by a new artist, rather than a blockbuster show in a venerable museum.

Now the bad. There was a sign near the entrance with the usual prohibitions against taking photos with cameras or cell phones (after all, mustn't jeopardize the chance that the visitor will spend forty dollars on a poster from the store). But then it said ‘No drawing or sketching’. I simply couldn’t believe this was the case, so at one point I started doing a quick drawing of the painting ‘Interior with Goldfish’. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes one of the guards came up to me and told me that drawing wasn’t allowed. A short argument ensued, which involved the guard bringing over the supervisor when I told her that I wouldn’t stop drawing. When the head guard arrived, I told her that I had been going to art museums for more than thirty years, and not once had I been told that I couldn’t sketch. I said that I could see the reason for barring certain materials such as inks or paints, or for asking people not to stand and draw the work during crowded periods. But there was hardly anyone in the gallery at that moment, and besides, I was sitting on a bench and doing a very small quick sketch. None of this moved the head guard, of course. Rules are rules, and she insisted that drawing was just not permitted. But what amazed me was the reason she gave for this. Nothing about slowing down the crowds or going bananas and attacking the paintings with a marker pen. She said that ‘some very important collectors had loaned their paintings to the exhibition, and they didn’t want people taking photos or even drawing.’

I’m still trying to work out what the hell this means. No photos, I can just about understand – copyright, and all that. Even though the painting in question is freely visible on the internet, and you would never be able to eliminate every single unlicensed use of the image. But how is drawing a picture going to infringe someone’s sense of unique ownership of a painting? Is there some primitive animist belief at work here, that somehow I would be stealing the picture’s soul by drawing it? And what would be the difference between drawing it in the museum, or drawing it from memory, or drawing it from a picture on the internet? It seems incredible to me that it was the fact of drawing in itself that seemed to be prohibited, rather than just any imagined inconvenience it might cause to other patrons.

So therefore I have included in this blog post three images: the one that I did in front of the picture itself, one that I did from memory, and one from the internet. (They are not shown here in any particular order.) I am assuming that it is still legal to imagine a picture, and then to draw it once one has left the gallery. And I invite the owners of the picture and/or the curators of the exhibition to sue me, if they can tell which one has infringed their ridiculous interpretation of the fair use statutes.


  1. That's crazy. Every art gallery I've ever been in has had people sitting down sketching away - go into the National Gallery in London and there are dozens of them. I think you ought to submit this as a piece to a newspaper - it's completely nuts.

    Love the "rich assholes" tag.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

On my 300th blog post


It's my 300th blog post. And I seem to remember that in my 200th blog post I said that I would start quoting from John Ruskin's "Praeterita", after which this blog was named. Well, better late then never, so quotation number 2 is below.

First, though, some thoughts on this blog and blogging in general. I started Praeterita at the end of last year after reading a book by an art-marketing guru called Alyson Stansfield that recommended it as a means for artists to publicise their work better. But from the start I thought it would be more interesting to talk in a discursive way about my wider interest in art, and artists, and the history of art. After a desultory beginning where I only posted once a week, my blogging habit has now grown to the point where I am posting sometimes twice a day, and more than 45 times per month (helped enormously by the Blogger feature that lets you save blog posts with a post-dated timestamp, so that you can put posts in the bank to …

My worst open studio

Most open studios are notable for nothing really happening. You sit there waiting for people to come into your studio, eat all your nibbles and guzzle the free drink, and then leave after a cursory glance at your work. Usually, the worst thing that happens is that you get stuck in a boring conversation with a dull person,

But there was one time a few years ago when I got into one of these conversations, and quite quickly the person I was talking to started to make homophobic remarks about another artist in the building. After a few minutes, I decided I'd had enough and asked him to leave. He seemed genuinely surprised that I had any objection to what he was saying, which in retrospect makes me even angrier if he thought he had a sympathetic ear.

He asked me why, and I told him I didn't like people talking that way, and I said: "This conversation ended 30 seconds ago." So he left.

So, nothing dramatic like Jackson Pollock getting drunk in a fancy New York apartment a…

Van Gogh on Degas

From a letter dated July 31, 1888:
“Why do you say Degas can’t get it up properly? Degas lives like some petty lawyer and doesn’t like women, knowing very well that if he did like them and bedded them frequently, he’d go to seed and be in no position to paint any longer. The very reason why Degas’s painting is virile and impersonal is that he has resigned himself to being nothing more than a petty lawyer with a horror of kicking over the traces. He observes human animals who are stronger than him screwing and f—ing away and he paints them so well for the very reason that he isn’t all that keen on it himself.”
Subscribe to Praeterita in a reader