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Enduring Influence: Matisse/Diebenkorn at SFMOMA

When French artist Henri Matisse visited San Francisco in 1930, he stayed at the St. Francis Hotel by Union Square, and he went to all the tourist spots: Fisherman’s Wharf, Twin Peaks, Steinhart Aquarium. No doubt he ate his fair share of salt water taffy and clam chowder in a bread bowl–whether he invested in an ill-advised “I heart SF” sweatshirt is undetermined.
Already popular with collectors in California by this time, Matisse was greeted by a fan club of sorts upon his arrival. Artist Richard Diebenkorn, who lived in San Francisco, was only eight years old at this time and was not among the aficionados who met the painter upon his arrival, but his intimacy with Matisse’s work would remain with Diebenkorn even as his artistic aesthetic grew and changed over the course of his career.
In a recent talk at the Manetti Shrem Museum, Janet Bishop, SFMOMA’s Thomas Weisel Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture, explored the formative relationship between Matisse and Diebenkorn that developed into the show Matisse/Diebenkorn at SFMOMA, through May 29. A co-curator of the show, Bishop described the process of putting the show together alongside fascinating biographical tidbits and intricacies of the artists’ work.
The exhibition includes 100 representative paintings and drawings—40 by Matisse and 60 by Diebenkorn—that showcase connections in subject, style, color, structure and technique.
Henri Matisse (1869–1954) is most well-known for his use of the vibrant colors of fauvism and for such landmark works as The Dance (1909-10), The Goldfish (1912) and Woman with a Hat (Femme au chapeau) (1905).
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) is recognized for his extended early abstract work and for his later more representational mode of painting and drawing landscapes, figure studies and still lifes. Location was an important influence on the artist’s work—apparently he blacked out the windows in his Urbana studio, a city that was visually “not his cup of tea”— with most of his cycles of drawings and paintings being named after the locations he was living in (the Urbana period, the Berkeley period, the Ocean park period).
Diebenkorn and Matisse never met, but Diebenkorn saw and sought out work by Matisse at the homes of collectors like Sarah Stein and at museums like the Phillips Collection and the Hermitage. He also studied books about the artist in his home and added color prints to them to create references he could return to again and again.
As Bishop explained during her talk, the connections between Matisse and Diebenkorn range from immediately recognizable to subtle enough that they emerged slowly, even for the curators of the show. For instance, Diebenkorn described Matisse’s Studio, quai Saint-Michel (1916)  as “the big one,” making it more a straightforward project to trace its influence as a touchstone for future works including Urbana #4 (1953). Other links were less explicit and emerged through details like a photo of Diebenkorn’s childhood bedspread and unobtrusive floral patterns lingering in the background of paintings by both artists.
The connection between the painters was also defined by humor. Diebenkorn’s Still Life with Orange Peel (1953), which shows a less-than-appetizing orange peel, a rotten lemon and a bottle of turpentine, is a playful homage to Matisse’s carefully-composed Lemons on a Pewter Plate (1926).
Bishop ended the lecture by detailing the surprising nuts and bolts of putting together the exhibition. One suspenseful anecdote described a painting that, because of curatorial caution, could not be removed from its crate until moments before the show opened. Luckily, when it was finally unpacked, it was individually striking, but it sang forth with even greater visual impact beside the image with which it had been paired.
–Jennifer Tinonga-Valle, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of English

This page was last updated: May 8, 2017



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