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Oklahoma City Unveils Exclusive North American Matisse Exhibition


Feel like getting your highbrow on and checking out some fine art? Head to Oklahoma City. The city's Museum of Art is now hosting a collection of 50 paintings and sculptures by Henri Matisse. For some of these works of art, this will be their only North American appearance. Kate Carlton Greer from member station KGOU has more.

KATE CARLTON GREER, BYLINE: Maury Ford gives a quick warning before unboxing one of dozens of crates at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

MAURY FORD: It's going to be very loud.

CARLTON GREER: You can feel the tension in the room. Several staffers stand in silence as Ford removes the screws one by one.


CARLTON GREER: Once the crate is open, a worker peels away layers of foam and plastic before unveiling a masterpiece.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you want to take a picture of it?

FORD: Yes.

CARLTON GREER: An assistant snaps a photo of "The Algerian" by Henri Matisse. Two others wearing crisp white gloves remove the art from its casing. Ford, who's the caretaker of the museum's collections, can't keep from smiling.

FORD: We've been looking at them on computer screens and on sheets of paper for over two years. And to see them in person, it's really spectacular.

CARLTON GREER: "The Algerian" shows a dark-haired woman donning a light blue dress with a deep neckline. It's part of a series of paintings Matisse did of women inspired by his travels to Morocco. Curator Michael Anderson says this painting is incredibly important.

MICHAEL ANDERSON: Because it predates when Matisse was most sort of focused on the subject in the 1920s or even when Picasso was emulating him much later in the '50s and '60s. This is 1909. So it's a really important work historically.

CARLTON GREER: Most of the art is on loan from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which put the show together. A Pompidou curator accompanied each shipment to Oklahoma City. The collaboration began almost four years ago, and Oklahoma City Museum of Art president and CEO Michael Whittington jumped at the opportunity.

MICHAEL WHITTINGTON: Because of the magnitude of the exhibition. And they're masterworks that have never traveled outside of Europe and will never be seen in this configuration ever again. This is a unique experience. We knew the appeal would be national and probably international.

CARLTON GREER: The exhibition has several different sections spanning the French artist's extensive career. One focuses on Matisse's paper cutouts, another on cubism. "The Algerian" is part of the odalisques room devoted to harems. Again, curator Michael Anderson.

ANDERSON: So in this section, you'll see two Matisses faced off against two Picassos. And those were two Picassos that were created in direct response, and the latter in homage, to Matisse. So this is kind of the Picasso versus Matisse section of the exhibition.

CARLTON GREER: Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse often painted similar subjects, but the finished pieces ended up remarkably differently.

ANDERSON: They're two artists that really had a great rivalry over the course of decades, so it's fun to see them side by side.

CARLTON GREER: A personal rivalry?

ANDERSON: Very much. They really kind of considered each other to be their only rivals. And so they would - one artist would paint one painting and the other would see it as a challenge and paint something in their own style to kind of respond to it. And they did that for years.

WHITTINGTON: Matisse was the bridge between the world of the impressionist of the late 19th century and modern art of the 20th century.

CARLTON GREER: Museum president Michael Whittington says Matisse even offended people with his use of color. But there's this one.

WHITTINGTON: There is a very, very important work in the exhibition, and it's in the cubist portion of the exhibition. It's a view from the French window at Collioure.

CARLTON GREER: That's an idyllic French Riviera village near the Spanish border. The town's rocky coast collides with crystal blue waters.

WHITTINGTON: And in this view, Matisse painted an open French window. But instead of a beautiful seascape beyond, it's totally black.

CARLTON GREER: Black. The painting is hard to miss in such a colorful collection.

WHITTINGTON: It stands out to most of us because it's not the Henri Matisse that we think we know. But it really is the Henri Matisse that was the revolutionary Henri Matisse.

CARLTON GREER: The painter was often panned by critics at home during his lifetime. His greatest supporters and collectors were Russian and American. Michael Whittington says it should come as no surprise that his museum is hosting an important show like this.

WHITTINGTON: Oklahoma City is a very sophisticated, highly desirable place to live where anything is possible. So why wouldn't this be in Oklahoma City?

CARLTON GREER: Because go ahead and admit it - you think of it as fly-over country. Well, if Henri Matisse were still alive, he might just say, think again. For NPR News, I'm Kate Carlton Greer in Norman, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate C. Greer
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