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The music that pulsates through 'Matisse in the 1930s'

Installation view of Matisse in the 1930s exhibition.
Courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Installation view of Matisse in the 1930s exhibition.

The culminating gesture of Matisse in the 1930s, a major exhibition now at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, features a tantalizing play of sound and image against a gallery wall. The footage, in grainy black and white, comes from a 1939 performance of Rouge et Noir — a ballet set to Dmitri Shostakovich's First Symphony, and inspired by the work of Henri Matisse, who costumed the dancers and created the set design.

Music not only inspired Matisse’s paintings, but was also a great influence on his work in general, and played a major part in his life and the life of his family. Five years in the making, Matisse in the 1930s culled works from all over the world, and is a time capsule of the ebbs and flows of Matisse’s professional life during that artistically groundbreaking decade. While many styles and themes emerge out of his inspiration in this period, his relationship to music serves as a persistent through-line.

Matthew Affron, curator of 'Matisse in the 1930s'
Nate Chinen
Matthew Affron, curator of 'Matisse in the 1930s'

Matthew Affron is the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art in the Department of European Painting and Sculpture and the curator of the exhibit. I joined him for a recent stroll through the galleries, where he offered a deep insight into Matisse, his work, and the effect music had on his creative process.

“We know that he was interested in music, because he would notate in his daybooks and his diaries, sometimes, things that he heard on the radio,” Affron says. “He listened to what we call classical music these days; he also listened to jazz. He was interested in folk music. He had a collection of records; he attended concerts. Music was a very important part of his life.”

Matisse not only listened to music on the radio and phonograph, but also played it as well. He was a fine amateur violinist — and during painting excursions, in addition to his art supplies, he often brought his instrument, which makes an appearance in The Moorish Screen, a 1921 painting featured in Matisse in the 1930s.

Matthew Affron on 'The Moorish Screen' (1921)

Installation view of 'Le Chant' (1938) from 'Matisse in the 1930s.'
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Installation view of 'Le Chant,' from 'Matisse in the 1930s.'

Two showstoppers in the exhibition involve music directly. This first is a large 1938 canvas titled Le Chant (“The Song”). Measuring more than nine feet high and six feet wide, this painting came about as a commission from the wealthy art collector Nelson Rockefeller — also a future Governor of New York, and Vice President under Gerald Ford — as a mantlepiece for his wood-paneled Manhattan penthouse apartment. Rockefeller gave Matisse free rein as to the subject, and the artist chose music as his theme.

“Clearly the subject is a woman singing, and the enjoyment that her companions are deriving from listening to her,” says Affron. “We know, from things that Matisse wrote, that he made a connection between the beauty of music and the sinuous, brightly colored visual organization of a picture like this. He thought that painting needed to hit you expressively the way music does, through the underlying rhythm of its forms.”

Matthew Affron on 'Le Chant' (1938)

The second showstopper, and in many ways a final flourish, revolves around the aforementioned Rouge et Noir (“Red and Black”). Affron connects the ballet to a separate work that will be familiar to Philadelphia museum-goers: a stunning Matisse mural down the Ben Franklin Parkway at the Barnes Foundation, titled The Dance.

Matisse's 'The Dance'
Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation
Henri Matisse, 'The Dance' (1932-33). Oil on canvas; three panels.

That piece, a commission from Dr. Albert Barnes, helped inspire Matisse at a low point in his artistic career. Three arches frame undulating gray figures against a red, blue and black background — at a massive scale, spanning the length of the main gallery.

In addition to energizing Matisse, this painting inspired Léonide Massine, artistic director of the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, to seek out the artist for a possible collaboration. Together they envisioned Rouge et Noir as a ballet about humanity’s struggle with good and evil. Massine was the one who drew a connection between The Dance and Shostakovich’s First Symphony, which he called “a vast mural in motion.”

The dancer Alicia Markova in costume for 'Rouge et Noir,' 1939.
Carl Van Vechten
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography
The dancer Alicia Markova in costume for 'Rouge et Noir.'

Matisse, for his part, embraced the parallel. “He made studies of dancers, some of which clearly relate to the Barnes dance mural that he had completed five or six years before — proving, if there were any question about it, that the project he had done for Philadelphia for the Barnes Foundation continued to animate his artistic imagination,” says Affron. “What he was doing was finding a different way to express the subject.”

“The backdrop he designed in three immense arches, which simply recall the arches under the ceiling in the main gallery at the Barnes Foundation,” Affron continues, as the Shostakovich plays behind him. “No figures on the backdrop, because the figures are the living dancers themselves, wearing these very modern costumes, consisting of bodysuits with flamelike designs in five or six colors.”

The exhibition combines footage of the 1939 ballet, set to Shostakovich’s music. (That gallery is just visible in the installation view below.)

Installation view of 'Matisse in the 1930s' exhibition.
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Installation view of 'Matisse in the 1930s' exhibition.
Matthew Affron on 'Rouge et Noir'

“The interesting part of this for me is that I needed a way to represent this lost ballet in a satisfying and hopefully spectacular way in the galleries in Philadelphia,” says Affron. “I was fortunate to be able to borrow some of the designs that he created to prepare the project.” Then he happened upon an even bigger windfall: 10 minutes of silent footage filmed by Chicago dance critic Ann Barzel, when Ballets Russe brought the ballet through town in 1939.

In consultation with Beatrice Jona Affron, music director and conductor of Philadelphia Ballet — and, fortuitously, his sister — he then selected excerpts of the Symphony, “to marry the films with carefully chosen extracts of the original music by Shostakovich.” (With a perfect deadpan, Affron adds: “This proves that it’s sometimes good to have an expert in the family.”)

Matisse attended the premiere of Rouge et Noir, reportedly enjoying not only the performance but also the fact that Massine asked him to sign his name in bold black letters prominently across the front curtain — so that the audience would know who was responsible for the look of the ballet. Matisse in the 1930s invites us to consider how deeply he engaged with music in the years leading up to this late triumph, and how central that influence was on this storied phase of his singular career.

Matisse in the 1930s is on view exclusively at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, through Jan. 29; purchase tickets here. Special thanks to Matthew Affron and Norman Keyes.

A veteran broadcaster, Kevin garnered a wealth of experience in radio before taking the weekday classical host position from 2 to 6 PM at WRTI, where he was on the air until his retirement in March 2023.