JOHANNESBURG — The South African schoolgirl leaned close to the Matisse painting.
“I like the blue and yellow of the dress the woman is wearing. And then there is the bright red background,” she said. “And the drawing of her face is simple but strong.”
For the first time, Africa is hosting an exhibit devoted to Henri Matisse. The show in Johannesburg features more than 80 works, including a painting that points to how the continent inspired Matisse and his contemporary, Pablo Picasso.
The exhibit of bold line drawings and vibrantly colored stencils also includes one of Matisse’s first drawings as a student and one of his final paintings, the portrait described by the student, completed shortly before his death in 1954.
“He collected many African art objects, particularly masks and figurines from Central and West Africa,” said Federico Freschi, dean of art at the University of Johannesburg and co-curator of the show that runs through Sept. 17, “Henri Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning.”
“Matisse also collected a number of African textiles. He had a particular interest in textiles. So he collected many Kuba cloths, for example, and also various North African fabrics, particularly the sort of cotton appliqué work that is well-known in Africa. And those things find their way into his work in various ways,” Freschi said.
Because this is the first Matisse exhibit in Africa, the show is broad in scope to allow space for learning and engagement, Freschi said. Most of the works were loaned by the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambresis , the town where the artists grew up. Others came from the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Matisse Museum in Nice , the Matisse family and private collections.
One painting features a small African sculpture, a carved wooden figurine that Matisse bought at a curio shop in Paris in 1906. He brought the sculpture to a lunch at Gertrude Stein’s and showed it to Picasso, who was fascinated by it, Stein later recounted. Picasso soon collected African sculptures and masks, and many critics say his interest in African art led to his development of Cubism.
Young artists at the Johannesburg exhibit gathered excitedly around the plates from Matisse’s famed Jazz series.
“I like many of his paintings … they are so perfect,” said Shaunti Hlongwane, 15, who came with other students from his art class at New Model School. “The colors, I love all of the colors that he used, so he gave me many ideas when I want to paint.”
Students are meant to interact with Matisse’s works, said Sibusiso Ngwenya, art facilitator at New Model School. “We want to encourage the students to think about what they feel in response to the art and then in response to create their own artworks and their own performances.”
Ngwenya said he was especially pleased to expose his students to Matisse. “His use of color, the line work. The students look at it and they see simplicity and purity and it inspires them. They think, ‘This is something I can do!'”