Matisse has been so assiduously promoted by generations of critics, curators, and historians as the prophet of the big, bold, knock-your-socks-off decorative canvas that it can come as a wonderful surprise to see a more intimate, ruminative side of his art in a jewel box of a show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. With the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) closed for extensive renovations, some of its collections are being showcased around the Bay Area, and what you find at the Legion of Honor is a savory selection of small- to medium-sized Matisse paintings (plus a few drawings and bronzes) that brings you face to face with an imagination by turns and sometimes almost simultaneously analytic, anarchic, and outrageous. The show—contained in a single gallery and including not only the SFMOMA Matisses but also works from other museums and collections around the city—is a miniaturized powerhouse. I’d call this essence of Matisse.
The show is also a nifty piece of San Francisco history. And some history lessons are definitely in order, at a time when the new Silicon Valley San Francisco is by many accounts at odds with not only the old bohemian San Francisco that’s being forced out of rent-stabilized housing but also with the aristocratic Pacific Heights San Francisco that for generations supported the city’s opera, ballet, and museums. What you learn if you spend a bit of time with this show (and pick up the elegant little catalogue, Matisse and San Francisco) is that San Francisco’s Matisses as well as the city’s Matisse collectors are at the very heart of the story of modern art. Many of the works in this show were at one time or another owned by the Steins, the siblings Leo and Gertrude and Michael and Michael’s wife Sarah, who hailed from the Bay Area and were among the earliest and most ardent of Matisse’s and Picasso’s supporters. Who doesn’t delight in the adventures that these restless, well-to-do young Jewish aesthetes from Northern California embraced in the studios and galleries of Left Bank Paris? It gets even better, because Alice B. Toklas, the other half of the most famous lesbian couple of the mid-twentieth-century, was also from Northern California. Northern California’s incipient avant-garde met Paris’s veteran avant-garde, and the rest is mainstream modernist history. Matisse’s forthright, austere portraits of Michael and Sarah are among the treasures of SFMOMA, as is the ravishingly colored oil study for Matisse’s The Joy of Life, which you can see hanging on the wall in a famous photograph of Michael and Sarah’s apartment on the rue Madame in Paris in 1907, where they are having a meal with Matisse.
Sarah and Michael ended up back in the Bay Area, living in Palo Alto, where Sarah sold off her collection piece by piece, to pay the debts of a beloved, improvident grandson. San Francisco friends bought some of the paintings and donated them to SFMOMA—so they would remain in the city. Instrumental in these efforts was a younger friend of Sarah’s, Elise S. Haas, a niece of Levi Strauss. And gathered together, the paintings exude a sobering hedonism (if such a thing is imaginable) that is not out of place amid San Francisco’s own fog-bound hedonism. I am reminded—thinking of the Francophile collectors who came from here and the great French artist whose career they gave such a precious early boost—that Paris and San Francisco have long had a mysterious affinity. In the nineteenth century, San Francisco had the reputation of being the Paris of America, a city full of French restaurants, and with a Parisian feeling for erotic freedom and a Parisian sense of Sunday not as a day devoted to God but as a day for promenades, picnics, and sundry pleasures. And you could still feel all of that when I was an adolescent in the Bay Area in the 1960s. One of the great old San Francisco department stores, dating back to the nineteenth century, was City of Paris. And who can forget what was then among the very few really good sourdough breads in America, Parisian, with its nifty red, white, and blue paper wrapper? After high school classes, I would stop on the way home on my bike to pick up one of the Parisian loaves marked “Extra Sour” at the supermarket.
These were among the associations that came to mind in the beautiful room at the Palace of the Legion of Honor where “Matisse from SFMOMA” is now on view. The show reaches from tiny, speculative landscapes and still lifes done around 1900 when Matisse was just starting out, to a study of two elegantly dressed women titled The Conversation (1938), one of a fascinating group of late-career paintings in which bold color is laid down with a speculative ease more familiar from the graphic arts. Missing from the show—due to loan restrictions—is the most famous of SFMOMA’s Stein Matisses, the Woman with a Hat, which Leo and Gertrude rescued from the jeering crowds at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. But even without that dazzling experiment in coloristic counterpoint this little show makes a very big case—a case for the extent to which Matisse’s radical discoveries are grounded in inwardness and intimism, a side of the artist not much on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I am reminded that Richard Diebenkorn, whose formidable early figures and landscapes owe much to this melancholic-radical side of Matisse, visited Sarah Stein’s house in Palo Alto and saw some of her Matisses when he was a student at Stanford in the early 1940s. At the Legion of Honor right now, Matisse, the Steins, Paris, and San Francisco are fascinatingly, brilliantly aligned.