I recently visited the small, but impressive collection of eight paintings in the Matisse/Odalisque exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The exhibition, showing until June 17, features four works of 'odalisques' that Henri Matisse painted over his career, as well works of the same subject by Picasso, Bazille, and Devéria. It’s a tremendous exhibit—Matisse’s works particularly. His colours and textures make for a gorgeous, visual experience, as does Picasso’s, Women of Algiers, Version I, an interesting and unique painting.
My aim with this post is to help readers experience this lovely exhibition online or in person without feeling guilty for enjoying what some consider, politically-fraught art works that represent colonialism and female exploitation with images and ideas that romanticize harems of the ‘Orient’ (a term used by Europeans to refer to North Africa, Turkey or the Middle East during the 19th and 20th century). I also give some background to the works that will help visitors enjoy the paintings that much more, and I cut through the museum-speak of the exhibit labels.
What’s the Exhibit About
The exhibit’s focus is odalisques, a French term based on the Turkish word, 'odalık' which refers to female slave or harem concubine. Though it’s unlikely that the artists featured in this exhibit actually saw a harem in Turkey (a ‘harem’ being a separate part of a Muslim household reserved for women: wives, female servants and concubines of the male (polygamists) household leaders), they do however paint the female nude using themes from the 'orient' that include harem settings, costumes and textiles as backdrops.
To appreciate the works in the exhibit it’s helpful to look at what was happening during the time the artists created the works. Artists typically don’t create in a bubble, but are influenced by current events, politics, cultural trends, even other artists’ works. We can then, view the works in the Matisse/Odalisque exhibit as a reflection of French culture during the time that the artists lived and worked (for the most part which between the late 19th and mid 20th century), which included at the time an interest in ‘oriental’ themes.
We can see these themes in Matisse’s works with his use of fabrics, costumes, and the settings he created, particularly in Odalisque with Tambourine (Harmony in Blue). It’s a carefully staged scene where his model Henriette, (a professional model employed by Matisse) wore clothing that was influenced by Matisse’s daughter, who wore a similar costume to a carnival party when she dressed up as woman from a harem. Notice too the blue North African textile behind Henriette; it’s rich in detail and colour, as is the carpet at her feet. Matisse was known for collecting fabrics and textiles (usually picked up on his travels), which he used not only as backdrops but as focal points in his paintings. Do you think the woman is the focus in Odalisque with Tambourine (Harmony in Blue) or the blue cloth backdrop?
One of the earlier works in the exhibit is Jean-Frederic Bazille’s Woman in Moorish Costume painted in his Paris studio in 1869. It takes a different approach, not using the harem setting as a backdrop (except for the sword on the wall and perhaps a tambourine on the floor?) but it focuses on the model, using her clothing as imagery associated with Orientalist themes. Nevertheless, her bare breast gives a sexual connotation.
I’m a big fan of Picasso's works (not him as a person), and his painting in this exhibit, Women of Algiers, Version I is intriguing. Picasso did a series of paintings on the subject of odalisques, titled Women of Algiers, after Matisse’s death; this version is labeled ‘I’ (there's fifteen works in the series). Picasso was inspired by not only Matisse’s odalisques, but also by an 1834 painting, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, by Eugène Delacroix (see slide show). It’s an iconic harem scene based on Delacroix’s visit to a harem he experience on a trip to Morocco where he was allowed the unusual opportunity (for a European man) to visit within a Muslim harem. Yet when you look at Picasso’s Women in Algiers, Version I painting, it barely resembles either Delacroix’s work or Matisses’. But the painting is interesting; the colours are vibrant, the subjects exaggerated, strange. What do you think Picasso was thinking when he created this? It’s worth pondering; especially when looking at the paintings of the odalisques that inspired him.
Clarifying the ‘Museum-speak’
I typically read the introductory labels that introduce an exhibition, and always appreciate those written in straightforward, non-scholarly language. Alas, they are hard to find, and though the Norton Simon is better than most, the exhibit label for the Matisse/Odalisque is a bit cumbersome as follows…
“…yet his [Matisse] colorful and daring compositions revel in imagery, and excessively decorative environments that threaten to subsume the female subject altogether. The quest to create a harmonious relationship between figure and ground was one that Matisse paused throughout his career, but in the odalisque, he found a particularly, complex and compelling theme in which to further these ambitions”
My 'Non-Museum' Translation
Matisse’s paintings are stunning—the colours and patterns Matisse uses in his textiles, the rugs, bedspreads and backdrops are vibrant, bold and gorgeous, so much so they almost overpower his female subjects. Matisse was always striving to create harmony in his works between the subjects and his textured, colourful backgrounds, and even more so when he painted the female figure. The paintings of the odalisques in this exhibit showcase Matisse’s talent, how he was able to create compelling works that highlight his mastery of colour, texture and form.
I hope you are able to view this exhibit in person, but if not, I’ve included the link to the exhibit below, along with another link to a previous Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that shares other works of Matisse that gives a different perspective.
If you want to go deeper into Matisse and the odalisque theme, see below.
“Museum Hack leads renegade tours of the world’s best museums…with guides that are smart, sassy and sarcastic”— Museum Hack’s website and YouTube video.
I signed up for Museum Hack's ‘Un-highlights Tour’—I wanted to shake things up with The Getty. Though my favorite museum where I’ve done numerous docent-led tours, I felt ready for something ‘sassy’. For the most part Getty tours are great: interesting, sometimes dry, definitely predictable. The Hack’s tours sounded anything but. According to their website the Getty tour is for, “for those who seek secretive, salacious, scandalous stories” (bring it on!), “speed walkers” (wouldn’t want it any other way), “people who don’t like museums” (okay, I can pretend)—and “it’s not your grandma’s museum tour”. So radical! I signed on and paid my $49; never mind that I happen to be a grandmother.
Saturday came. I got an email that morning reminding me of the 2:30 pm tour—where to meet, to leave time for parking, etc. and with a downloadable e-ticket. I left early to make sure I got a parking spot (I know…so non-millennial). Then got a text from ‘Vic’ our tour guide with last minute instructions and a contact number. Brilliant!
The tour did not disappoint. Vic, vivacious and edgy, enthusiastically greeted the four us. Our group likely skewed older than most. One couple was Vic’s grandpa, Ron, a seventy-five year old man with his partner, me (fifty-plus), and one other woman in her forties. Poor Vic. Yet she energetically led us on a whirlwind tour visiting a selection of her favorite works telling stories of each piece that incorporated unique and (sometimes) shocking facts. She was engaging, involving us with questions and inviting comments. No boring art history with dates, names of dead people or terms like Baroque sensibility, fluent brushwork or atmospheric landscapes. No sirree—we discussed partying, the love of wine, penises (more on that later), and heard gossipy stories of several works you wouldn’t hear from a Getty docent.
We played games too. Yes games! One was making up a who-dunnit story using paintings. Standing in front of the ‘Countess of Chesterfield’ portrait by Gainsborough, we had to create a story of who killed the Countess, how and where using the artworks in the nearby galleries. Working in teams of two, we were to take pictures of three artworks with our phones that told the story. Fun! My team determined that a jealous lover, poisoned tea biscuits and worked with the housemaid to serve them to the Countess in her salon. Dead! Another was to find a piece of artwork during the tour that represented who we were in a previous life, then take a picture and share it at the end of the tour. There would be a prize. There wasn’t much of a contest, as Ron and his partner didn’t take a picture but described vaguely who they might have been, the other woman said she would have been King Louis XIV red shoes he wore in his portrait (?!?). I chose a woman who was leading two horses in a field; I likely owned and ran a farm in my past life (boring, but the bar was low). I won a cool magnet of Van Gogh’s Iris’ painting.
The games were fun; they prompted thought and engagement. Vic did a great job introducing them; it didn’t feel awkward or weird.
As promised there were back stories about various artworks. Some salacious in nature. One was the story behind the sculpture ‘Angel of the Citadel’ which features a man sitting on a horse with an erect penis. Apparently the penis-sculpture piece disappeared one day a couple of years ago, (some Getty visitor likely has this prize mounted proudly somewhere in his or her home), and The Getty had to contact the company that had made the mold of the statue (cast in 1950) to see if they could make another phallic cast. Apparently they did, and now it is attached, and virtually impossible to remove according to Vic. My guess is it’s a popular selfie spot on most of the Hack’s tours.
Another, not so salacious but juicy nonetheless, was the kidnapping story of John P. Getty’s grandson in 1973. Vic shared, in the John P Getty exhibit space which tells (parts of) Getty’s life story, how Getty refused to pay the $17 million ransom for his grandson saying it would set a precedent for his other grandchildren. After receiving a piece of his grandson’s ear in the mail, he finally agreed to a negotiated amount of $3 million, which was the maximum amount you could claim on your income tax. Cheap!
Finally, the most shocking story of what Vic shared, is the fact that of all the artworks in The Getty’s permanent collection, only two are by female artists! Vic was more outraged than any of us. I’m so jaded.
I Want More!
The tour was stellar; it lived up to its promise as a renegade tour that’s not your traditional (grandma’s) museum tour. Museum Hack operates in five cities, New York, LA, Chicago, D.C. and San Francisco. They also offer another tour, ‘Badass Bitches’ at The Getty which I’m going to try next if I can convince some girlfriends to join me. It looks just as renegade, if not more so than the un-highlights tour given it promises to “kick some ass”. I’m in.
This post explores what it means for museums to be innovative in today’s digital culture, and describes unique, forward-thinking programs and initiatives in five different museums.
What does it mean for a museum to be innovative? When thinking of innovative companies and institutions, Amazon comes mind, as does Apple, AirBnB, even Bank of America with its digital tools that support virtual banking (like depositing a check with a smart phone). I don’t usually associate museums with innovation. Words like staid, traditional and stoic seem to describe museums best, traditional ones at least. For the most part, cultural institutions are not leading the way in offering guest-centric, unique, user-friendly experiences.
I was reminded of museums’ status as ‘traditional’ institutions in Successful Museum Management a course I’m taking with Northwestern’s Museum Studies certificate program. The instructor, a museum director of a small museum, shared a graphic illustrating strategic planning elements for museums (below); the graphic shows the mission statement and values lasting for 100 years (!).
A mission statement steers the ship so to speak. Yet a hundred years seems eons in today’s fast-paced environment when technology is drastically changing consumer behaviours. Yet it doesn’t mean that organizations can't adapt with shorter-term goals and objectives. A recent article by an experienced museum practitioner discussed the need for adaptable strategic planning, more importantly, the need for a responsive, flexible mindset that's open to change.
Easier said than done, change is hard. Yet, one only needs to look at how retail has changed over the last couple of years, the number of big retailers are defunct due to shifts in customer purchase behaviours, for example Toys R Us, Sears, K-mart and others, to see how inability to adapt led to an at-risk business model. Cultural institutions are just as vulnerable.
So how do museums adapt, become agile organizations? I don’t work in the museum sphere, but I do know that it’s leaders of organizations who act as visionaries, who assess opportunities and strengths within their organization that can lead an organization to sustainability; who know how to leverage people and resources effectively, are responsive to the environment, can create and implement strategies that meet the needs of customers (visitors) and employees.
Below are examples of museums that are innovating—are trying new, unique initiatives that disrupt traditional ways of operating. One project listed (SFMOMA’s app), is no longer operating as it was intended at launch, yet I still included it, as it’s a constructive example of how initiatives can be at risk without the support of resources and/or leaders who aren't able to adapt to change.
Grading Art: The ‘D’s Gotta Go
The Non-Curator Curated Exhibit
Fire the Curators
“Alexa, What IS This”?
At San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Tech Goes Awry
As we’ve seen with this selection of five unique initiatives, innovation IS happening within cultural institutions, change is afoot with much to look forward to. As in any industry, there are leaders and laggers, I’m going to keep my eye on the leaders and see where it takes us!
Podcasts are hot right now. A recent report on digital media trends, The Infinite Dial 2019 describes how the podcasting genre is exploding while social media use is stalling (Facebook usage continues to drop). It’s no wonder--podcasts are a portable, entertaining media for consumption, ideal for people on the go. There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts to choose from with new ones coming out every week. Yet good museum and arts podcasts are tough to find and after listening to several I found five (very) good shows I share here. They are current (recent episodes in 2019), range between 30 and 60 minutes, have excellent production quality, and most importantly feature engaging, enriching discussions and interviews —I look forward to new episodes.
Each covers a different aspect of culture; The Art Newspaper shares current news in the arts world, ArtTactic shares cutting edge initiatives in the arts world, and each show features interviews with artists on a regular basis. I’m always on the lookout for new shows; I’ll keep updating my Museum Resources page, so check back regularly!
Arts + Ideas, The Getty
Love this podcast for the variety of guests and topics, the quality and depth of interviews. It’s hosted by Jim Cuno, president of the J Paul Getty Trust. Cuno meets (usually in person) with artists, writers, curators, architects, conservators and others to discuss their work (his guests are usually affiliated with The Getty in some way). Published bi-weekly. Highlights: Cuno keeps the conversation grounded, relevant and interesting. He puts the listener first, frequently asking guests to “describe this art piece for our listeners” or “share with our listeners”. Favorite episodes were with architect Richard Gehry and one about the conservation work done on the Salk Institute.
The Art Newspaper
An excellent program out of the UK that covers current and trending topics in the world of art and culture. It’s sponsored by Bonham’s, long-time auctioneers based in London and hosted by Ben Luke. There’s also the Art Newspaper newsletter. It covers art and culture events worldwide—everything from art fairs, shows, museum exhibits and events, art auction results, AND discusses political and social issues, as well as current events related to artists, culture and museums.Published weekly. Highlights: The breadth of topics—rarely dull, frequently captivating. Sometimes features panels of guests which adds variety and diversity of perspectives.
Recently found this podcast; glad I did; it’s different and interesting. It features innovative and unique news, artists and companies involved with the art market. Interesting stuff. It’s sponsored by the company ArtTactic, a UK-based company which is (as described on its website) a progressive art market analysis firm that offers dynamic and bespoke market intelligence on the fast-paced and ever-changing global art market. Published bi-monthly. Highlights: Unique and thought-provoking. Forward thinking guests offer insights into new opportunities and ways of thinking about art, museums, exhibits and technology.
Interesting podcast by NPR; it’s tag line “a behind the scenes look at museums”, is pretty accurate. It features a variety of guests that includes museum directors and curators from from small, lesser known museums. Some episodes feature professionals affiliated with art, such as art conservators and authors. It’s hosted by Jeff Martin of Philbrook Museum of Art and produced by Scott Gregory with Public Radio Tulsa. Published bi-monthly. Highlights: features unique museums with fresh perspectives. Hosts.
The Modern Art Notes Podcast
Highly acclaimed podcast that features in-depth interviews—usually an hour long, with artists, historians, authors, curators and conservators who are usually from the United States. This was the first arts podcast I found; and loved it! It was hard to find others that met the standard of this show; the bar is high. Though sometimes some of the guests on the show, usually artists, ramble on at length discussing technical aspects of their work, but overall the episodes are interesting and thoughtful. The host Tyler Green, does a good job drawing out his guests. Published weekly. Highlights: the episode webpage usually features (numerous) excellent images of the works discussed in each show.