Matisse is breaking out all over

June is very much Matisse time on Third Street, where the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is doubling up on Henri Matisse (1869-1954), one of the most important French artists of the 20th century.

Continuing on SFMoMA’s second floor is “Matisse and Beyond: The Painting and Sculpture Collection.” Coming on Saturday to the fifth floor is “Matisse: Painter as Sculptor.”

The second-floor show, from the museum’s permanent collection, represents movements ranging from fauvism and cubism to pop and minimalism, including paintings, sculptures and works on paper by some of the most celebrated artists of the recent past. The “Painter as Sculptor” exhibit is a special show, assembled for the occasion.

Matisse was not only a great and popular artist, but he also had a good sense of humor: “I have painted almost 1,200 pictures,” he once said. “More than 2,500 of them are in the U.S.A.” Imitation and forgery are the sincerest forms of flattery.

As in painting, Matisse’s main interest in sculpture was the human form — mostly women, mostly nude.

“What interests me most,” he had written, “is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure. It is through it that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have toward life.”

Why does a painter turn to sculpting? He didn’t really; it was more of a “time-out.”

Matisse’s interest in painting, he said, was “a clarification of my ideas. I changed my method and worked in clay in order to have a rest from painting,” and “by changing the medium I do not change the goal… I do not consider my sculpture anything but an exercise.”

Matisse might have taken the matter lightly, but SFMoMA doesn’t. This is the first major U.S. exhibit of Matisse’s sculpture in nearly 40 years, assembling more than 150 works.

The strong, occasionally grotesque, lines of the sculptures will make a new, powerful impression even on those well familiar with the artist’s paintings.

As in SFMoMA’s just-concluded Picasso exhibit, the Matisse sculpture show uses intriguing side-by-side presentations. For Picasso, some of his works were shown right next to the paintings by others he influenced. For Matisse, two- and three-dimensional pieces together showcase the way themes, imagery and processes overlap in his art.

Both SFMoMA Matisse exhibits include a rich selection of works by Matisse’s peers, including Constantin Brancusi, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso and Auguste Rodin, and both deal with fauvism, the short-lived but important school with which he is most closely associated.

Named for “Les Fauves” or “wild beasts,” this outgrowth of pointillism and postimpressionism is characterized by a more primitive and less naturalistic form of expression than those two larger trends. Influenced by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, fauvism practitioners included Matisse, Albert Marquet, Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck.

Matisse: Painter as Sculptor

Where: Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco

When: 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily except closed Wednesday; until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays; exhibit closes Sept. 16

Admission: $7 to $12.50

Contact: (415) 357-4000 or www.sfmoma.org

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