Matisse and his “Aubergine Interior”: itinerary of a little-known masterpiece

In the fourth room of the “Matisse, comme un roman” exhibition, which begins on October 21 at the Center Pompidou, in Paris, Aurélie Verdier, its curator, has hung a single painting, dated 1911, Eggplant interior, lit with a warm light. The work traveled from Grenoble, where it is exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts. For a few months, she will therefore be Parisian. Obvious for Aurélie Verdier, who sees in her “The most important painting by Matisse preserved in French public collections”.

At first glance, however, nothing spectacular. The matte painting does not have the bold colors of the famous Romanian blouse (1940), a stylized portrait of a woman on a red background, dominated by an embroidered shirt with wide sleeves, also shown in the exhibition. Nor does it have the extraordinary format of The Dance of Paris (1932), triptych of female nudes whose schematized bodies announce his late paper cutouts, housed in the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. Besides, is it a still life or a landscape?

Impossible to say. The art critic Robert Rey, who had seen him in Matisse’s studio, had nevertheless left quite stunned by a painting capable of “To close effortlessly, over you, like arms”. The canvas could indeed have been painted in acid, so much the floor, the walls, the mirror, the window merge with a play of flat and almost psychedelic floral motifs. For the poet Dominique Fourcade, who made himself its meticulous exegete in his essay “Dreaming of three aubergines” (Critique, May 1974), here is the most “Radically decorative” by Matisse.

A mystery

More than a century after its creation, this work, which traps the gaze by eliminating any order of reading, retains its mystery. Why “The most important painting by Matisse preserved in France” is it so little known to the general public? While art historians believe they have documented with precision every gesture of the great master, the journey of this work makes it an almost unique case, a canvas that alone sums up the passion of foreign collectors for the painter and his complex relationship with French museums, Eggplant interior being the first important painting to enter the French public collections – in 1922, in Grenoble therefore.

French museums have since caught up with the boat, especially the Center Pompidou, which has no less than 223 works by the painter. More generally, Matisse is a world star, collected all over the world, whose retrospectives attract crowds: 900,000 visitors to MoMA, New York, in 1993; 562,622 visitors to the Tate, London, in 2014; 495,000 in Beaubourg, in 2012. The Chtchoukine exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in 2016-2017, which welcomed 1.2 million visitors, presented numerous paintings by the Frenchman.

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