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On 'Matisse: Radical Invention' at the Art Institute

I went to see the Matisse show at the Art Institute of Chicago recently. I have good things to say about the show, but bad things to say about the attitude to the public on the part of the show’s organizers.

The show is called ‘Matisse: Radical Invention’ and it gathers together an amazing selection of Matisse’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints from 1913 to 1917. At least half of the pieces I was seeing for the first time, even though I’ve known about them for many years. It was particularly satisfying to see so many of his prints in one place. There is a whole room of his monoprints, done using a very simple technique (basically rolling a flat layer of black ink on a copper plate, then removing some of the ink with thin strokes to leave a white line drawing). When en masse, these prints show how closely related Matisse’s printmaking was to the problems he was considering in other media. There are the sculptures, with their lumps and their clumsiness and their apparent haphazardness: the reclining nude, closely related to the painting ‘Blue Nude’; and the heads of Marguerite and the colossal nudes seen from the back, with each version becoming more abstract than the preceding one. It’s a great idea to collect a lot of work from one short period to demonstrate Matisse’s discoveries in each of these media. Quite often it felt like I’d walked into a show by a new artist, rather than a blockbuster show in a venerable museum.

Now the bad. There was a sign near the entrance with the usual prohibitions against taking photos with cameras or cell phones (after all, mustn't jeopardize the chance that the visitor will spend forty dollars on a poster from the store). But then it said ‘No drawing or sketching’. I simply couldn’t believe this was the case, so at one point I started doing a quick drawing of the painting ‘Interior with Goldfish’. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes one of the guards came up to me and told me that drawing wasn’t allowed. A short argument ensued, which involved the guard bringing over the supervisor when I told her that I wouldn’t stop drawing. When the head guard arrived, I told her that I had been going to art museums for more than thirty years, and not once had I been told that I couldn’t sketch. I said that I could see the reason for barring certain materials such as inks or paints, or for asking people not to stand and draw the work during crowded periods. But there was hardly anyone in the gallery at that moment, and besides, I was sitting on a bench and doing a very small quick sketch. None of this moved the head guard, of course. Rules are rules, and she insisted that drawing was just not permitted. But what amazed me was the reason she gave for this. Nothing about slowing down the crowds or going bananas and attacking the paintings with a marker pen. She said that ‘some very important collectors had loaned their paintings to the exhibition, and they didn’t want people taking photos or even drawing.’

I’m still trying to work out what the hell this means. No photos, I can just about understand – copyright, and all that. Even though the painting in question is freely visible on the internet, and you would never be able to eliminate every single unlicensed use of the image. But how is drawing a picture going to infringe someone’s sense of unique ownership of a painting? Is there some primitive animist belief at work here, that somehow I would be stealing the picture’s soul by drawing it? And what would be the difference between drawing it in the museum, or drawing it from memory, or drawing it from a picture on the internet? It seems incredible to me that it was the fact of drawing in itself that seemed to be prohibited, rather than just any imagined inconvenience it might cause to other patrons.

So therefore I have included in this blog post three images: the one that I did in front of the picture itself, one that I did from memory, and one from the internet. (They are not shown here in any particular order.) I am assuming that it is still legal to imagine a picture, and then to draw it once one has left the gallery. And I invite the owners of the picture and/or the curators of the exhibition to sue me, if they can tell which one has infringed their ridiculous interpretation of the fair use statutes.


  1. That's crazy. Every art gallery I've ever been in has had people sitting down sketching away - go into the National Gallery in London and there are dozens of them. I think you ought to submit this as a piece to a newspaper - it's completely nuts.

    Love the "rich assholes" tag.


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