DMA Curator Heather MacDonald Sheds Some Light On Matisse's "Ivy In Flower"

Henri Matisse, "Ivy in Flower," 1953
Henri Matisse, "Ivy in Flower," 1953
Dallas Museum of Art

Works of art can be sensitive creatures. In many ways, they have more in common with the living than with the inanimate. Why? Because art can change. A work can change with time and with environmental conditions. Light, temperature and moisture can all affect a work.

Some works are more affected than others because of the materials from which they are made. That certainly holds true for Henri Matisse's "Ivy in Flower." Because of its sensitivity to light, it spends much of its time carefully tucked away in the Dallas Museum of Art's storage space. But from June 12 through December 11, 2011, it is on display in the museum's concourse.

We talked to Heather MacDonald, The Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator of European Art at the Dallas Museum of Art and curator of the exhibition Afterlife: The Story of Henri Matisse's Ivy in Flower, to find out more about this curious and delicate piece.

Can you describe "Ivy in Flower" in terms of composition, medium, size, etc.? "Ivy in Flower" is a large "cutout," about ten feet square. The cutout medium was a unique kind of collage that Matisse created in the 1930s. He then worked with cutouts extensively in the 1940s, and almost exclusively in the early 1950s. His cutouts were made of heavy sheets of paper that were hand-painted with opaque matte pigment by Matisse's studio assistants. Matisse would carve shapes out of the painted paper with scissors, and then arrange the cut pieces into a design with the help of his assistants. In this case, Matisse cut shapes in green, blue, and purple to represent the leaves and berries of an ivy plant, and placed them on a warm yellow background. I think it's important to point out that the cutouts were made with painted, rather than colored, paper because when you come to see "Ivy in Flower" in person, you can really tell that every single piece of paper is hand-crafted.

What's the history behind this piece? "Ivy in Flower" was intended to be a design for a large stained-glass window. In other words, it was a working model, in addition to being a work of art itself. The window was supposed to be part of the mausoleum of Albert Lasker, a prominent businessman who was also an art collector. He owned several Matisse paintings, and he and his wife had fallen in love with Matisse's stained-glass windows for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France. His widow asked Matisse to design the window, expecting it to be similar to the windows he had designed for Vence, but when she saw the cutout, she decided that she didn't like "Ivy in Flower's" yellow background and rejected the design.

Where was "Ivy in Flower" before it came to the DMA? When Mrs. Lasker decided not to go forward with the window commission, she was left with the cutout. In 1956 she loaned it to the Matisse family for a retrospective exhibition, and they had the window fabricated for the exhibition. Matisse had always wanted the cutout to go to a museum, and Mrs. Lasker put it on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago. But in 1957, when her close friend Betty Marcus asked her to contribute one artwork from her collection to the new Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, Mrs. Lasker chose "Ivy in Flower." In 1963, the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts merged with the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and "Ivy in Flower" became one of the most important modernist works in the merged collection.

At what point in Matisse's career did he create this piece? Matisse made this cutout near the end of his life. He died in 1954, the year after completing "Ivy in Flower." Even though he was quite frail and unable to paint anymore in his final years, the cutout medium let him keep working with the help of his studio assistants. He made a large group of important works using this very personal technique during the last few years of his life.

Why is this piece so particularly light sensitive? Because "Ivy in Flower's" support [the material to which the paint is applied] is paper rather than wood, metal, or canvas, it will be damaged over time by light exposure. The paper will gradually become darker and more brittle as it is exposed to light. The pigments will also fade. We try to slow that process down as much as possible by showing our works on paper [drawings, prints, photographs, and collages] for only a few months at a time. Then, they need to be kept in dark storage for a few years before they can be shown again. That way, we preserve the vibrancy of works like "Ivy in Flower" for future generations.

What did its sensitivity mean in relation to the work's delivery when it was acquired? "Ivy in Flower" lives in our onsite storage vault, so it only had to ride up in the elevator from the basement. It is incredibly heavy, though, because it's so large and especially because of the thick pane of Plexiglas protecting its surface, so it is always a challenging work for the art handlers to move and install.

In what way did lighting affect how and where it was hung? We need to be sure that "Ivy in Flower" is installed in an area far from natural sources of light, so that we can control the light level and keep it very low. The Concourse gallery was perfect because the work hangs really far away from any windows or skylights, which are everywhere in our building. The cutout looks brilliantly vivid there, even with low lighting.

Does it have to receive special care while at the DMA? When the work is not on view, it is stored wrapped in brown paper to prevent any light reaching it when the lights are turned on and off in our art storage area. When it is on view, like now, our wonderful - and very gentle - collections maintenance assistants carefully clean the frame and Plexiglas to be sure that no smudges or fingerprints interfere with viewing the work.

Why is this piece worth a visit to the DMA? I think that "Ivy in Flower" is a work of art that conveys complete joy in nature. Even though it was made for a mausoleum, it's not at all melancholy. I really wanted to use this installation of the cutout to reconstruct its history, which is full of unexpected twists and turns, and also to hint at what the Lasker Mausoleum might have looked like if the window had been completed. The story ends with an animated rendering of the mausoleum with "Ivy in Flower" in place, which no one has ever seen before this exhibition.

"Ivy in Flower" is on display at the Dallas Museum of Art through December 11. Call 214-922-1200 or visit for tickets and more information.

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