AS Hilary Spurling delved into the life of Henri Matisse for what would become her prize-winning two-volume biography of him, she had a great idea. Believing that textiles were "the earliest and longest lasting of all the sources that fed and shaped" Matisse's imagination, she proposed to a couple of museum curators an exhibition exploring his relationship with fabrics.
The first curator, a Matisse expert in France, roared with laughter, Ms. Spurling said, and dismissed the idea out of hand. The second, in Russia, grew angry, telling her the show would debase and vulgarize the works. "You might as well have a show on Matisse and goldfish, Matisse and oranges or vases," Ms. Spurling recalls the curator saying.
But Ms. Spurling, who spent 15 years researching and writing about Matisse, was not so easily deterred. More than a decade after she first proposed the idea, the Royal Academy in London organized "Matisse, His Art and His Textiles — The Fabric of Dreams," which wowed museumgoers there; at the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, near Lille; and finally, last summer, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Curators curate; writers write; and never — or rarely — do the twain meet, it seems. As an arts reporter, I regularly thought of exhibitions, and once had the temerity to propose one — involving self-portraits — to a curator, who shrugged it off as "not art historical." Curiosity made me wonder whether others who write about art, but are not of the art world, had similar experiences.
Ms. Spurling, I learned, had. And when no curator would touch her idea, she resorted to researching it, writing the proposal and choosing the paintings. "It was a completely visual show, without art-historical credentials," Ms. Spurling said, and it was no accident that the Royal Academy, which is "run by artists," accepted the premise. "But the minute it was on the walls," she said, "no one had any difficulties with it, even in the art world among art historians."
Might other writers be as creative? Posing the question (usually by e-mail first) produced varying results. Tom Wolfe, whose 1975 sendup of modern art, "The Painted Word," was reissued most recently in 1999, fired back, verbatim:
Nice idea. Me, I'd like to see a show of the REAL art of the 20th century. The premise would be that most of the cherished non-objective and found-object art of the century consisted of experiments that should have consumed no more than two weeks of the artist's life, after which he should have moved on. As a character in Tom Stoppard's "Artist Descending a Staircase" puts it: "Imagination without skill gives us Modern Art." But first I should figure out what REAL pieces should be in the REAL show.
Weeks later, Mr. Wolfe had offered no REAL pieces (perhaps no surprise). But several writers did rise to the occasion, some with traditional ideas, others with ideas that no curator who is steeped in, and confined by, artistic tradition would propose.
CALVIN TOMKINS, the arts writer for The New Yorker who has written biographies of Marcel Duchamp and, more recently, of
"I was recently writing about Rauschenberg, and I thought that at some point someone will do a very focused show on his series of works since the 1980's," he said. "Much of that work has been dismissed, but there are always a few pieces in every series that are good." Mr. Tomkins declined to select examples.
But Jack Cowart, a former contemporary art curator at several museums who now leads the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and who worked on the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, suggested several, like "Altar Peace/ROCI Mexico," "Copperhead Grande/ROCI Chile" and "Wall-Eyed Carp/ROCI Japan." All are in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Black has been very much on the mind of Ms. Prose, whose "Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles" was published last fall. While writing the book, she said, "I thought how revolutionary, how nervy, how extraordinary his use of black was."
Then, in the spring of 2003, Ms. Prose visited the Metropolitan Museum to see "Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting," which she reviewed favorably for The Wall Street Journal. There, she said, "I kept thinking — the thing that no one is talking about, what carries over, is the black." It's almost as if Caravaggio, who no doubt influenced Velázquez, should have had a little anteroom at the Met exhibition all his own.
Caravaggio's work would inaugurate Ms. Prose's exhibition — the first work would be his "Flagellation of Christ," which is now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. Next would come a Velázquez, either "The Jester Pablo de Valladolid" or "The Adoration of the Magi," both owned by the Prado. John Singer Sargent's "Madame X," from the Met's collection, would be there, as would Manet's "Dead Toreador" from the National Gallery of Art. Taking the show into contemporary times, Ms. Prose said she would pick something by Ad Reinhart — perhaps his "Abstract Painting," 1960-66, from the Whitney Museum of American Art or perhaps "Abstract Painting No. 4," from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
TRACY CHEVALIER, the author of
"They decided to display the art mixed with artifacts," she said. "The idea is to spark some connections in a way that's not just art on a wall. They have a Modigliani next to a Polynesian mask next to whale combs."
So, she continued, she would take paintings by Gauguin, for example, and hang them alongside artifacts from Tahiti and the other Polynesian islands he lived on — "anything decorative that might have influenced Gauguin," she said.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris collaborated on just such an exhibition, "Gauguin Tahiti," in 2004. Besides his paintings, it showed the stern of a canoe, gourds, a bone pendant, a wooden club and photographs contemporary with Gauguin's expeditions to the islands.
Ms. Chevalier would confect most, if not all, exhibitions that way. "I think it would be an attraction to make a new experience for exhibitiongoers," she concluded.
HILARY SPURLING, now basking in the glow of success for both her Matisse exhibition and Matisse books, said that she has "a short list of shows I should like to put on." In a phone call from London, where she recently collected the Whitbread Book of the Year prize for her recent volume "Matisse the Master," she said, "The one I'd really like to do is for Matisse's best pupil, Olga Meerson."
Meerson, a Russian-born émigré to Munich, where she studied with Kandinsky, and then to Paris, where she met Matisse, committed suicide in 1929. "Art history," Ms. Spurling said, "has wiped her out completely."
"I told her story in the book, and now I'd like to do her justice as a painter," she continued.
Spurling's exhibition of Meerson's work would start with an enamel portrait, from 1901-02, that Meerson did of her sister-in-law, Katia Mann, Thomas Mann's wife.
The exhibition would include two portraits from 1911. One is of her, by Matisse, which is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The other Meerson did of Matisse — his only known portrait, aside from photographs, Ms. Spurling said. In contrast to the photos, which show Matisse in a suit, looking very stuffy, "she painted him lying on a couch, relaxed as a cat," Ms. Spurling added. The painting, which graced the cover of her recent volume in Britain, belongs to Meerson's family.
Meerson's Fauve work was largely derided in her time. But the portrait of Matisse was preparatory for a lost canvas that was praised by Guillaume Apollinaire when it was shown in 1911. It is also one of a handful of Meerson works Ms. Spurling has seen.
But Meerson earned her living as a portrait painter, and Ms. Spurling believes many more exist, probably in Munich and Berlin. While many works of art were lost or obliterated in the war, Ms. Spurling said, she is hopeful about rediscovering Meerson's works. "I don't think you destroy portraits," Ms. Spurling said. "Several people have already come to me with works, and maybe you can help bring out more."