Matisse: The Seduction of Michelangelo, Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia

“Forgive me but I’ve been completely ensnared by a woman. I’m spending all my time with her and I think I’ll definitely be staying here for the rest of the winter,” wrote Matisse to his friend Albert Marquet in January 1918. The woman who had captured Matisse’s imagination was “Night” by Michelangelo, a plaster cast of which Matisse had discovered in the local art school.

Made to grace the tomb of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, in the Medici Chapel in Florence, “Night” is among the great masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture. A fusion of languid curves and taut muscle, her nude body twisted at the waist in extreme contrapposto to suggest both post-coital lassitude and coiled tension, she is an incontrovertible affirmation of the human figure at its most desirable, powerful and complex.

As the 1920s unfolded, Matisse drew the statue, or variations on it, obsessively. “This drawing marks real progress in my study of form,” he wrote. “And I hope that tomorrow my painting will feel the benefit.”

Given the level of Matisse’s engagement with the 16th-century sculptor, it is remarkable that this is the first exhibition devoted to the rapport. Cuts to Italy’s arts budget impeded the long-term planning necessary for heavyweight loans from, for example, the Hermitage so there is a dearth of A-list oils. However, an enthralling interplay of sculptures, drawings, lithographs, paper cut-outs and a handful of paintings reveal new truths about a painter about whom so much has already been said.

Instead of Matisse the harbinger of sensual bonheur, we meet a colder, more conceptual master. For those ravishing triumphs of colour and form were the hard-won fruits of tireless drawing, sculpting and dozens of other, far less felicitous, paintings. This show presents the scaffolding behind Matisse’s genius. Much of it is glorious and all of it is fascinating.

On first consideration, empathy between the virtuoso colourist and the Renaissance sculptor is not obvious. Yet Michelangelo’s credo that his task was to reveal the form imprisoned with the stone was not so far from Matisse’s desire to “dominate reality and by extracting its substance, reveal it to itself”. Yet unlike Michelangelo, who felt he was revealing God’s creation, Matisse saw an object’s essence as bound up with his own “artistic personality”.

The sculpture that opens this show, “The Serf” (1900-1903), is a passionate cry of self-expression. It began as a response to Rodin, who used the same model in “Walking Man”, but the result – with trunk-like torso, thrust-out genitals and fissured surface – exudes a boiled-down machismo missing from Rodin’s classical figure.

This desire for an “essential form” blessed even his Fauvist paintings with structural harmony. The outstanding painting here, “Nude in a Wood” (1906), is ostensibly an unruly tapestry of lime, emerald, raspberry and lilac, yet its swerves and blotches coalesce around the central figure whose limbs sing out with clarity.

During Matisse’s early career, Michelangelo was one of many influences. The audio guide suggests that his encounter with a cast of the master’s “Crouching Boy” on a trip to Florence in 1907 spawned “Small Bust, Crouching”. But this bronze nugget of muscle-taut, existential trauma owes just as much to Rodin. Much more evocative of the master but not present here is Matisse’s “Reclining Nude, Aurora” (1907), whose shameless, full-frontal sprawl clearly derives from the eponymous statue, also in the Medici chapel.

However, the encounter with “Night” – a cast of which is present here – occurred at a moment when Matisse needed to change direction. After spending the war years wrestling with cubism, his work had been invaded by a sombre angularity.

As he contemplated Michelangelo’s deity, Matisse rediscovered his sense of the human form. Working with a favourite model, Henriette, he developed a voluptuous yet sturdy figure, seen in drawings such as “Reclining Nude” (1923) and Sitting Nude” (1919). Often depicted with one or both arms above her head and one knee bent, her lazy, androgynous confidence reflects Michelangelo’s custom of working from male models.

Unlike Michelangelo, for whom sculpture was the primary art, Matisse “took to clay in order to rest from painting”. Nevertheless, he took the practice intensely seriously. On show here, his “Large, Seated Nude” (1922-1929) only came to fruition after seven years of sessions so physically gruelling they made his feet bleed. With arms locked behind her head, the figure – fluid, muscular, featureless, in contrapposto – is a triumph of modernist form.

The interwar decades effortfully saw Matisse struggle more than ever before with the synthesis of form and colour. In his striving for harmony, he sometimes included sculptures within the canvases. On loan from Washington National Gallery, “Pianist and Checker Players” (1924) features a copy of Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” – a cast of which Matisse possessed and is on show here – standing on a chest of drawers. Yet its icy cascade, with the black-and-white striped jackets of the players, strikes a chill, discordant note against the patterned rugs and wallpaper of the sitting room.

So laboriously achieved, Matisse’s formal skills risked over-complicating his vision. In 1931, he was commissioned to paint the mural “The Dance” for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. To confront the spatial challenges of the project, Matisse cut out the figures in paper and pinned them on to the canvas. The results proved a revelation. “Nothing comparable was ever invented, before or afterwards, to resolve the problem of form and colour,” declared the Surrealist painter André Masson.

The last rooms here are dedicated to the découpages to which Matisse devoted his final years. A set of gouaches inspired by the paper cut-outs he made for his illustrated book Jazz (1947) include three versions of “The Lagoon”. Here, Matisse surrenders to pure abstraction, setting his jubilant, undulating patterns racing across the canvas like waves. Such enigmatic calligraphies appear the antithesis of Michelangelo. Matisse himself declared: “To cut ... directly into colour reminds me of the gesture of sculpture.”

Michelangelo, who had a famously uneasy rapport with colour, might have been jealous of his scissors.

Until 12 June 2011.

Museo di Santa Giulia

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.