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In Search of Matisse Paintings

When the Henie Onstad art museum near here received an unexpected call in June 2012 on behalf of the heirs of a French art dealer, the director, Tone Hansen, had no idea that it was the beginning of an odyssey that would end with the museum’s giving away one of its prize paintings and opening a major exhibition built around that work’s absence.
Visitors to the exhibition, “In Search of Matisse,” which runs until Dec. 13, will not be seeing “Blue Dress in a Yellow Armchair,” which the artist painted in 1937 and had been in the museum’s possession. In March 2014, the artwork was returned to the heirs of the French art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. The painting was stolen from Rosenberg’s bank vault in Libourne, France, by the Nazis after the German invasion of the country in 1940.
The discovery was made by Rosenberg’s granddaughter, the French journalist Anne Sinclair, when she went to an exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 2012. The Henie Onstad museum had lent the painting for this exhibition. Ms. Hansen said the discovery made curators at the museum here realize that the origins of 19 other paintings dating from before 1945 were not transparent. Ms. Hansen and Ana María Bresciani, a research curator, started to look into the paintings’ histories.
The paintings in the Henie Onstad exhibition include works by Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, Juan Gris and Paul Klee. The museum’s original information about their provenance was based on old stickers and labels on the back of their frames.
Further research revealed that the Klee painting had been transported before 1934, and had spent the war years safely in Bern, Switzerland, where it was the property of Lily Klee, the artist’s widow, from 1940 to 1946. Ms. Bresciani’s research also turned up the awkward fact that a companion Klee painting, unofficially known as “Im Anfang war das Wort”, had since 1968 been hanging sideways on the gallery’s wall.
In addition to the 19 paintings and the research documents, the exhibition includes works of modern art that broaden the theme of provenance beyond World War II-era paintings. One of these, “The invisible enemy should not exist,” is from Michael Rakowitz, an artist based in Chicago, and takes as its subject Iraqi artifacts stolen in the aftermath of the American-led invasion in April 2003.


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