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Van Ryzin: The latest in cultural event cinema? Blockbuster exhibits

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Opera purists balked when the Metropolitan Opera began to broadcast its productions to movie theaters across the country with its “Live in HD” series in 2006.

But the series proved a success. Met Opera simulcasts screen in such far-flung places as Albania, the Philippines and Uruguay. And performances by the Bolshoi Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Canada’s premiere Shakespeare presenter, the Stratford Festival, are a regular part of the roster of cultural “event cinema.”

Now “Exhibition on Screen” is the latest fine arts experience to find its way to the big screen — the blockbuster museum exhibit.

The series launched last week with “Matisse from MoMA and Tate Modern,” billed as both an in-depth and behind the scenes look at “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” the exhibit jointly organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Modern.

Focused on the last decade of Matisse’s life and long career, “The Cut-Outs” marshals more than 100 colorful abstract paper compositions, a radically new and vibrant kind of artwork the French master introduced in the 1940s.

Assembled from public and private collections around the world, the show brings many important works into public view for the first time.

Critically lauded, “The Cut-Outs” broke attendance records while at the Tate last year. At MoMA through Feb. 10, it recently counted its half-millionth visitor.

Executive producer and director Phil Grabsky spent about a year documenting the exhibit and its preparation.

The resulting 90-minute film uses a fairly predictable formula seen in many a documentary.

Lingering close-ups of individual works of art combine with high-definition footage from cameras moving (sometimes a little too rapidly) through the galleries. There’s commentary from museum leaders and interviews with curators and the conservators charged with resuscitating the delicate paper artworks. A few of Matisse’s now elderly studio assistants offer particularly intimate observations. And there’s grainy color footage of the French artist at work in his studio in the Mediterranean city of Vence.

What does surprise — and push the film beyond the usual documentary — are two artistic interpretations of Matisse’s cut-outs. Royal Ballet choreographer Will Tuckett created a short ballet for dancer Zenaida Yanowsky, who performs in brightly colored leotards mirroring Matisse’s vivid palette. And British jazz musician Courtney Pine offers his improvisational musical riff.

Obviously, nothing substitutes for seeing a work of art in person. But with expert commentary and the backstage glimpses of how a major exhibition goes together and how delicate works of art must be shored up before going on view, “Matisse from MoMA and Tate Modern” offers a better than average armchair art viewing experience.

The “Exhibition on Screen” series continues with “Rembrandt from the National Gallery London & Rijksmuseum Amsterdam” (Feb. 24), “Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam” (April 14), “Girl With a Pearl Earring and Other Treasures from the Mauritshuis in the Hague” (June 23) and “The Impressionists from the Musée de Luxembourg, Paris, National Gallery, London, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art” (July).

The “Exhibition on Screen” series shows at several Austin movie theaters. Check www.exhibitiononscreen.com for tickets and show times.