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Press Agent's Dream: a Dash of Ready-Made Publicity for the Matisse Show

NO doubt about it, Parisians would have gone to the Matisse exhibition anyway.

Less than two months after New Yorkers and company finished going nuts over the Museum of Modern Art's Matisse extravaganza, the Pompidou Center's more focused approach to the artist was virtually certain to be a success.

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Still, there's nothing like a little controversy to augment an exhibit's "must-see" aura and swell the ranks of willing crowd battlers. And as "Matisse 1904-1917" opened late last month in Paris, Irina Shchukin provided the dash of intrigue.

"Will Matisse be taken down?" teased the Paris daily Le Figaro on its front page Feb. 26, the day after the exhibit was inaugurated. That same morning, Mrs. Shchukin asked a French court to remove from the exhibit two dozen paintings that her late father Sergei Shchukin had collected in Russia after the turn of the century. She said her action was driven by his wishes to return the works back to the City of Moscow.

Along with their removal, she was even asking that the exhibition's 40,000 catalogs be impounded.

Lively talk of the Shchukin affair - which included the nationalization of her Russian industrialist father's vast collection - filled French radio programming and prime-time television news.

These days, with giant exposition posters of one of the Shchukin paintings, "La Danse," gracing numerous Paris subway stations, the desire to see Matisse - and especially these Matisse works - has turned to urgency.

Even though Shchukin's attorney has now withdrawn the demand that the paintings be seized, and although no one believes Shchukin will succeed in having the catalogs removed, she has unwittingly managed to add spice to what had been a modestly publicized cultural event. The lines at the Pompidou are swelling accordingly.

For decades, long lines have been a badge of honor for major Paris expositions. (One Paris journalist mockingly estimates that lines for an earlier Pompidou exhibit on Vienna as a modern art influence stretched east, almost into Austria. The success of that exhibit surprised many observers.)

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And before Irina Shchukin came along, there were no signs that the Pompidou would use any of the crass commercial methods of the day to hype its Matisse exhibit and guarantee it blockbuster status.

That a Matisse exhibit was imminent could have easily escaped even a well-informed Parisian until the media began spotlighting it and subway posters went up the week of the opening.

Perhaps the Pompidou Center took a lesson from last year's mammoth Toulouse-Lautrec retrospective at Paris's Grand Palais.

Despite extravagant publicizing and hyping through exhibition-related paraphenalia, including replicas of the artist's signature cane, the show was not considered a huge public success.

Parisians may be as susceptible as anyone to a little intrigue, but what they still follow most is word of mouth.

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