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Matisse at MoMA

A review of Matisse: Radical Invention: 1913-1917 at the Museum of Modern Art (July 18 - October 11, 2010)

The exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention: 1913-1917, at the Museum of Modern Art (July 18 - October 11, 2010) offers a compelling case to reassess a famous painter too often and too easily taken for granted. Even the most casual of art lovers are in love with the paintings of Henri Matisse (1869–1954) - the sensual bright colors, the nudes encircled in a dance, the sumptuous French interiors, the Jazz cutouts, and his exotic decorative patterns. A good Matisse poster seems to always perk up a dull room. Looking at many Matisse can provide a quick escapist vacation whether it's a window opening to the southern coast of France or to the cliffs of Tangiers. Such a one-sided view of Matisse, however, shortchanges the artist. It's hard to remember that the artwork, so loved now, was once considered by critics to represent an affront to respectable art. The exhibit at MoMA brings the experimental and avant-garde Matisse back into proper perspective.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)
The Piano Lesson. 1916
Oil on canvas. 96 ½ x 83 ¾” (245.1 x 212.7 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
© 2010 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The exhibit begins several years after Matisse's solo debut at Ambroise Vollard's gallery and the group exhibit of the Fauves. The works from 1905, especially compared to the subdued palette on display in the MoMA exhibit, come across as insane with color, a garish infraction of the rules. You can see where critic Camille Mauclair was coming from when he pronounced, "A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public." An exhibition at the 1910 Salon d'Automne of two murals, La Danse (Dance) and La Musique (Music), two works signifying a shift in emphasis and made for collector Sergei Shchukin, met with equally harsh critical reception. The artist flees to Spain and Morocco, absorbs new lessons of decorative art and color theory and returns to Paris. The MoMA exhibit includes this valuable prequel, establishing patterns (quite literally) and themes for the artist's developing visual language. He also returns to Paris life more of a Cubist, fixating on geometric forms, a more reserved palette, and a willingness to edit information down to the lowest linear denominator. Importantly, we see Matisse making decisions in his studio, the sort that involves the intellect more than the senses.


Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954).
Bathers with a Turtle, 1907–08. Oil on canvas,
179.1 x 220.3 cm (70 1/2 x 87 3/4 in.)
Saint Louis Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr., 24:1964.
© 2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1913-1917 not only represents an important turning point in Matisse's work but also signals a momentous time for experimentation in the arts. 1913 marked the year of the Armory Show (at Lexington between 25th and 26th Streets), introducing New York audiences to the shock of the new art trends in Europe and the U.S., but most analogous to Matisse's experimentation, the year also marks the near earthquake known as Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The ballet's debut introduced earthy polyrhythms and new dissonances not yet experienced by classical music audiences, and like the classically trained Matisse, Stravinsky knew all the formal rules before he knew how to properly break them. The same is often said of Picasso, a younger colleague of Matisse.

Henri Matisse.
The Moroccans. Issy-les-Moulineaux, late 1915 and fall 1916.
Oil on canvas. 71 3/8" x 9' 2" (181.3 x 279.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel A. Marx
© 2010 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two monumental paintings, one from MoMA and one from the Art Institute of Chicago (with the two institutions successfully collaborating on the exhibit), serve as the point of departure for this close look at the French painter's most innovative phase. The Moroccans (1915-1916) from MoMA explores forms and imagery from North Africa but comes across as a complex riddle. The use of black divides but also unifies three sections of the canvas, each a sort of signifier of the culture, illustrating Matisse's desire to show the transparency of his construction. Many of the paintings show the erasures and earlier marks in the process, a self-reflexive gesture of mark making that connects Matisse to contemporary practices. Central to the argument of the exhibit are the four variations of his sculpture Back. No artist has ever been more in love with the lines of the female spine.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)
Bathers by a River. 1909–10, 1913, 1916–17
Oil on canvas. 102 1/2 x 154 3/16” (260 x 392 cm)
The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1953.158. © 2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Bathers by a River (1909–10, 1913, 1916–17), the contribution of the Art Institute, is clearly the focal point of the MoMA exhibit, a culmination of artistic experiments that the curators save for the last room. Accompanying the painting, a digital presentation serves as a pedagogical device, showing the sequence of repainting, repurposing, and other radical alterations in the composition over the years. What has not changed, however, is Matisse's fondness, if not obsession, for the lines of the female figure, ever present in his work, but now given a new clarity. The ovals of the head, circles of the breasts, straight lines of the back, and the convergence of the pelvis are resolved as natural forms of a verdant paradise of green palm fronds and blue sky and water. Matisse's rite of spring.

_______________
Exhibit information: Matisse: Radical Invention: 1913-1917 at the Museum of Modern Art (July 18-October 11, 2010). Timed tickets are required for entry to the Matisse exhibit. A limited number of timed-entry tickets will be available at the Museum on a first-come, first-served basis. Members may present their membership card for access at any time. The exhibit is installed on the sixth floor. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is located at 11 W. 53rd. St.

Comments

  1. More envy! I have just checked myself. So far no sign of green! But what a great show! One of my favourite phases of Matisse's work. And an influential one. You are right to draw attention to the re-working Matisse made to his paintings – over and again. I remember I read about a later, 20s painting of a woman in a blue dress which was owned by W. Somerset Maughan, the writer. It was said it looks as though it were painted in half an hour yet took months as Maughan patiently waited, Matisse scraping off one version after another until he could do no more. Great stuff Teri.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Anton. So good to hear from you and for your story about the Matisse painting. The exhibit did have me looking long at his paintings, following the choices he made, even on the same canvas. In this period in particular, Matisse seemed to want to show how he solved artistic problems.

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