From 1913 to 1917, Matisse reinvented painting. A new show at the Art Institute of Chicago traces his path
Something about Henri Matisse always brings to mind the famous line from André Gide: "Do not understand me too quickly." Isn't that what we so often do with Matisse? We rush to indulge in the pleasures his art provides without coming to grips with its complexities. Compared with the Cubist-period work of his near contemporary Picasso — one picture after another that can be like a cheese grater for the eyes — even the most recondite Matisse is pretty beguiling. All those canvases flush with rose pink and aqua, filled with dancers and flowers and fruit — it's hard to look at them and remember the tough-minded choices that went into them. (See pictures of Matisse's art.)
To restore Matisse to us in all his glorious difficulty is the public service performed by "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917," a spectacular new show that can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 20 and then moves to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Why focus on just four years? Because they were a moment when Matisse fundamentally reinvented painting. His works of that period — there are almost 120 in the show, including canvases, prints, drawings and sculptures — truly were radical inventions, new answers to the fundamental question of how to construct a picture. They were also, no surprise, considered ugly and incomprehensible in their time. Matisse once said he wanted viewers to feel about his art the way they would about "a comfortable chair" — an odd sentiment from a man whose art was more like an electric chair.
The years right after 1913 were an anxious time for Matisse. Born in 1869, he entered his mid-40s more visible than ever in the art world, but with work that to the French was still an eyesore. Though for the first time he was making enough money from his art to buy his family a comfortable house in a Paris suburb, much of his income derived from a single Russian patron, Sergei Shchukin, a wealthy merchant willing to fill his drawing room with Matisse's most difficult pictures while Moscow society snickered. (See the top 10 art exhibitions of 2009.)
And even as he struggled to gain a wider public, Matisse was losing his position as leader of the Parisian avant-garde to Picasso, 12 years his junior. Young artists were fascinated by the militant astringency of Cubism and its systematic means of exploding form and space. Compared with the bristling brown surfaces in Picasso and Braque, even Matisse's fiercest pictures, with their dizzying color, could look a bit "decorative" — a dismissive word thrown at him all the time. (See some artists from the 2010 Whitney Biennial.)
To be regarded as old hat was something new for Matisse. He had made his name in the preceding decade as the most dauntless of the Fauves — the Wild Beasts — a small group of painters who pushed the telegraphic brushwork of Impressionism and the dissonant palette of post-Impressionism into fever territory. At their head was Matisse, King of the Beasts, building pictures out of colliding zones of pyrotechnic color or from staccato dashes of magenta and ultramarine.
When he was through with the hectic charms of Fauvism, Matisse moved to distill and stabilize his art by conjuring up a stripped-bare world of preclassical antiquity, a place that was one part arcadia, one part Land That Time Forgot. In enigmatic pictures like Bathers with a Turtle, from 1908, bluntly rendered figures were disposed among wide, flat bands of nearly abstract blue and green that signified — just barely — land, sea and air.
Art During Wartime
These are the pictures that open the Chicago show, curated expertly by Stephanie D'Alessandro of the Art Institute and John Elderfield of MOMA. They represent a final prelude to the leap Matisse would make around 1913 into radical distortion and near abstraction. Much of that work he would do in the shadow of World War I. Rejected for service — he was 44 when the war began — he went on working in a Paris studio, while outside his door Europe hammered itself to pieces. Not long after, his hometown in northern France was occupied by German troops, his mother left stranded behind enemy lines and his brother sent to a prison camp. In Paris on many nights, the booming of German artillery was audible in the distance. (See the top 10 art accidents.)
These were the conditions under which Matisse began to produce pictures based on what he called the "methods of modern construction." Struggling to mount a personal response to the challenge of Cubism, he approached the very edge of abstraction. Things and people were reduced to concise signs of themselves, but in the end Matisse always remained attached to the visible world. Just look at Goldfish and Palette, from 1914, in which light and shadow, form and space, are distilled into ambiguous stage flats. Is that black strip down the center of the painting a wall or a shadow? Actually, it's the central mullion of a window and its shadow, widened and dislocated by perception and imagination. Planes of pure color pressed tight against the surface of the picture, those passages of black, white and blue don't so much depict light and shadow as conduct their essences into the canvas. At the same time, they act as compositional load bearers, structuring the picture into geometric zones that frame the fish bowl, the highly abstracted orange fish and, to the right, the painter's white palette with his thumb stuck through it.
Even in his portraits, like The Italian Woman, Matisse could almost entirely transform the sitter, because he was confident that feeling in a painting was conveyed not by physical appearance or facial expression but by the sum of the impressions created by line and color. Often he began a picture with something like a realistic scene, then distilled it repeatedly. This is what happened with his magnificent Bathers by a River. When he started the large wall painting in 1909, it was a panorama of voluptuous women in bright colors. When he finished it seven years later, the women were angular and anonymous, the setting radically flattened, and the river had become another of those vertical black bands, with a stark white snake shooting upward along it like a bent poker.
In 1917 Matisse relocated to Nice, in the south of France, and in much of his work over the next three decades he would return — you might say retreat — to more conventional renderings of space and form. Decades passed before other artists began to draw out the full implications of his fertile experiments. Color-field paintings, for example — the big monochrome wafers of Ellsworth Kelly, the gossamer pools of pigment in Helen Frankenthaler — would emerge directly from Matisse, but not until the 1950s. Maybe we didn't understand him too quickly after all.