Matisse at MoMA: Carving With Color
Published: July 15, 2010
The Museum of Modern Art’s extraordinary “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917” is not your garden-variety Matisse exhibition. It contains few signs of the artist who said a painting should be the equivalent of a soothing armchair. By the end of this show you may wonder if that Matisse ever really existed, despite his much-quoted, overinterpreted words to that effect.
High-Tech Matisse (July 11, 2010)
Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Instead “Matisse: Radical Invention” offers a view of a driven, even tormented Matisse, who second-guessed himself, rethought and reworked his images and often left them looking bracingly fresh and conditional, even unfinished. We see an artist increasingly interested in making clear not just his painting process, but also a kind of emotional concentration that, while hardly Expressionist, did not exactly exemplify the Olympian detachment habitually attributed to him.
With more than 100 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, the Modern’s show, which opens Sunday, offers a close reading of four of the most arduous years of Matisse’s long career, as well as the six or so preceding them. It was organized by John Elderfield, a veteran of several major Matisse exhibitions and the Modern’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, and Stephanie D’Alessandro, curator of modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The ensemble highlights Matisse’s inspired shuffling of mediums, his even-handed willingness to take from one to stir up another. In several paintings boldly drawn black lines disrupt planes of color, like armatures that refuse to stay put.
Matisse’s four great “Back” reliefs that usually haunt the Modern’s garden are on hand, their increasingly distilled forms looking in this context more like maquettes for paintings than cast bronzes. They confirm why Matisse the painter was called a carver of color and space.
Works large and small, major and minor all make their points sooner or later. The great “Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg” — whose masklike face, hemmed-in torso and superannuating arcs of radiance are more scratched than painted — may sharpen your appreciation of the insistent lines and textures in several drawings and a lithograph of female nudes in the show’s opening gallery. Matisse could carve with the brush, but at times he also used it like a pencil.
The thorn in Matisse’s side for most of the years encompassed by this show was Picasso’s ferocious “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of 1907 and Cubism, its more refined aftermath. Until the “Demoiselles,” conveniently located downstairs at MoMA, Matisse had been riding high. Inspired by African art — to which he introduced Picasso — he almost single-handedly revived European sculpture with a new bluntness and distortion of form. As first among the Fauves — or Wild Beasts — he, along with Georges Braque and André Derain, revolutionized painting with a new emphasis on stark color: color for color’s sake. His bright, raw contributions to the autumn salons of 1905 and ’06 had scandalized the public, to his satisfaction.
But “Demoiselles” changed things. Braque and Derain shortly became, in the words of Gertrude Stein, “Picassoites and were definitely not Matisseites.” Stein also changed sides, which wounded Matisse.
By 1910 Matisse had withdrawn from the hurly-burly of the Paris art world. He rented a house in the suburbs, built a studio in its garden and refueled with travel. He saw a mind-boggling show of Islamic art in Munich and Russian icons in Moscow. In Spain he encountered Moorish architecture and the works of Velázquez, El Greco and Goya. During long sojourns in Morocco in 1912 and early 1913, he reaffirmed his faith in the marriage of light and color. But by January 1914 he was back in Paris. He an his wife moved into an apartment at 19 Quai Saint-Michel. It was one floor below the studio in which he had worked from 1894 to 1907, with the same view of the Seine and Notre Dame.
In the next years Matisse pushed his art to even greater extremes of scale, stand-alone color, formal power, surface roughness and emotional undertow. He confronted Cubism by becoming more aggressively and transparently himself.
Spaciously arrayed in five large galleries, the MoMA show includes a bumper crop of Matisse’s most important canvases and one by Cézanne: the small, powerful “Three Bathers” of 1879-82. Matisse purchased the work from Ambroise Vollard in 1899, though he could ill afford it, and cherished it as a talisman until giving it to the Musée du Petit Palais in the 1930s.
Hanging near the show’s entrance, “Bathers” signals Matisse’s early understanding of Cézanne’s importance — an awareness that only became widespread with Cézanne’s 1906 memorial retrospective. It also suggests that Matisse shared more than a little of Cézanne’s well-known doubt while also indicating one of the show’s larger themes: Matisse’s link to the grand French tradition of painting nudes in landscapes.
This first gallery includes Matisse’s snarling “Blue Nude” of 1907 — which sent Picasso back to the studio to toughen up “Demoiselles” — and the eternally strange “Bathers With a Turtle” (1907-08), dominated by a proto-Brice Marden background and an alpha female who is either devouring her hands or about to regurgitate food for the turtle. The show concludes with Chicago’s monumental “Bathers by a River,” which Matisse grappled with off and on for most of the period covered by this exhibition. He began it in 1909-10 and returned to it in 1913 before finally completing it in 1917. With its immense dolmen-tree-trunk figures in shades of gray, blue and pink, it remains one of the most difficult, least ingratiating of modernist masterpieces.
The show is full of marvelous pairings and clusters of paintings executed close to the same time in which Matisse approaches and sometimes takes a timeout from “radical invention.” A particularly stunning gallery contains seven paintings made in the first six months after returning to Quai Saint-Michel, including the Landsberg portrait. The greatness of the Modern’s “Goldfish and Palette” — its scale, startling pentimenti and flirtation with abstraction — has never been clearer than when seen next to “Interior With Goldfish,” a more conventional, if still glorious version of the same view. The group culminates in the divine economies of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Branch of Lilacs,” a bouquet of soft thin smudges of color and bare canvas, and the Modern’s “View of Notre Dame,” an intimation of sky and stone that is still unsettlingly cursory after all these years.
Everything looks fresh. Matisse’s nearly Baroque 1915 rendition of his 1893 academic copy of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “Desserte” is a MoMA staple that has always seemed mercilessly clogged to me. Here it reads as a blithe lexicon of the paint treatments that can be found throughout the show.
Matisse’s small monotype portraits from World War I stand out as “carved” with a few clean, deft needle-fine lines. And they stand up to their neighbors, a series of imposing charcoal and pencil portraits of women in which clouds of erasures are as crucial to the sense of form and personality as the drawn lines. In the show’s second-to-last gallery the melons, turbans and minarets of “The Moroccans” — a painting almost as truculent as “Bathers by a River” — are foreshadowed by monotypes and then paintings of apples and other fruit on tables.
“Demoiselles” was the Big Bang that helped Matisse become more fully himself, but Cubism barely grazed him. Cézanne’s “petites sensations” inspired Picasso and Braque to shatter Renaissance space into so many little pieces as to be atomized. Fittingly William S. Rubin, who ruled the Modern’s department of painting and sculpture for nearly two decades could characterize Analytic Cubism — which he adored — as the last stage of old master painting.
Matisse was not so interested in shattering, or in small pieces. He focused on wholeness, simplicity and monumentality, in planes that bent and angled in ways that suggest fragments of Cubism writ large. He built on Cézanne as surely as the Cubists did, but balanced that influence with an abiding admiration for the flat colors of Giotto’s frescoes, landmarks of the early Renaissance, which he saw in Padua during a trip to Italy in 1907. Giotto showed Matisse how to make color live big, enabling him to turn Cézanne’s petites sensations into something grand.
It is not every museum exhibition that begins with blown-up reproductions of small, sometimes minute details of 15 of the paintings displayed inside. This amazing show keeps your eyes on their toes. Attention paid is profusely and profoundly rewarded.