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MoMA’s Matisse

Yet another journey to the garden.

Oct 18, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 05 • By JAMES GARDNER
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But in the four years covered by this latest exhibition, we find a different Matisse from the one we usually encounter in such exhibitions. It is almost as though he were trying to void his work of the spontaneous charms they usually possess. The earliest work on view was not by Matisse but by Cézanne, the “Three Bathers” from 1879-1882. Matisse owned this painting, and it is the key to his career. The figures are crude and misshapen. Throughout Western art, for the previous five centuries, surely, painters had fashioned similarly crude forms, but these were always understood to be preparatory sketches for a finished work which would be duly and reliably polished according to artistic and societal custom. What made Cézanne’s painting revolutionary, even if little valued in its day, was that it presented preliminariness as its own fulfillment.

Only a generation later, and for the next half-century, Matisse would make such process and incompleteness the cornerstone of his art. The argument of the MoMA show was that such traces of process in his work—of scrapings, repaintings, smudgings—are representative of the period between 1913 and 1917, and had not a little to do with the massive upheavals and social dislocations of the Great War. But such process-oriented art had been evident for nearly a decade before and would, in fact, mark his paintings and sculptures until his death in 1954.

And yet, it is true enough that Matisse seems to have experimented more vigorously in the 1913-17 period than at any other point in his career. His palette becomes more somber as bright reds and yellows and greens give way to dull beige and black, as in “The Italian Woman” (1916). The voluptuous curves that had formerly defined his style, and would one day do so again, are now abandoned in favor of severe angles and straight lines, as is evident in “White and Pink Head” (1914). Such severity, it has been argued, is a response to the vigors of cubism, whether in its initial analytic phase or in its subsequent synthetic phase. There is something to that, but it is more likely that both movements are a response (as was Futurism) to the machine aesthetic of the first quarter of the new century, an aesthetic that was so clamorously and unavoidably exemplified in the military convulsions that shook Europe precisely during the years covered by the present show.

The more lasting legacy of Matisse’s art during this period remains his insistence on process over polished completion. Though this artistic attitude may have been derived from Cézanne’s “Three Bathers,” Matisse made it entirely his own, and it would become, through him, one of the defining attitudes available to Modern artists and those who came after them. But because our culture still has not entirely accepted or embraced it, it remains scarcely less radical today than it was a century ago.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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