‘Matisse: In Search of True Painting” is a smallish but superb show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It focuses on pairs and series of related paintings, and the sheer loveliness of its best pieces resounds through the huge building and out onto Fifth Avenue. But it is sad that this small-scale, dazzling-masterpieces-only approach wasn’t extended to Henri Matisse’s late cutouts—which also occur in pairs and in series. Unfortunately, this exhibit, for all its beauty, shows off one of the deepest, darkest prejudices in the arts today: that an artist’s earlier works are bound to be his best.
It’s true that they are usually his most unexpected and “disruptive.” And most art historians have long since decided that an artist’s main goal is to kick people in the teeth. This strange idea is only to be expected, though, given that art historians are mostly intellectuals who admire theories and ideas rather than truth or beauty per se. It is natural that intellectuals should reduce art to political or intellectual terms, just as it is natural for a horse to evaluate a lawn in terms of taste and hoof--comfort, not aesthetic effect. Intellectuals do not see the world in aesthetic terms, and so they are always bound to have trouble with art.
But their tendency to exalt early works over late ones has damaged our ability to appreciate Matisse. His cutouts, all late, are among his greatest pieces. And they are far too rarely seen in public. The Met itself owns an especially beautiful one (Fleurs de Neige, 1951) that it rarely deigns to display. It’s time to renew our understanding of great artists’ tendency to do their best work late. Towards the end of his career, a major artist has so mastered his technique, and so dominates his materials, that he speaks to us directly in color or music or line or language. Instead of looking at him through the window (however brilliantly polished) of technique, we see him face to face. It might almost be said that, the greater the artist, the more likely that his greatest work will come towards the end of his career. Picasso and Matisse, rivals and friends, make the point perfectly: Picasso’s best work came towards the start of his work as a painter, Matisse’s towards the end of his.
The Met’s show is wonderful, even though, strictly on its own terms, it misses the point. It shows us several of Matisse’s greatest paintings, surrounded, in some cases, by groups of studies, and by black and white photos of the painting in others—photos that record the many different states of the canvas along its way to completion. The photos reminded Matisse of where he had been so he could retrace his steps if he wanted to. They also reminded the public that to paint a Matisse was harder than it looked. His paintings look casual; their profoundly original color harmonies and the balanced grace of the drawing seem as unstudied as a rainbow. But Matisse worked hard. Often he reworked and repainted a canvas dozens of times before he was satisfied.
The show and the catalogue neatly explain why the intermediate--state photos exist. But the deeper question is, obviously, why do the intermediate states themselves exist? Why didn’t Matisse work out the problems first, in sketches and drawings? Sometimes he did; but why not always? The answer is that Matisse is a color artist, one of the very greatest. He ranks alongside the 12th-century stained-glass masters of St. Denis and Chartres—with the 8th- and 9th-century creators of the gospel books of Lindisfarne and of Kells, respectively, and with Fra Angelico and Titian. He struggled with drawing and eventually achieved a lovely, lyrical, wholly original way of doing it; but color was his native language.
Now, a painter who dreams up a new color chord naturally needs to test it out and adjust it. But there is no way to make a “color study.” The colors in a painting make their effect depending on the way they are put together, and the texture and relative opacity and sheer area of each separate color region. Which means that the only way to make a study of the colors for a painting is to make the painting. This means, in turn, that Matisse often worked his way through dozens of versions of one painting. Each version is, in effect, a study for the next. Of course, he could have made a flock of separate paintings instead of reworking one, but it is much harder to take up where you left off—when you must start by reproducing (most of) an earlier painting—than if you are merely drawing.