A spate of 100-plus temperatures over the summer should have been sufficient proof that we were passing through the dog days. But, ever the skeptic, I refused to believe it until I saw the Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art. For unless it is my imagination, it certainly seems as though a Matisse show comes to MoMA every summer, for the same reason that a Hopper show opens at the Whitney (though actually the latest installment of that artist will open October 28). In other words, museums want all the tourists they can corral, and when summer comes around, they play to their strengths with tested blockbusters.
All right, perhaps I exaggerate. But it is a legitimate question why MoMA seems to have so many Matisse shows, and whether anything still needs to be said about this monarch of the Paris art scene in the days of its long-vanished supremacy. This latest exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917, was in a sense about little or nothing. There was a chronological and formal coherence to his years in Morocco, which ended with his return to Paris in 1913, and a similar coherence to his period in Nice, whither he traveled in 1917, at the end of the years now under consideration. Both of those periods have benefited from shows at the Modern. But the years in between, the subject of the present exhibition, are an oddly interstitial period of Matisse’s career in which he seemed to be experimenting relentlessly—which is a nice way of saying that there was little real coherence to his art at this time. But the curators, John Elderfield of the Museum of Modern Art, and Stephanie D’Alessandro of the Art Institute of Chicago, have made lemonade out of those lemons.
I have always been impressed by the public’s fervent embrace of Henri Matisse, whose vast and deep popularity is ultimately the reason behind the present exhibition. And yet, despite that popularity, he remains a challenging painter whose commitment to the cause of Modernism induced him to undertake all sorts of detours into formal and chromatic experimentation. To the public at large, Matisse incarnates the charm, the formal freedom, the unbridled newness of the Modern movement in a way that Picasso, his only rival in the public’s esteem, does not. Matisse once made a comment about wanting to paint for the bourgeois in his armchair, an aspiration that has hardly endeared the artist to the avant garde. Accordingly, the image of human existence that transpires through his art, taken together, is one of sunlit views of the French Riviera, of pretty flowers in variegated vases, of naked women, their hands linked, dancing the dance of life in a state of primordial joy.
When the crowds reached the galleries of the present exhibition, however, they found less of that joy than they have come to expect from Matisse. Surely this show was fully in keeping with the Modern’s standards, exhibiting as it did an abundance of paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures of the very choicest quality. Yet the two curators appeared to have a loftier purpose: They exhibited an almost hierophantic seriousness in charting the artist’s twists and turns during a period when he undertook to penetrate, in his own words, “the mysteries of modern construction.”
The art of Matisse, properly understood, remains as challenging today as it was a century ago. It remains challenging long after we have accepted the fundamental and sequential ruptures of observable reality that were brought about by Cézanne and Picasso, by Kandinsky and Pollock. However radical their artistic mission, these painters were conspicuous masters of the admittedly individualistic styles that they pioneered. In Matisse, by contrast, that mastery is rarely achieved, because it is never sought and because, whenever it is approached, it is rejected and denied.
At least that is the case throughout most of the artist’s later career. In certain early works, such as “Roofs of Coullioure,” and the portrait of his wife from 1905, Matisse can achieve a perfection of sorts that is a consequence of his mastering the Fauvist style he had only lately unleashed upon the world.
But these works, in themselves, are probably insufficient to account for his great popularity today. I would guess that the compelling, all-conquering charm of the man consists, above anything else, in his use of color. It is only slightly an exaggeration to say that, with the vigorous awakening of Matisse’s palette in the early years of the 20th century, Western art reclaimed what it had forgotten or never known: that color was everywhere, and not just any color but primary colors whose saturated brilliance became, for the first time, the pure point of painting. Matisse’s colors ravished the rods and cones of viewers even before the subject matter could be reconstructed and interpreted in the brain.