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.
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).