You don’t have to be an art historian or curator to love this exhibition, although it helps.
For passionate Matisse lovers who couldn’t care less about the meaning and message of the painter’s process, Matisse: Radical Invention: 1913-1917, is filled with a luscious parade of his work – more than 100 paintings, drawings, monotypes and sculptures – organized chronologically and drawn from a variety of museums and private collections.
For those who crave more knowledge in order to penetrate more deeply into the mind and heart of the artist, it is also an intellectual feast. Happily, for both audiences, it is the equivalent of a rich, satisfying dinner made even more memorable by sparkling conversation and erudite guests.
The show, which runs through October 11, is a remarkable monument to curatorial sleuthing and scholarship married to new technologies which now allow us to physically examine the evolution and layers of a painting, much as literary critics, looking at early and late drafts of, say, a Hemingway novel, can observe his creative process at work.
It is the result of a five-year collaboration between John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at MoMA (who brought us the great “Matisse/Picasso” show a number of years ago), and Stephanie D’Alessandro, curator of modern art at The Art Institute of Chicago. It focuses on a pivotal period of change in the artist’s work. The years 1913 – 1917 coincided with the terror and deprivations, even in Paris, of World War I, and followed a period of extensive travel to Morocco, Spain, Germany and Russia by Matisse. Challenged by the pre-war Cubism of Picasso, Braque and Derain and inspired by Cezanne, (one of whose works, “Three Bathers,” Matisse owned, and is the first painting in the show), Matisse rethought both his medium and its message.
The transformation of his work is evident as the show chronologically unfolds. It begins with some of his earlier work, such as “The Manila Shawl,” which emphasizes blocks of color and recognizable figures. Then, beginning in 1913, Matisse moves to a more muted palette of blacks and grays, and begins to emphasize process – that is, the “making of art,” — by showing,what he called, “the methods of modern construction.”
His figures become increasingly geometric shapes. For example, a series of four bronze sculptures of a naked woman’s back, made over a 23-year period, begin as a recognizable and curvaceous female form then gradually morph into a pared-down, block-like female abstraction.
At the same time, the scale of his work expands, and with it a more complex and assured use – in his portraits and still lifes – of color.
The last room in the show features “Bathers by a River,” a colossal treasure from Chicago, which he began in 1909 and only completed in 1917. It is not an easy painting to love but our understanding of how it changed over time is made clear by x-ray technology which allowed curators to follow its shifting forms. An extremely informative video of this transformational process can be viewed in a small room adjacent to the room where the painting hangs.
In addition to the show’s curatorial insights, there are works of art that need no explanation but simply offer us the aesthetic power and sensual pleasure of a master at work. In particular, his black-and-white monotypes are breathtaking. With a few strokes, he captures the essence of his subject.
His portraits are also memorable for their directness and power.
Frequent visitors to MoMA will see a lot of old favorites, such as The Piano Lesson. But there are many treasures, some from private collections, which will be new to most viewers, including the delectable monotypes.
My recommendation is to feast first with your eyes, then make a second journey through the galleries to immerse yourself more deeply in the curatorial information and insights provided.
This is a major show of immense scholarship that richly rewards viewers who have the patience to pay close attention. I look forward to going back and immersing myself in it again.
The Moroccans, 1916
Flowers and Ceramic Plate, 1913
Stephanie D’Alessandro and John Elderfield
The Manilla Shawl, 1911
The Bather, 1909
Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg, 1914
Back II, 1913
Back IV, 1931
Still Life After de Heems “La Desserte”, 1915
Bowl of Oranges, 1916
Bowl of Apples on a Table, 1916
Bathers by a River, 1909-10, 1913, 1916-17
Detail from Bathers by a River
Detail from Bathers by a River
Portrait of Sarah Stein