Metropolitan Museum of Art:   Matisse: In Search of True Painting
 Dec 4, 2012- March 17, 2013


Interior with a Violin
(Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage)

oil on canvas
45 5/8 x 35 inches

At age 20, recuperating in a hospital bed, Henri Matisse was presented with a paint box by his mother. It was Matisse’s first stab at painting, and it changed his life—and also the course of art. Picasso may have been the stronger draftsman, but Matisse was to be the twentieth century’s greatest colorist. Possibly, Matisse was also the more complicated artist. He possessed an uncanny instinct for the energy of colors—for the way shifting pressures of hue illuminate a painting from within—but other qualities as well: unflinching drive, an anxious but methodical disposition, a willingness to fail, and a reverence for great traditional painting. Underneath his celebratory color and spirited drawing, a grave determination suffuses much of his lifework.

In fact his style repeatedly changed, especially in the early years, as he systematically tested one approach after the other. These experiments have inspired the extraordinary exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting, which originated at the Pompidou in Paris, and is now on view in somewhat reduced form at the Met. The New York installation of nearly 50 paintings, spanning a half-century, focuses on series of works—especially pairs of canvases—that show Matisse consciously thinking through issues of painting, and seeking, it seems to me, a means of composing that gives full voice to his color. The thrill of the show is that, as Matisse instructs himself, he instructs us as well, in the language he knew best.

Matisse’s formidable powers are evident from the very first works in this chronological installation. A vivid still life from 1899, Impressionistic in manner but heightened in hue, hangs next to a second version of the same subject, identical in format but reduced to intense, planar colors. It’s unclear which came first, but the flatter, more abstracted image retains to a striking degree the weightiness of objects, and the sense of unfolding space. What they share is an eloquence of color—or, more exactly, momentous tensions between colors across the surface.

Down the wall, a Cézannesque still life hangs next to a second, Pointillist version of the same set-up. Elsewhere, a brushy image of a seated sailor, rendered in fairly subdued hues, hangs next to one with an almost crystalline simplicity of shape and blazing Fauve colors. (Here, we know the subdued one came first; the second, though practically cartoonish in its palette and coloring-book simplicity of form, still captures the weight of his pose: the way the head, at our own eye-level, is supported squarely by the shoulders, with the torso curving below our point of view to the knees.) From the start Matisse seems certain about his goal, which is to give breadth to his main subject, letting certain objects dominate rhythmically, and leading the eye to meaningfully placed details within an unfolding composition. It’s a quality one sees throughout the exhibition: classical composition achieved through what were then revolutionary means.

In the summer of 1907, Matisse travelled to Italy, where he absorbed first-hand the High Renaissance masterpieces in Florence and Venice. He was more moved, however, by the painters then known as the “primitives”: by the frescos of Giotto (1267-1337) in Padua, and paintings by Duccio (ca. 1260-1319) in Siena. Back in France, he produced “Le Lux I” (1907) and “Le Lux II” (1907-8), two remarkable versions of the same scene featuring a standing woman attended by two arcing figures, one at her feet, the other approaching from the mid-distance. It’s uncertain if the earlier painting, with its deliberately modeled volumes, was finished before or after the trip to Italy, but it’s tempting to see the influence of the “primitives” in the second version, which is completely free of any such shading. Its unmodulated planes create spatial movements solely through overlapping and pressures of color. These are up to the task; the most active space is in the vertical extension of the standing figure—the sensation of looking up at her head, and down to her feet, with the height in-between powerfully measured out in the color-charged bands of the background. Considering its austere means—no volumetric rendering, and a pale, restricted palette—the figures have remarkable gravity. It’s as if the artist were attempting to express their momentous presence without resorting to conventional modeling—and he succeeds as Duccio and Giotto did, through a vital momentum of forms within an arabesque.

There was no turning back. A pair of reclining nudes from 1909—again, one heavily modeled, the other left in a state of simple color planes—both show a powerful conception of a figure leaning back in space, supported primarily by the pressures of color.  Almost imperceptible adjustments in the red field surrounding the more volumetric of the figures (in “Nude with a White Scarf”) wonderfully convey the pressure of fabric—pressing here, releasing there—as it braces the long diagonal of the figure.

Equipped with his experience of Giotto and his own facility for painting light, Matisse produced in 1914 two stunning views from the window of his Paris studio. The cool outdoor illumination gently suffuses the studio of “Interior with Goldfish” with at least half a dozen light-absorbing blues. Matisse expands the space almost violently with his drawing, anchoring a chair and a bowl at the bottom, while planting, at our eye level, a distant tower that rhymes, up close, with the window’s vertical partition. At the canvas’ center, by the window, a goldfish tank—encompassing every degree of sunlight and shadow in its small, shimmering dimensions—acts as a kind of transfer point between inner and outer worlds.  By contrast, in the adjacent “Goldfish and Palette,” sunlight splashes forcefully across the studio floor, dividing it dramatically into lit and shadowed zones. Elements are rendered more harshly, even irrationally, yet the means are the same: the re-creation of a scene through observations of a very particular light, and within it, cajoling forms into vital life.

In such paintings one senses the artist's contradictory reliance on both instinctive response and comprehensive order. But then, Matisse was, after all, the painter who emphatically rejected the academic polish and passive color of his one-time teacher William-Adolphe Bouguereau, while employing for years afterwards Bouguereau’s method of slighting verticals against a pendulum. For me, Matisse's once-over manner of drawing could sometimes lag behind the sensual vigor of his color; as if to compensate, the studio views and figure paintings of the 1910s, in particular, reflect a conscious drive to impart weight to intervals of color with strong verticals. 

This strategy animates a series of three canvases painted in the years 1917-18 in Matisse’s room in the Hôtel Beau-Rivage. Each captures a new aspect of light. In the earliest painting, the interior illumination of the room dominates the dimming sky seen through the window; in the second, the bright outdoor light spills in, turning the window frame into a pressured aperture; in the third, larger painting, a pair of window shutters mostly blot out a bright day, allowing a free play of objects within the room’s nocturnal depths. Matisse would later explain of the last canvas, “In that painting I painted light in black,” and indeed the room moves through five or six blacks of varying temperature and density. All three works seem driven by Matisse’s mixture of forethought (in jump-starting a dynamic drawing through an unnaturally high point of view) and improvisation (apparent especially in his brash overpainting of large portions of the third painting.)

Other extraordinary works in the exhibition include still lifes from 1916-17, a series of paintings of the model Laurette (among them the Met’s own “Laurette in a Green Robe, Black Background” from 1916, a striking blend of bluntness and grace), and three views of a Normandy beach from 1920.  

The last galleries include the hieratic, flattened figures, still lives and interiors from the late 30s and 40s. These are impressive, but not my favorites. Here Matisse’s risks are channeled into too few places for my taste, and the discoveries not quite as resonant. Also on view are four series of photographs of paintings in progress, accompanied by the finished canvases. Matisse had rarely been shy about exposing his struggles in his reworked surfaces, but these arrays of photographs spell them out point by point, affording a gratifying, over-the-shoulder view of his process.
A few important paintings didn’t make it to New York, including the Cubistic “White and Pink Head” (1914-15), which reveals the strong influence of Matisse’s friend Juan Gris, and “Nasturtiums with the Painting ‘Dance’ II” (1912), the mate to the Met’s own version of this large studio scene. Nevertheless, In Search of True Painting remains one of the most edifying exhibitions of the year. It’s the rare show that reveals and connects art on its own, most intimate terms—in its purely visual manifestations. Looking on, we absorb the evidence of one of the greatest minds of modern art, a painter who, to a unique degree, combined intelligence, self-awareness, and knowledge of precedents. Oh yes, he also knew a thing or two about color.

Henri Matisse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd St., through March 17.

This review originally appeared in shorter form
in the Decemeber 26, 2012 issue of CityArts.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd St, New York NY 10028
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