Thursday, August 5, 2010


MoMA Takes a Look at Matisse's Darker Turn
By JOHN ZEAMAN Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.
July 23, 2010


Which Matisse do you like? The one of the vibrant fauve landscapes? The one of the exotic seminude odalisques? The one of the Nice interiors with the sun pouring in through a window? Or maybe the one of the playful blue cutouts from the end of his life?

For an artist who had a late start (he studied and practiced law before turning to art), Henri Matisse (1869-1954) managed to go through more periods and phases than any five other artists combined – not counting the protean Picasso, his rival and alter ego.

This has made him popular with museum curators, who keep coming up with new angles for Matisse shows. The latest offering, from the Museum of Modern Art, is a bit on the scholarly side. It covers five years in the artist’s career, from 1913 to 1917. They coincide roughly with the World War I period, which may account for the muted, gray palette Matisse used at that time. Or, maybe it was the influence of cubism.

Whatever the reason, Matisse’s work took a turn from joyful simplicity to something rather severe and diagrammatic. If this sounds like less fun than other Matisse shows you may have seen, well, it probably is. Art can’t always be the comfortable armchair that Matisse once said it should be. This is a show about modernism’s greatest colorist struggling with form – the frame and springs of the armchair rather than its patterned upholstery.

Its centerpiece is “Bathers by a River,” which Matisse worked on from 1909 to 1916, a highly abstracted painting of four faceless figures — three standing and one sitting. Each is more or less isolated in its own rectangular compartment, reduced to the barest geometries. With the exception of some spiky green foliage on the left side, the painting is composed in black, white and gray – and touches of pink flesh tones.

The curatorial fascination with this painting stems from recent high-tech analysis, which has given scholars a peek into the evolution of the work.

A video presentation in the last gallery shows the picture’s passage through no fewer than six states, from simply drawn, naturalistic figures identifiable as bathers to figures that have more in common with stone pillars.

Nods to Cezanne

Paul Cezanne’s “Three Bathers,” which Matisse owned and is on view here, provided the inspiration for this and other works. The sculpted look of Cezanne’s figures was his way of making everything in a picture – bodies, trees, foliage, water – seem to be made out of the same stuff. The result was a new kind of pictorial unity in which everything meshed together.

Matisse took a lot out of this painting. He borrowed one of the bathers’ bulky backs and turned it into what looks like an African sculpture hacked from wood. Over 21 years, he produced a series — “Back (I)” through “Back (IV)” – that grows progressively less representational until it looks more geological — or botanical — than anatomical.

What’s puzzling about this show is precisely that which the exhibit seems to think is most revelatory: Matisse’s working methods. In a painting like “The Italian Woman,” which is clearly indebted to Cezanne’s portraits, the high-tech analysis shows that he first painted a much more conventional portrait, then Cezanne- ified it, reducing naturalistic arms to tubular ones, and so on.

But in doing so, he ignored the background that Cezanne so painstakingly wove together. Compared to this organic process, Matisse’s methods seem mannered, with Cezanne’s great discovery turned into mere style.

Here and there in the show are signs of Matisse’s graceful, fluid line and his lyrical color compositions. That’s why a luminous composition like “Interior with a Goldfish Bowl” is such a relief for the eyes. It’s no accident that paintings like this one have been reproduced on countless posters, because here Matisse was being Matisse, and that’s always a joy.

Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., Manhattan; 212-708-9400 or Through Oct. 11. Wednesday through Monday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Admission: $20 adults, $16 seniors and $12 students. Free Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. Timed tickets are required at no additional cost and can be purchased online at

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