DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Matisse the Deconstructionist

Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg, 1914, by Henri Matisse

The exhibit “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917” is on view through October 11, 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The show features work from a brief period in the middle of Henri Matisse’s long career, roughly coinciding with the first World War.  It shows the artist engaged in a heroic struggle to transform his “decorative” style into something hard enough and grand enough to stand out in the twentieth century.

Traditional painters start rough and then labor to make their work more polished, more developed, more elaborate.  Matisse worked and reworked his canvases and sculptures to strip them to their structural essence.  He had no interest in smoothing the brushstrokes or making a more convincing illusion of reality.

View of Notre Dame, 1914, by Henri Matisse

Matisse was born in 1869, when photography was already ubiquitous, and came of age in an era when the most interesting movements in art explored liberation from visual realism.  His early work was a kind of post-impressionism, traditional subjects loosely painted with a sensuous approach to vivid colors.

During the time period this show focuses on, Matisse was determined to take his work to a new level.  Perhaps he was challenged by the impact made by the cubism of Picasso and Braque.  Perhaps his previous work began to feel too small and genteel in a time of war. Many of his sculptures and large canvases of this time were repeatedly and heavily reworked, becoming in the process more austere, more bold, and more abstract.

Even as the size of the works expanded towards the monumental, as Matisse’s early rounded, cloudy forms gave way to angular slabs, and his sweet candy colors to fields of blue, black and gray, the images remain sensual and inviting – Matisse could not obscure his inner warmth.

Goldfish and Palette, 1914, by Henri Matisse

Matisse knew that the process of working towards greater abstraction was as interesting as the final works.  Photographers documented incremental stages of paintings that were revised over a period of years, and his sculpture, “Back”, was repeatedly altered by reworking plaster casts, retaining the molds of different versions.  Even where earlier states of the paintings are not documented, Matisse left pentimenti clear enough to invite the viewer to try to penetrate the development of the work by examining the layers of paint.

“The Back”, four versions, 1908 through 1931, by Henri Matisse

The curators of this exhibit have used digital tools to analyze these stages of development, and one gallery presents this analysis in an animated display.  If you are not able to make it to the Museum of Modern Art to see the exhibit, this exposition of the successive changes in “Bathers by a River” and “Back” is presented in the excellent website on “Matisse: Radical Invention” hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibit was initially shown.  For anyone interested in the creative process of visual art, this website is worth perusing.

Another great example of Matisse’s work from this period is “The Piano Lesson”, recently compared with other artists’ treatment of the same theme in this post at my friend Claudia’s blog, Museworthy.  The original painting is in this show.  It’s eight feet tall and all that gray is surprisingly luminous.

I also recommend matisse.net, one of the best websites out there devoted to any artist’s full career.

Images in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the images links back to the sites where I found them.

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