Feature

Exhibit of the week: Matisse: In Search of True Painting

For anyone who worries that the work of Henri Matisse has become too familiar, “this is the show for you.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkThrough March 17 

For anyone who worries that the work of Henri Matisse has become too familiar, “this is the show for you,” said Dan Bischoff in the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger. Even those who know well that the painter’s dynamic lines and shapes didn’t just come to him unbidden will be surprised by how far from slapdash his art was. Matisse (1869–1954) routinely produced multiple versions of each image he created, investigating the effects of adjusting the colors, massings, and lines. The Met’s chronologically arranged exhibition displays 20 or so such pairings or series, and the chance to follow his mind’s progress through these paintings is inspiring. It “definitely revives that original joy in viewing Matisse—the sudden luxury of his arabesques, the hard geometries that underlie every picture, and most of all the colors, exquisitely balanced between sweet and sour.”

Each series becomes “its own mini-seminar,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Matisse undoubtedly began copying other painters’ images during his academy training, but he wound up using the practice to “relentlessly rethink and revise his way to greatness.” At times, we see him incorporating other artists’ styles—Paul Signac’s pointillism or Paul Cézanne’s skewed compositions—then pressing forward with innovations that attain the emotional power and intimacy that he seemed to be seeking. He apparently was at times uneasy about admitting such experimentations, said Maika Pollack in GalleristNY.com. He once claimed that 1906’s Young Sailor I was his own work but that Young Sailor II, from the same year, was painted by his mailman. The first was drafted with loose, open brushwork; the second was built from “wide, flat areas of color.” Yet it’s “the mailman’s picture” that’s the knockout. Here, “experimentation yielded progress.”

One of the final galleries in the show adds a poignant note to our understanding of Matisse’s process, said James Polchin in TheSmartSet.com. A re-creation of a 1945 Paris gallery exhibition, it includes 1940’s The Dream, 1941’s Still Life with Magnolia, and the series of photographs that Matisse by then was using to document the progress of each of his paintings. The artist and his much younger muse, Lydia Delectorskaya, had spent the previous few years blissfully creating art in Matisse’s studio in Nice while World War II engulfed the rest of the Continent. There’s no mention of the war in the re-created gallery, but “I couldn’t help but think that Matisse’s obsessions with preserving the painterly process were also a response to the destruction around him.” The pictures conjure “a kind of memento mori of each progressive stage, preserving each trace of creative effort at a time when so much was being lost.” 

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