Whitehot Magazine

August 2010, Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 @ MoMA

Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame. Paris, quai Saint-Michel, spring 1914
Oil on canvas. 58 x 37 1/8" (147.3 x 94.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest,and the Henry Ittleson,
A. Conger Goodyear, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Sinclair Funds, and the Anna Erickson Levene Bequest
given in memory of her husband, Dr. Phoebus Aaron Theodor Levene, 1975
© 2010 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York NY 10019
July 18 through October 11, 2010

Culminating with the endlessly re-worked, monumental Bathers by a River (1909-10, 1913 and 1916-17) and by the equally imposing The Moroccans (1915-16), MoMA’s long-due investigation of what can arguably be considered as the most interesting phase in Matisse’s life-long artistic experimentation never actually reaches a proper high point. Although the allure of the “major” pieces can be instrumental to successful exhibition narratives and dynamics, and notwithstanding the impressive scholarly effort curators John Elderfield and Stephanie D’Alessandro have dedicated to the unlocking of Bathers by a River's intricate history, “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917” doesn’t need to deliver a “Wow” moment. In fact, the exhibition’s breathtaking ride through constant, deliberate and quietly revolutionary artistic development is more likely to leave the visitor agape right from its inception. In my personal experience, the dramatic one-two finale arrived when my senses and intellect were already numbed, and my ability to take in even more invention, intuition and experimentation was almost fading out.   

Although informed about Matisse’s “cubist” period, and a big fan of paintings like The Piano Lesson, Goldfish and Palette or The Rose Marble Table (all at MoMA, respectively 1915-16, 1916 and 1916), I never realized how coherent with the artist’s life-long research and general sensibility this extraordinary moment was. Like others, I had looked at these and similar paintings only through the obfuscating lenses of an impossible comparison with Braque and Picasso’s early cubist work, the shock waves of whose radicality must have surely rocked Matisse's “comfortable armchair” (as he once described his own relaxed brand of poetic fauvism). 

The exhibition starts with Three Bathers (1879-82), Matisse’s long-owned Cézanne. Matisse convinced his wife to get rid of family jewelry to purchase this painting; it was a talisman he would hold on for a great part of his career, through thick and thin. Cezanne’s sober composition and well-grounded bodies, stolid in their proportions and reminiscent of Giotto’s placid elegance, are enlivened by vivid texture and color, and “unfolded” by deformations that recognize not only the loose and expressionistic substance of post-Impressionism but also the radical plane fragmentation of Cubism. This painting is juxtaposed with a series of relatively early works, including Matisse’s famous Blue Nude (1907), an aggressively expressionistic portrait in which the sensual presence of African wood sculpture and the graphic abstractions of Gothic painting are reworked in a confrontationally “ugly” figure. Fatma, the Mulatto Woman (1912) lurks from the second room, and introduces the steady development of what Matisse described as construction methods applied to painting. Part of a series of paintings made in Tangiers, Fatma is an elongated vertical canvas, wrapped around the central figure of an Arab prostitute. The head and the feet of the woman are both cut by the upper and lower canvas. Her vest blends in with an indistinct green/teal background with a striking close-up effect that focuses the viewer’s attention on details such as the rich decorations on her chest and sash. Here, Matisse creates a network of construction lines that are completely independent from the anatomy of the subject and yet seem rigorously and logically organized. The line drawn by Fatma’s open veil plunges down to describe a diagonal opening over the geometry of her chest, an armor-like pattern of blues and yellows. 

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg, 1914
Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 97.5 cm (58 x 38 3/8 in.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950
© 2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two years later, these underlying, only occasionally emerging structures begin coming to the fore, sometimes turning into the subject of the painting. View of Notre Dame (1014) is striking in its quasi-absence of subject. The famous cathedral is still discernible, but only survives as a transparent volume delineated by the intersection of many visible and invisible lines. Crossing the vast expanse of grey/blue of the canvas, this network of lines is a rendering of Matisse’s window view in his studio of Quai St.Michel. The perspective can be compared to other “window” paintings to understand how the totality of the optical vision has been worked and reworked, drafted and then systematically deleted in a sort of excavation process that leads to the isolation of delicate and abstracting formal balances. The same trial by error, time-based process is applied to the surprising intense, almost disquieting Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg (1914), one of Matisse’s most uncommon paintings. The reduced palette of dark grays and green/orange accents eliminates every possible distraction. The real protagonist of the portrait is, in fact, the network of scratched curving lines that not only delineates the body of the sitter, but expands it in every possible direction, suggesting streams of pure energy via a very tangible and physical gesture.  

Matisse was stepping here in a dangerous territory, maybe too close to ideas and approaches that he felt were not completely his. A few didactical, almost normative cubist canvases seem to prove this point, but the “real” Matisse is just a few steps away. The poetic tenderness of the drawing and color in Apples (1916), is a wake-up call to a more mature and personal synthesis of skill, style and experimentation. The flat, vibrant planes layered in Composition (1916) predict Matisse’s future collages; the understated elegance of The Rose Marble Table (1916) is a far cry from Cubism, and already emancipated from the literalness of visible structures. Sparse and essential, this painting is a Zen garden of pictorial composition where absence flirts with essence. 

The architectural suggestions and geometric abstractions of The Moroccans look dangerously unbalanced. Even the painter’s legendary eye for color harmonization seems at risk in a composition that Matisse, as Gino Severini has noted, created by progressively stripping it down, “as you would prune a tree”. The textural richness and pervasive off-balance feel bring the canvas to the verge of a color and contrast dominated decorativism. Bathers, on the other hand, bears the signs of its interminable execution, a process that spanned from 1913 to 1917, the whole period considered in this exhibition. The historical import of the painting is certainly tremendous, both because the documents of its realization speak eloquently of Matisse’s technique and ideas and because the painter himself pointed it out as one of his most important works. Bathers by a River is without a doubt a repository of creative energy and an art historical document, but it lacks both the spontaneity and virtuosity of other major works. Its uncommonly long gestation -and the wealth of information that it helped gather- are surely part of the reason of its legendary status. The canvas brings us back to Cezanne’s Three Bathers and to the importance that this model had for Matisse. Cezanne’s solidly grounded figures, textural surface and sober composition are here replaced by four faceless standing figures, staged in a rhythmically shifting landscape of wide vertical bands of color and stylized bright green foliage. Matisse kept working on this puzzling composition until the very end, even after he sold it. The exhibition catalog reports how, in the winter of 1917, writer Ameen Rihani described Matisse as still perplexed by the painting, to the point of asking Rihani if he “thought it had anything in it of Cubism”. To this day, Matisse’s confusion permeates through the myriad layers of painting accumulated and removed over an image whose allure mostly resides in the seductive power of its convoluted complexity.


Henri Matisse, The Moroccans. Issy-les-Moulineaux, late 1915 and fall 1916
Oil on canvas. 71 3/8" x 9' 2" (181.3 x 279.4 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel A. Marx
© 2010 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse, Bathers by a River. 1909–10, 1913, 1916–17
Oil on canvas. 102 1/2 x 154 3/16” (260 x 392 cm), The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1953.158.
© 2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Marco Antonini

Marco Antonini is a New York based independent curator and writer. He has collaborated with some of the most reputable organizations in New York, including ISCP, Elizabeth Foundation, LMCC, ISE Foundation, Japan Society, Triangle Arts and the Dumbo Arts Center.

A freelance educator/lecturer at MoMA, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, MoMA PS1 and 3rdWard Design Center, his articles, essays and interviews have been published on Flash Art International, Cura, Whitehot, Museo, BMM, Contemporary, AroundPhotography, Arte&Critica and NYArts. He has lectured on various topics for the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa (Venice), Japan Society, ISE Foundation, City College of New York/CUNY and the Rhode Island School of Design.

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