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Art review: 'Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917' @ Art Institute of Chicago

March 22, 2010 |  5:30 pm

Bathers_by_a_river
CHICAGO -- If the world is coming apart at the seams and society's provisional fabric is being shredded, how does an artist respond? With anger? Analysis? Denial? Disinterest?

That's a question that thrums through a breathtaking exhibition, newly opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. And in the case of its subject, the great French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954), the answer is not so simple.

The show is a concentrated look at a nearly five-year period between Matisse's last visit to Morocco, where the saturated light had such a deep impact on his color sense, and his departure from Paris, where he made his career, to live in the ancient Mediterranean resort at Nice. It includes some of the greatest, most enigmatic works of his long career but has never been the focus of a show.

The period also roughly coincides with World War I. When the German army advanced on Paris in 1914, having already occupied the town in northern France where the artist grew up (and members of his family still lived), and as the mountain of gruesome corpses in the most horrific conflict Europe had known since the Middle Ages piled ever higher in ensuing years, Matisse did something unexpected: He reinvented his art.

Matisse Italian Woman 1916_jpg One painting places his young son Pierre by an open window, seated at a piano awaiting a lesson. Another shows the willowy figure of a dark-haired Italian woman, the wall behind her miraculously wrapping around her right shoulder like a consoling shawl. A studio interior juxtaposes a painter's palette, propped on a table, with a big cylindrical glass vase filled with water, in which a couple of goldfish swim.

Perhaps most remarkably, a huge canvas poses four monumental nudes by a river. The four stone-colored, monolithic figures might also be a single woman, seen from different sides. Statuesque, they're like prehistoric goddesses in a landscape at once lush and forbidding. And if that narrow, pointed white shape rising from the bottom edge of the 12-foot-wide canvas is indeed a serpent, are these "Bathers by a River" meant to conjure up an archaic Eve?

Matisse made several exceptional bronze sculptures too. One series began as a life-size bust of a young woman, its richly modeled surface appealing to a viewer's sense of touch through the intricate play of light and shadow. That bust becomes progressively more abstract through each of the next four iterations until, by the end, it consists of two enormous eyes split by a nose that rises into a bulbous brow. "Jeannette (V)," made in 1916, bristles with the formal power of the African tribal sculptures Matisse admired and collected.

Another series of 6-foot bronze reliefs resonates with "Bathers by a River." In each, a nude woman  seen from the back, presses her body against a wall. Her head rests in the crook of her upraised left arm, and the fingers of her right hand are splayed. The pressure between body and wall seems to energize both, until finally the structure of the body, the wall and the entire relief fuse into one.

Matisse also produced prints. The most surprising are little monotypes, made by covering small copper plates with black ink, incising a linear drawing of a still life or head and pressing the plate into paper for a single quick impression. You peer into the dark surface, and the black glows with an inner light.

How do these and other of the 117 works assembled for the exhibition respond to the cruel chaos of war? The show's title says it: "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917."

Invention was not new to his art, but after 1913 he cranked up the visual volume. Matisse was 44 and already successful as war broke out, but he was turned down when he volunteered for military service. Friends did march off to fight, and some did not return. They gave their all, and he did too.

It's not a question of subject matter. In a quotation posted in the show, the artist told an interviewer in 1951: "Despite pressure from certain conventional quarters, the war did not influence the subject matter of painting, for we were no longer merely painting subjects." Instead, Matisse just never let up. The intensity of wartime Paris is matched by the fervor of his experiments.

The show begins with a necessary, even lengthy throat-clearing -- more than two dozen works that precede 1913, including 1907's still-startling "Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra)," with its transformation of a classical odalisque into something formidable and aggressive, and "Le Luxe (II)," with its sumptuous trio of female bathers abstracted from observable form. They resonate with the small Cézanne painting of bathers that Matisse owned -- the only work not made by him included in the show -- a picture of primitive paradise.

Matisse Flowers and Ceramic Plate1913 A weirdly beautiful 1913 still life, "Flowers and Ceramic Plate," is an almost entirely blue canvas with a green disk (the ceramic plate) hovering like some exotic sun above a vase of red, yellow and orange flowers below. A loose sheet of paper, perhaps a drawing or print, hangs suspended, tucked between the plate and the wall. Raking black shadows connect the disparate objects, while the colors breathe optical space into flattened shapes.

Look slowly, and the history of this painting's fabrication soon emerges -- circular echoes of larger green plates, for example, which Matisse painted over to make the shape smaller and smaller. Finally the painting assumed an existence independent of the actual still life he looked at in his studio. Color, structure and aesthetic decisions combine to assemble this amazing picture, and Matisse displays them all.

Art is not an image here, but a complex process of becoming.

He called his radical invention the development of "methods of modern construction." First inspired by   color, then by the Cubism of his friend and rival Picasso, he made painting analogous to sculpture as a physical art form with distinctive material qualities. Using a variety of tools, Matisse scumbled, scored, layered, scratched and incised the paint; he scraped, scuffed and wiped the paintings' surfaces. Black and gray became voluptuous colors, rather than a void or neutral space.

Things reach a crescendo in 1916. One gallery holds the newly monumental canvases "The Piano Lesson," "Bathers by a River" and "The Moroccans" -- the last a memory of his final trip to Tangier -- plus the bronze relief "Back (III)" and that final head of Jeannette. They propose complex themes of art, sensuality and Arcadian accord.

Curators Stephanie d'Alessandro and John Elderfield note that these "radically inventive" paintings and sculptures date from the war's most menacing moment. Ferocious battles in nearby Verdun, where the German army chief Erich von Falkenhayn promised to "bleed France white," and in the region of the Somme threatened to let rivers of blood flow to Paris.

Matisse was not, as is sometimes claimed, indulging in escapist fantasy. Instead, the show's remarkable example (and first-rate catalog) suggests a profound understanding: Great artists know that the world is always already in the process of unraveling. During the epic convulsion of World War I, Matisse made sure his radical inventiveness was commensurate to the gravity of the circumstance.

-- Christopher Knight

"Matisse: Radical Invention,1913-1917," Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., through June 20.

Photos: Henri Matisse, "Bathers by a River" (1909-1916); "The Italian Woman" (1916); "Flowers and Ceramic Plate" (1916); all oil on canvas. Credit: Art Institute of Chicago.

Related: Matisse gets 'radical' in Chicago

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight at @KnightLAT on Twitter.

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