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

March 22, 2010 |  5:30 pm

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 C├ęzanne 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.

Comments () | Archives (5)

Nice, but simply looks like a combining of MoMA's and Chicagos Matisse's, with a few like the Blue Nude from Baltimore thrown in. The Russians have most of the best Matisse's, including almost all of the Algerian pictures, and not here as they were up to this time. Great if you have never seen alot of Matisse work, it is essential as a painter. But no Still Life with Eggplant or others in France from this time. His most intense and greatest works already done. like Harmony in Red and Dance with Nasturtiums.

A kinda thrown together show of a few American institution's but a show of the best painters every decade or so is necessary to reevaluate where we are, and that is a scary thought. We have strayed so far from this, forgotten our roots. Cut off from the sources which Matisse and all painters kept close at hand, never imagining they had supplanted all that had come before, only adding a link to the chain of human culture. We have much to learn, and relearn, time to get back to basics, to fundamentals of what art is. The aim is to create that which holds up to these works, that reflects the intensity of life. We have failed for decades to even consider challenging the past as Picasso and Matisse challenged each other, and simply wrote it off as we had evolved past them. riiiight

art collegia delenda est.

Replying to Donald Frazell: You are incorrect. The show has loans from 29 museums in 12 countries, including Russia. "Interior with Eggplants" (1911) from Grenoble predates the 1913-1917 survey. Works prior to 1913 that are in the show were chosen to demonstrate specific relationships with Matisse's development during the later period; "Interior with Eggplants" is irrelevant to that purpose.

I enjoyed reading your infomative article on Matisse in Chicago. These articles seem to be far and few between but we have so much to learn from this famous and talented artist. Would have enjoyed being able to visit during this time.
Laura K. Aiken

My bad, misread the date on abcgallery.com, an excellent place for quick review of many artists, though wrote them they should have Braque, thats just crazy as he surpassed Matisse after the war. He having served in it and trepanned, not hiding and whining like the Swiss dadaists, the Germans having seved and being truly outraged, rather than the soft and spoiled draftdogers in Switzerland. Who have influenced so much of American "art".

What do they have from Russia? The artists wife portrait? That should be there, as it is of the stripped down and non decorative phase he went into, though The Conversation should be there, if even if at the same time as Eggplants. It is decorative, but very much the forerunner of the post North African phase. Blue, gray and black became the dominant colors except perhaps my favorite of this time, The Morrocans which was probably a remake of earlier work with the green, pink and simplified arabesques.

Most of the works of this time are in America, with some in France and Denmark and Switzerland. The show will be built around these two museums collections. The Russians do have the best Matisse and Gauguins, like with jazz, when artists seem rebelious, but truly extending traditions, they do better in other countries as ones own are reactionary and scared. And so prefer pop and childrens versions of art and music.

A list of works in your articles would be nice, or at least a brief overview. Unless that hurts the exhibit by revealing it is weak. Hard to be weak with Matisse, but everyone creates more fastfood than gourmet in life. What they got?

art collegia delenda est

I think that this is one of the best shows at any museum this year and it DOES give a great picture of Matisse at this time. Russia and many other museums will not donate their masterpieces without a huge price especially to Chicago which refuses to donate their Seurat painting anywhere. It is becoming more and more difficult and expensive to mount painting exhibitions anywhere. Da Vinci's exhibit at the Getty is an Italian sculpture exhibit with a few drawing to draw in people. Nothing else has been shown in America of landmark value and Russia is more than happy to play their cards in depriving America of culture. Donald snub your nose.


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