The Piano Lesson 1916
On Sunday, The Museum of Modern Art will open what appears to be one of the extraordinary shows of the summer: “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917.” The exhibit focuses on a tumultous and extraordinarily dynamic and fertile period in the career of Henri Matisse, 1913-1917. The exhibit, curated by John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at MoMA and Stephanie D’Alessandro, Gary C. and Frances Comer curator of modern art at The Art Institute of Chicago, features more than 110 of his works, and is closely intertwined with the upheavels brought about during those years by the start of World War I and the early years of surrealism.
Much has been made, in the NY Times and other publications, on the exhibit's use of recent art-history research and scientific/technological investigations to explore the evolution and development of the artist's work. X-ray and laser analysis lead to discussions of the artist's use of brush handles and palette knives to scape away paint, revealing complex colors below.
At a preview on Friday morning, I was drawn to the color and complexity of his work, but more the continued pressing forward of experimentation with materials and technique.
From MoMA: "In the time between Henri Matisse's (1869–1954) return from Morocco in 1913 and his departure for Nice in 1917, the artist produced some of the most demanding, experimental, and enigmatic works of his career—paintings that are abstracted and rigorously purged of descriptive detail, geometric and sharply composed, and dominated by shades of black and gray. Works from this period have typically been treated as unrelated to one another, as an aberration within the artist's development, or as a response to Cubism or World War I. Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917 moves beyond the surface of these paintings to examine their physical production and the essential context of Matisse's studio practice. Through this shift of focus, the exhibition reveals deep connections among these works and demonstrates their critical role in the artist's development at this time. Matisse himself acknowledged near the end of his life the significance of this period when he identified two works—Bathers by a River (1909–10, 1913, 1916–17) and The Moroccans (1915–16)—as among his most "pivotal." The importance of this moment resides not only in the formal qualities of the paintings but also in the physical nature of the pictures, each bearing the history of its manufacture. The exhibition includes approximately 120 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints, primarily from the years of 1913–17, in the first sustained examination devoted to the work of this important period.
The technological analysis has its place in art history, but despite all of that, Radical Invention is a complex, demanding, and enriching show, exposing the patient viewer to colors, techniques and forms at a pivotal time in the development of modern art, and the development of an artist. Matisse as radical inventor and art explorer at this time, for whatever the reasons, clearly seems to rush quickly beyond the reach of any well-meaning efforts to track the painterly techniques that he used much less apply analysis. After awhile, the explanation of the paint scraping, the repriming and repainting, all seem to be a wan effort to understand an artist confronting himself and his expression during a complicated era. Ultimately, the artistic explosion leaves the art historians in the dust. For this viewer, it seems we can only look on as the artist takes risks and pushes ahead in an effort to give expresion to the workings of his eye and mind, and absorb this progress with joy.
MoMA here (note: timed tickets required).