Friday, February 1, 2013

Matisse: In Search of True Painting

By Charles Kessler
Photograph of Henri Matisse by Robert Capa, 1949.
The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting doesn’t have nearly as much art as the one John Elderfield organized for MoMA in 2010, nor are there as many masterpieces. Elderfield's was a major retrospective — a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. But in some ways the Met’s show is more enlightening. Roberta Smith called it  “… one of the most thrillingly instructive exhibitions about this painter, or painting in general, that you may ever see.” I agree.

The curator, Rebecca Rabinow, put together various versions of the same painting or subject so you can compare and contrast them (just like in a typical art history class). We are encouraged to focus on the changes Matisse chose to make and to witness his decision-making process. (And, unlike other blockbusters, this installation is spacious enough so it's possible to view several paintings at the same time without being blocked by other viewers.)

So, for example, on display are one full-scale drawing and two paintings of Matisse’s Le Luxe. The earlier works are not studies; they were created to stand on their own.
From the left: Henri Matisse, drawing for Le Luxe, 1907, charcoal on paper mounted to canvas, 88 9/16 x 53 15/16 inches; Le Luxe I, 1907, oil on canvas; 82 11/16 x 54 5/16 inches and Le Luxe II, 1907–8, distemper on canvas, 82 1/2 x 54 3/4 inches. 
From the drawing, to the first painting, to the final painting, Matisse progressively flattened shapes by eliminating modeling (the creation of the illusion of volume via the gradual shading of a shape from light to dark). So the torso of the crouching woman in the drawing, for example, gets gradually darker as it curves away from the source of light. In  Le Luxe (center), the modeling is schematic, less gradual — a splotch of light, warm color closest to the light source, and unmodulated cool color away from it. The Le Luxe torso thus becomes less solid and volumetric than in the drawing. And finally Le Luxe II is flat, no modeling — and the torso appears even less solid, less rounded. 

This is basic stuff, I know, but to see it set out like this is a surprisingly visceral experience. It was trilling to see how color becomes free of solid form allowing it to pulsate, breathe and glow in airy color/space. (And because of the flatness of the shapes, their abstractness, the way they are frontal and pushed up to the picture plane, Le Luxe II takes on a mysterious, allegorical quality.) 

A similar development is seen over and over, most instructively in gallery 7 where three paintings are presented with photographs documenting their evolution. 
Two walls of Gallery 7 showing photographs documenting the evolution of Matisse's La France,1939 (Hiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima, Japan) on the left, and Still Life with Magnolia, 1941  (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France) on the right.
Beginning in the 1930s, Matisse hired the photographer Matossian to document the progress of some of his paintings when Matisse felt they had arrived at a significant stage. According to Matisse's model and studio assistant Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse would use the photos to evaluate and rework a painting in order to, as he put it, "push further and deeper into true painting." 
Gallery 7 showing Matisse's The Dream, 1940, along with photographs documenting the painting's evolution.
In December 1945, six paintings and their photo documentation were displayed at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. Matisse wanted to demonstrate that his paintings weren't casual and spontaneous but rather were hard-won struggles. The Met recreated three of the walls from that exhibition. 
Henri Matisse, The Dream, 1940, oil on canvas, 31 ⅞ x 25 ⅝  (private collection).
Four of the fourteen photographs documenting The Dream at different stages. 
You can see Matisse struggle with The Dream, which he worked on for almost a year. He began with a relatively representational depiction of a woman sleeping — a figure with volume and weight, inhabiting a relatively rational space. Later photos show Matisse adding more detail, more modeling and more rhythmic brushwork and ornamentation; then the photos show Matisse focusing in. There is less and less detail both in the background and the figure, and the composition is ultimately simplified down to a play of oval shapes. 

The evolution of the woman's arms is a good example of Matisse's process. In the earlier work they project forward, out of the picture plane, toward the viewer; in the later work, they are flat vertical oval shapes parallel to the picture plane. 

The exhibition reveals Matisse's process in other ways as well. There are several paintings of the Cliffs of Étretat that Matisse made in 1920, along with an early photo of the actual site.
Henri Matisse, three versions of The Cliffs of Étretat from 1920. 

Photograph of the Cliffs of Étretat, ca 1906.
And there's the actual dress worn by Lydia Delectorskaya in Matisse's The Large Blue Dress, 1937. According to the Met's exhibition website, "She made it herself, using silk in the artist's favorite shade of blue and adding a cotton lace-trimmed ruffle to create the illusion of an overskirt." (It's surprising to me that Matisse chose not to go with his "favorite shade of blue," since the blue in the painting is kind of pallid.)
Blue Dress Gallery
Left: Henri Matisse, The Large Blue Dress, 1937, oil on canvas; 36 1/2 x 29 inches (Philadelphia Museum of Art); Right: Matossian documentary photograph of an earlier stage of The Large Blue Dress, February 26, 1937, 5 3/4 x 4 1/2 inches (Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Lastly, another thing I liked about this exhibition, and I hope it becomes a trend, is the way the space was designed. Rather than an overwhelming, vast, monolithic series of galleries, one after another, the eight spacious galleries are all different sizes, heights and colors. As a result, the exhibition is broken up into doable bite-sized chunks, and each new space refreshes the spirits. 


Vivian Swift said...

Great critique of a wonderful show. Didn't the gallery attendants yell at you for taking photos? I had to hide my camera when I was there -- and I completely agree that the hanging of the show is superb. Even the wall text is well done, and that's a surprise since most curators go nuts with that, trying their best to mediate the viewing experience. I did not take the guided tour because I like to form my own relationship with the art and this exhibit was perfectly designed for that.

Charles Kessler said...

Thank you. I found it intimidating, or maybe overwhelming, somehow to write about this show.

I did get yelled at by the gallery attendants -- but I took the photo! I don't get it. Almost every one of the paintings can be found online, most on the Met's site. What's the big deal?