Matisse lights up the MET
At age 20, recuperating in a hospital bed, Henri Matisse was given a paintbox by his mother as a diversion. It was Matisse’s first stab at painting, and it changed the course of art. As the 20th century’s greatest colorist, he possessed an uncanny instinct for the energy of colors—for the way shifting hues illuminate a painting from within—but other qualities as well: drive, an anxious but methodical disposition, a willingness to fail and a reverence for great painting.
His early stylistic experiments have inspired the Metropolitan Museum’s extraordinary exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting. This chronological installation of nearly 50 paintings focuses on series of works—especially pairs of canvases—that show the artist consciously thinking through issues of composition, and ways to give his color full voice. The thrill of the show is that, as Matisse instructs himself, he instructs us too, in the language he knew best.
Matisse’s formidable powers are evident from the start. Hanging alongside a vivid still life from 1899—painted in heightened impressionist hues—a second version somehow preserves much of its weightiness of forms even though reduced to flat, planar colors. Nearby, a Cézannesque still life hangs next to a pointillist version of the same setup. A brushy image of a seated sailor, rendered in a subdued palette, hangs next to one with almost crystalline shapes in blazing Fauve hues. What all these paintings share is an eloquence of colors—or, more exactly, a poignant measuring of the intervals between them.
In 1907-8, Matisse painted two remarkable versions of “Le Luxe,” depicting a standing figure with two attendants. The first has deliberately modeled volumes, but the second’s unmodulated color planes are enough to capture the verticality of the standing figure—the sensation of looking up at her head, and down to her feet, her height measured out by color-charged bands in the background. The artist makes the pose momentous with minimal modeling—much as did Giotto and Duccio, two early Renaissance artists whose works Matisse had admired that summer in Italy.
There was no turning back. In one of two stunning paintings from 1914, a window’s cool light gently suffuses a studio view, but the artist’s drawing expands the space almost violently, anchoring a chair and bowl at the bottom, while planting, at our eye level, a distant tower rhyming with the window’s vertical partition. In the second canvas, by contrast, sunlight splashes forcefully across the floor, tracing deep shadows. Elements are rendered more harshly, even irrationally, yet the means are the same: the re-creation of a scene by observing a particular light, and cajoling the forms within into life.
The last galleries include the hieratic, flattened figures, still lifes and interiors from the late ’30s and ’40s, along with four series of photographs of paintings in progress, which afford a gratifying, over-the-shoulder view of the artist at work.
In Search of True Painting is the rare show that reveals and connects art on its own, intimate terms—in its purely visual manifestation. Looking on, we absorb the evidence of one of the greatest minds of modern art, a painter who, to a unique degree, combined intelligence, self-awareness, and knowledge of precedents. Oh yes, he also knew a thing or two about color.
“Matisse: In Search of True Painting” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd St., through March 17.