MoMA show is the Matisse we don't know -- blacks, whites and the grays in between
NEW YORK -- We know Henri Matisse. He is our favorite poster artist. We love the pinks and blues of his "Dance I" and how it turns the world into a cheerful place. We love the joyous arabesques of his "Red Room" and the brightly colored cutouts of his "Jazz." We've put them in our nurseries. They are so bold and clear that we can grasp them at a single glance.
A superb new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, called "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917," shows that the Matisse of our cliches is not the only one. Its 109 works give us a Matisse who, at least for a few years, made some of our toughest, most uncompromising, most nearly ungraspable pictures.
They show us an artist of impenetrable blacks and dirty whites, and of spreading grays that soil any colors they come near. They show us an artistic vision that cuts up the world, flips it backward, reveals it in negative, then puts it back together with its seams showing.
Most surprising, they reveal Matisse -- that free spirit who could imagine his way to any paradise he pleased -- slogging his way through the mud of everyday photography. It's not an argument the curators make, but I believe this exhibition -- sure to go down as one of the greatest of our era -- shows that this is where Matisse went to get his blacks and whites, his grayed-out colors, his reversals and revealed seams.
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Even the brightest pictures in this show have a murky underside.
What better subject could there be for joyous Matisse-ifying than a goldfish in a sparkling bowl, set down beside a painter's tools? Yet the astounding 1915 painting now titled "Goldfish and Palette" has a huge slab of black right down its middle, almost as if crossing out the pleasure its artist had taught us to expect. The palette Matisse depicts -- the one we imagine being used in painting the picture itself -- is a scratchy mess of grays. Even those poor fish are edged in black, as though pulled from an oil slick.
When Matisse's "Bathers by a River" started life, in 1909, it was as decoration for a grand house in Moscow. He imagined it as five nudes playing by a waterfall, in pretty pinks and blues and greens. By the time he declared it done, in 1916, he had reworked the giant canvas to feature four figures like gray ghosts, barely touched with flesh tones.
That same year, luscious oranges in a crystal bowl become, in the hands of Matisse, more like embers glowing on ashes.
Even in printmaking, where paper-white is the natural timbre, Matisse managed to find a way to go dark. For just the four years covered in this show, he immersed himself in the new technique of the monotype -- and used it to produce 69 all-black rectangles, with their subjects barely present, in negative, as a handful of white lines.
As for the pleasing legibility of "Dance" or "Jazz," it's mostly absent from this exhibition's paintings. You must work hard to figure out the worlds they show.
In the poignant "Piano Lesson," again from 1916 -- and another all-time-great painting -- a boy practices while a woman looks on from a distance. Except that, studying a drawing Matisse made of the actual scene, you realize that you're reading her wrong: She wasn't a she, but a female portrait put up on the music room's back wall. (That very portrait, now known as "Woman on a High Stool," is one of this show's gems. Matisse worked it and reworked it until it became yet another masterpiece in gray, with a bare few washes of color.) The almost vacant face of the piano player -- Matisse's 16-year-old son, according to the sketch -- is split by an orange blaze. We want to read it as a splash of sun but it looks just as much like a wound. (During World War I, grossly disfigured young men were pouring back from the front.) The piano's music stand is graced with the word "Leyelp" -- utter nonsense, until you decipher it as the name of the great French piano-maker Pleyel, seen in reverse. Illegibility is almost this painting's signature gesture, spelled out right across it.