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MoMA show is the Matisse we don't know -- blacks, whites and the grays in between

A photographic vision

Henri Matisse is famous as the painter of colorful pleasures, but an excellent new show at the Museum of Modern Art, called "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917," provides a darker view of him. Around the time of World War I, under pressure from cubism's success and perhaps in response to world events, Matisse made many fractured paintings tinged with black.

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So there I was at this MoMA show, engrossed in its strangely solid blacks, its grays touched with thin color, its reversed-out monotypes and backward writing, when it hit me: I'd seen all this before. It was there already, prior to and all around Matisse -- in photography. Matisse wasn't simply up against the world in these four years of great and profound painting, as any painter might be. He was confronting the photographic images that most deeply shape our view of it.

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At just this moment, when cubism's star was rising, Matisse had been accused of being old-fashioned, arbitrary, a fashionista -- like someone making neckties, as Picasso was supposed to have quipped, with just a grain of truth. For the four years covered in this show, Matisse makes art that shows that he can pull the world apart as well as any cubist could.

But his nods to photography let him go even further, probing not just the real itself but the ideals of realism that even cubism still clung to.

If photography most clearly represents what counts as "real," Matisse would undo its reality effects. He showed it up as nothing more than shapes on a flat surface. Whereas Picasso's cubist decomposings seem to happen in 3-D, unpicking the world in depth, Matisse's cut it up the way you'd take scissors to a magazine.

The gray-on-gray figures in his "Bathers" could almost be paper dolls. His "Piano Lesson" is closer to a kindergarten collage than to the in-depth, pry-bar demolitions of cubism. The strangely independent fields of "Goldfish and Palette" could almost be multiple photos joined at their edges.

Like everyone alive in his time, Matisse, the great painter, was in fact immersed in a world of photographs. By 1913, newspapers had invested in presses that for the first time allowed them to overflow with photos. The new postcard craze was in full swing. The Kodak Brownie had made photographers of everyone.

And Matisse bought into the medium's potential.

He had photos taken of his works, sometimes in suites as they progressed. He used photographs to circulate news of finished paintings to patrons and colleagues. As a cultural icon, he sat before the cameras of photographic veterans such as Alvin Langdon Coburn and young stars such as Edward Steichen, as well as total unknowns. Most telling, he occasionally used photos in the making of his art.

At MoMA, a wall text for Matisse's paintings of Moroccan scenes reproduces tourist postcards he owned, and could have used in coming up with some of his North African details. They were what triggered my eureka moment in this show. It's not just that those postcards are black and white, evoking all the blacks and whites and grays so striking at this moment in Matisse's career. Like so many of the era's photos, they came hand-tinted with pale pinks and blues, muddied by the grays beneath, which eerily evoke the hues and tones in MoMA's Matisse.

His "Woman on a High Stool" has just that gray-and-watercolor range, as does his "Bathers." His "Goldfish and Palette" has a sense of having first been composed in black and white, as many Matisses from this era literally were. And then you can imagine Matisse, the retoucher, picking out its most important details in their iconic colors -- in "goldfish orange," "sky blue," "tangerine orange" and "leaf green."

One famous 1913 portrait from the Hermitage that isn't in this show presents a woman whose clothing is all colored, with her face left absolutely gray -- precisely as in one of Matisse's Moroccan postcards, and in almost every other tinted photo he'd have seen.

That strange, un-realistic collision of black and white and color matters as much to Matisse, I think, as photography when it is most true to life. Unlike Old Master painting, carefully handcrafted to be credible in every detail, photography, for all its automatic realism, also came loaded with unreal accident and artifice. Every photo, for instance, started out reversed, in white on black, as a hard-to-read negative -- an effect that's strikingly evoked in Matisse's monotypes. (Their very tight cropping is also notably photographic.) Flip a negative when you're printing it, as often happens, and its letters will read backward -- as in Matisse's "Leyelp" piano.

Photography's translation of a colored 3-D world into flat black and white can do as much to confuse space, light and objects as to reveal them: A black object in the foreground can touch and become one with a black shadow that's much farther back; an overexposed beam of light can read as a surface stripe that cuts a space, or a face, in two. Those are just the kind of confusions we see in Matisse. Even photos that tell us most about the world, like the stop-motion imagery of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey -- evoked in prints, paintings and sculptures in the MoMA show -- can look quite unlike it.

So, Matisse seems to conclude by the end of his four-year campaign, if photography can never reveal the world as it is, what hope is there for painting? You might as well go further into fantasy. Before the war is done, he moves south, to the sun and sky of Nice, and begins his great suite of naked odalisques.

"When you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction," Matisse said at just this moment, "you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new."

Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917

is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through Oct. 11. Admission is by timed ticket, and some slots could sell out. Call 212-708-9400 or visit http://www.moma.org.


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