By Blake Gopnik
Thursday, July 22, 2010; C01
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.A photographic vision
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.
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.