South of Heaven

matisse-portraitMatisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917
Museum of Modern Art

Through October 11, 2010

"Bathers by a River," in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute, has to be one of my top ten favorite paintings, though otherwise Matisse has always seemed a bit too lightweight for my taste. The Museum of Modern Art has devoted a large portion of the current Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 exhibit to that newly cleaned and restored painting, so, with the prospect of seeing at least one great piece, I visited the show and unexpectedly got a fresh opportunity to rediscover a powerful painter.

Henri Matisse usually brings to mind bucolic scenes of rest and calm, but here we finally meet the artist who matched Cezanne and Picasso in his ambition to discover and convey a new, distilled way of seeing through painting; an artist driven to strip-mine nature in order to find an essential ore of pure form. Invention was everything, and he was not above letting his subjects suffer a little in his desire to attain it. The show begins, appropriately enough, with a painting by his idol Cezanne, "Three Bathers." Cezanne's grotesque yet compelling nudes serve as a prototype for Matisse's attack on the human form, but that is all. Matisse, unlike Cezanne, is all about feeling the figure, retooling it, and giving it back to us in a new form. Flattened fields of color, like flesh stretched over the canvas, and sinewy, whip-like lines describe new forms. "Le Luxe II," a large nude woman and her two female supplicants, and "Bathers with a Turtle," with its weird pre-pubescent hybrids, are lush and beautiful, and edged with enough kink to rival Picasso's "Demoiselles d’Avignon." The coltish girl-woman on the painting’s proper left reminds us of nothing so much as Lolita on the beach.

In the second and third galleries the knives come out and the real work begins. In both his sculpture ("Back II"), and paintings ("Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg"), Matisse cuts, scrapes, abrades, and slashes paint and plaster to carve out (both literally and figuratively) the figure. Unlike Cezanne's nearly OCD horror of staining the canvas, Matisse first gives us the portrait of Ms. Landsberg; then he goes to work on it like a surgeon, cutting in and carving out, abstracting the figure by showing us what it looked like to him. We see the process, the work involved, and for a brief moment we are in the head of the artist, looking through his eyes.

“Head White and Rose” is Matisse's response to Braque and Picasso’s Cubism, and perhaps one of the most psychologically fraught works he would ever paint. Nominally a picture of his daughter Marguerite, it is a densely worked and layered piece of creation and destruction. Marguerite’s head is reordered with thick black lines, a black dog-collar hides the scar of a childhood tracheotomy, and the thick, dark surrounding space serves to engulf and contain her, rather than recede into background. A profound sense of longing and possession pervades the piece, as if he felt that if he stopped painting her, she might disappear. Not even her pretty pink and blue striped blouse can lighten the mood of the portrait -- and why should it? It was painted at the outbreak of World War I, and a sense of existentialist fear has begun to enter the work. He becomes both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, torn between the need to dissect the human form and the need to protect it (remember the tracheotomy.) The urge to take apart, though, has begun to wane in the face of the real taking apart of the world. "French Window at Collioure," perhaps the most abstract work of his career, gives us a window, but one with a view of darkness, silence, and the unknown -- a landscape of total eclipse, of a dark night that would last for years. We have the sense that the black which begins to invade his works from this point on has crept in through this window, left open just a minute too long.

All of this is back-story, of course, to "Bathers by a River," a Master’s Masterpiece. "Bathers by a River" gives us a veritable catalog of his themes and techniques in one large frieze, from lush patterned greenery to simplified, stark figuration, anonymous and isolated. Matisse both absorbs and deconstructs Cubism here, giving us a 360-degree view of the human figure, but resists the temptation to overlay the action, allowing us to imagine either four separate figures or different aspects of one. But there is a fifth element, small, yet significant; a snake slithers up mid-canvas, bisecting the composition where a black panel abuts a white. There was a serpent in another garden that brought to its inhabitants the gift of the knowledge of good and evil -- of light and dark. They saw that they were naked; they became human. We could take the obvious view of the serpent as symbol, that Matisse's Arcadia has been corrupted, that the innocence with which he sought to deconstruct the human form has paled when compared to the atrocity exhibition of maimed soldiers returning from the front. Or, perhaps, we can imagine the little serpent as Matisse. The Artist playing god in the Garden of his canvas, offering us that divine ability -- to see for ourselves the darkness and the light. - Bradley Rubenstein

dom

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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