“If we had the ‘Grand Jatte,’ maybe that would be the way to begin.” Unfortunately for MoMA Director Glenn Lowry—who offered this bit of wishful thinking in Arthur Lubow’s New York Times Magazine feature about the museum’s 2004 reopening and revised presentation of its impeccably well-rehearsed collection—the Seurat is not likely to leave its long-term home at the Art Institute of Chicago. But, fortunately, these institutions know how to work together to put on a great show. Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917, a disciplined yet revelatory exhibition co-organized for both institutions by Stephanie D’Alessandro and John Elderfield (who, in my estimation, will long be seen as one of the best curators of his generation), has now moved from its debut in Chicago to New York, bringing with it what is arguably Chicago’s most important modern painting after the iconic and beloved Seurat, Matisse’s “Bathers by a River,” and returning two of MoMA’s best examples of his work, “The Piano Lesson” and “The Moroccans,” home. While the Art Institute may have its share of masterworks, MoMA’s 1993 Matisse retrospective made it clear that you would have to be Picasso to be better represented at the Modern than Matisse. The exhibition also includes several key works from elsewhere in the United States and Europe: paintings, drawings, and sculptures that contribute to a visual exchange so lively that, when I saw it in Chicago, I found myself double-checking some of the dates. By focusing on four short yet action-packed years in Matisse’s life and career, this exhibition not only proves that this period is in fact his most radical in terms of both production and presentation, but also provides a master class in what it still takes to make a powerful work of art, a lesson reinforced by a refreshing curatorial and conservational focus on the materials and means of Matisse’s (at this point, at least) risky business.
In Chicago, it was provocative to experience this exhibition in the context of the recent opening of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, which has just celebrated its first anniversary. Renzo Piano’s stand-alone structure is connected to the original building by an indoor, street-like passageway that could provide an opportunity or two for flânerie from the 19th to the 21th century (bringing to mind the museum’s well-known Caillebotte), but the building itself emphatically embodies its contents like no other encyclopedic museum. Glenn Lowry was no doubt surprised that for the inaugural hanging of the permanent collection, the Art Institute’s “story” of the modern would start not with the “Grand Jatte,” but rather “Bathers by a River.” Anyone who is familiar with the Art Institute, however, would not be surprised that Seurat stayed with the Impressionists, Gauguin and van Gogh, where its classical grace works better as late rather than early. (I would also imagine the local reaction to a move to the new building would have been far less than positive, as regular visitors are surely accustomed to reading it as the period at the end of a sentence articulated by the Monets.)
For years, MoMA’s permanent collection of painting and sculpture started with Cézanne’s “The Bather” (more on him below), and Lowry’s mention of the Seurat came in the midst of Lubow’s discussion of the curators’ shocking proposal to reopen the collection with something quite different: Paul Signac’s “Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic With Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890.” The performative pose struck by Fénéon, Signac’s (and Seurat’s) powerful advocate (as both critic and dealer, and he would later work with Matisse) represents a dramatic 90-degree turn from the frontal, confrontational stance of Cézanne’s bather, moving much more than the Cézanne in two directions at once: classical, even classicist, in reverse while looking so far forward that it now looks almost postmodern. The capacity for all of this movement, I must say, is the very thing that keeps me obsessed with great painting.
Therefore, last summer when I first saw Matisse’s “Bathers by a River” installed in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, just inside the doors to the first gallery on the top floor, everything turned again, and clicked into yet another potent place. Even after almost a century, I thought, Matisse’s muscular response to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) still packs a punch that was nearly obscured in the flow of the museum’s prior layout. Newly enabled to present itself as a forceful beginning, Matisse’s large painting feels even more connected to the “action painting” that is now one floor down, most particularly de Kooning’s “Excavation.” On the other hand, the extensive cleaning that the painting has undergone as a part of its recent conservation has re-established the seemingly contrary deliberateness of Matisse’s numerous reworkings. From the research—which the brilliant exhibition catalogue exhaustively documents for many of the paintings—we learn that there are at least six stages in its making: March–May 1909, fall 1909–spring 1910, May 1913, early November 1913, early spring–November 1916, and January–October 1917. (Accordingly, Matisse worked on “The Moroccans” in four stages between April 1912 and November 1916, on occasion, unlike “Bathers by a River, doing so in Morocco.) On its own in the museum’s collection, starting the story of modern art as told in the Modern Wing, “Bathers by a River” looks as if it were shot out of a gun. In this exhibition, surrounded by so many examples of Matisse’s commitment to the “building” of a painting, its extended periods of remodeling and outright rebuilding provide nothing less than a climax to the heroics of his art.
Of course, at MoMA, the opening room of Matisse’s exhibition will likely reinforce what is once again happening in the first room of its permanent collection, where, once again (for the moment), Cézanne’s “The Bather” is back in its appointed place. This is because one of the first paintings in the show is not a Matisse at all but a small yet potent Cézanne, “Three Bathers” (1879-82), that the artist purchased in 1899 from Ambroise Vollard after first considering a van Gogh that Matisse subsequently felt was rendered “posterlike” by the Cézanne. Matisse kept the painting for 37 years, telling the director of the Musée du Petit Palais in Paris when he donated it that “It has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and perseverance.” It is surrounded by paintings and sculptures by Matisse that predate the core years of the exhibition, including the painting “Reclining Nude with Chemise” (1906) and its “companion” sculpture “Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra)” (1907). “Bathers with a Turtle” (1907-08) is also here, a larger canvas that can be seen almost as an homage to the Cézanne as well as a link to Matisse’s other masterworks from this period that were not included in Chicago, especially “Dance (I)” (1909). (MoMA’s “Red Studio” (1911) was also not included, but as much as I love that painting, it wasn’t necessary to advance the argument being put forward in this exhibition.)
As groundbreaking and gorgeous as MoMA’s “Dance” is, however, once we arrive in 1911, strange yet compelling things start to happen, bringing us rapidly to the crux of Matisse’s emerging radical direction. One of the first paintings to catch my eye was “Portrait of Olga Merson” (1911), on which Matisse drew two dark arcs in paint that travel vertically down the model’s body. From the curators we learn to focus as well upon Matisse’s insistent scrapings and incisions around the head and upper right arm, effectively excavating those areas from their surrounding ground. In the catalogue, D’Alessandro and Elderfield’s language is impressively precise: “Although both the scrapings and the verticals masquerade as representations of occluding edges, they are actually notational marks that represent the movement of Matisse’s hand in response to the model and to his canvas, discovering her precise posture within the vertical field.” Taking this description into the next room, we can use it to work our way through paintings like “View of Notre Dame” (1914), where all of the brushy activity is transformed into perpetual reactivation by Matisse’s willful placement and replacement of an architectural, linear structure that grounds our experience of the painting as a view and an object all at once. Even in “Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg” (1914), which stills looks as if it landed from outer space, the alien yet gracefully incised arcs around the figure—what Matisse called its “lines of construction”—are grounded by evidence of many episodes of scraping, wiping, more incising, and repainting; in other words, incessant remaking: making again and again, I would argue, as a way to keep the work (again, simultaneously as an image and an object) moving yet ever present.
I should acknowledge here that I am giving short shrift to the sculpture, drawing, and printmaking that is extensively presented in the exhibition. All of it provides indisputable evidence that painting was hardly an exclusionary enterprise for Matisse. Rather, the show demonstrates the significant extent to which his experimentation in other media was a necessary component to his overall goal of staying focused on the ways by which something was constructed. With that in mind, it is instructive that the curators decided to distribute Matisse’s famous series of “Backs” throughout the exhibition, rather than presenting them in their usual frieze-like seriality, in order to demonstrate the progression of their long-term development for Matisse alongside the major paintings of this period.
In the end, what makes this exhibition most remarkable is the extent to which it stays focused on what it clearly intended to do. In other words, as majestic as the gallery is that contains “Bathers by a River,” “The Piano Lesson,” and “The Moroccans,” even it does not preclude rewarding opportunities for seeing this period of Matisse’s career differently than before. This is why I’m even willing to look past my moment of irritation with a curatorial claim about one of my favorite paintings, “French Window at Collioure” (1914). The curator’s confidence that the painting is unfinished, that Matisse likely intended to do something “to” its black center (in which there is evidence of the structure of a balcony, visible in raking light), is a pushback against psychological claims from the likes of Louis Aragon, written more than 50 years after the fact: “When we note its date, 1914, and it must have been in summer, this mystery makes me shiver. Whether or not the painter intended it, and whatever that French window once opened onto, it remains open. It was onto the war then, and it’s still onto events to come that will plunge the lives of unknown men and women into darkness, the black future, the inhabited silence of the future.” Given that the painting was not shown until 1966, after Matisse’s death, we will never know exactly why it is as it is, or if Matisse kept the black center intentionally. Despite my full respect for the extensive research that supports this transformational exhibition, here I’ll turn to an artist, who, in this case, is my friend and colleague Susanna Coffey, who, when I was discussing this painting with her, said “he kept it because he loved it.” With this one, I’ll go with the painter.