Saturday, July 17, 2010

Matisse Alone: "Creativity takes courage."

"I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things."
~ Henri Matisse

New York's Museum of Modern Art has a new exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917. As I wandered through it on Friday, I thought about the many days I've spent with Matisse and MoMA in the past.

Henri Matisse won my heart the moment I saw "The Red Studio," which is part of MoMA's permanent collection. I was about 14, visiting the old museum for the first time, and I suddenly had the feeling that I'd never really seen before. The huge painting seemed to reach out and surround me, pulling me into its center.

Matisse said about this painting, "Where I got the color red — to be sure, I just don't know. I find that all these things . . . only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red."

My next Matisse revelation was a MoMA special exhibition — I think it was in the 1970s — devoted to his paper cut-outs. I didn't expect to like it, but as I walked in and through and under his abstract, air-infused creations, I was enthralled. He was a very old man when he made these, and I picture him lying in bed or sitting in a chair, holding his paper up to the light and then carefully cutting away the shapes he wanted to see. Light was important to him. He once said, "A picture must possess a real power to generate light and for a long time now I've been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light."

In 2003, when the new MoMA building was under construction and the collection was temporarily housed in a warehouse in Queens, the museum brought us "Matisse Picasso," a show produced in collaboration with London's Tate Modern and two French museums, the Réunion des musées nationaux/Musée Picasso and Musée national d’art moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou. The show theoretically explored the relationship between the two artists, but in reality it was a sort of Matisse-Picasso shoot-out that invited people to compare and choose the superior artist. But of course, the deck was stacked. What 20th century artist could ever measure up to Picasso's fire and talent and originality?

So it was a relief to find Matisse on his own again at MoMA in the new exhibition. The focus is a period when the artist relentlessly explored technique and form and media, developing the visual vocabulary he would build on throughout his career. His experiments, his discoveries, his frustrations and joys are right on the canvas.

During much of this period, he explores the idea of "becoming" — the transition between the now and the next. The curator's remarks about this painting, "Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg," describe the way he expanded her out into the air by surrounding her with arcs — a decision he apparently made at the last minute.

Matisse reworked this painting, "The Blue Window," several times, starting with a more naturalistic image and gradually reducing and simplifying it to achieve this tranquil, seemingly effortless effect.

The painting that moved me the most is this one, "Bathers by a River." The audio remarks quote Matisse as saying this was one of the "five most pivotal works" of his career. Matisse worked and reworked this painting, just for himself, off and on from 1909 until 1917. The exhibition includes x-ray images and photos of the work at earlier stages, and as you look at them you can almost feel the artist's mind working. It's an extraordinary sensation.

If you are in New York between July 18 and October 11, be sure to visit this exhibition (you can buy your tickets online here.) If you won't be in the city, then find a quiet hour and treat yourself to the multimedia show on the MoMA website.

"Creativity takes courage."
~ Henri Matisse


  1. The comment about light has always been an inspiration for me. Matisse was so engaged and accepting of the process if discovery. He kept looking to see what he could see and accepted that there was always more.

    The Bathers is one of my favorite paintings.

    Thanks for sharing this. Love the new look too.

  2. You really must see the show — the photos of The Bathers at different points in Matisse's journey are a revelation. His learning process and experimentation are everywhere in this exhibition. It made me feel like I knew him better.