Henri Matisse, one of the two giants of twentieth century art (along with Picasso), is exposed in a new exhibit in The Metropolitan Museum of Art that runs from December 4, 2012 until March 17, 2013. The exhibit is equivalent to watching a Broadway rehearsal as the director contemplates whether an actor or actress should speak a particular line in a particular way without being sure of the motivation.
An argument may be made that the viewer of a work of art should be exposed to the final product and nothing else. However, in the case of Matisse, the public is so familiar with his work that, in order for museums to create excitement, they strive to discover new ideas. Such is the case here. The new idea is disguised for much of the exhibit, but when it reveals itself, its impact is powerful and controversial.
The exhibit opens with two paintings that are shown side-by-side. The first of these, 'Still Life with Compote and Fruit,' from 1899, was done when Matisse was 30 and without "critical recognition." It is a deceptively simple, unfinished still life with the white of the canvas exposed in large areas.
In the upper right corner of the canvas is a rectangle of green and lemon yellow that has the most thickness of paint and the most texture of any area in the painting. It draws the eye back to that spot and then to another part of the painting--the earth-green pitcher, the long, thin, light yellow vertical to the immediate left of the rectangle, or the pink horizontal stripe below--and then back to the small rectangle again. Every color has another color that is almost the same, but not quite, that moves the eye throughout the canvas. The inventiveness of this composition is interesting enough, but hanging next to it is another painting of the same subject in which Matisse has made different esthetic choices in terms of color and design.
The viewer is exposed to the creativity of the artist. Matisse is able to take the same idea and paint it in so many different ways. The exhibit is comprised of two or three paintings for each subject he attempts to represent.
The three 'Le Luxe' paintings from 1907-08 are the largest examples of this, and are featured prominently in this exhibit. As the Met points out as part of its description of Matisse's thought process: "He had little interest in anatomical exactitude and instead sought to convey the essential qualities of his figures."
In the second and final version, Matisse makes some interesting decisions from a compositional point of view that flatten the canvas and make the viewer less aware of three dimensional space. The upright figure on the left kisses the left side of the canvas at the forearm. The right foot is almost floating instead of bearing weight and the figure on the upper right almost looks as if she is standing on the figure beneath her. This is accentuated by the rounded back of the blond woman. The woman above her is on firmer ground than in either of the other pieces. Leaning forward, her arms bearing flowers are more outstretched. The top of her head is kissing the horizon line. Matisse took the compositions of the two previous studies and tightened them to form the final version.
So far, so good. As the Met points out, "In a 1936 interview, Matisse posed a rhetorical question, 'Why should I paint the outside of an apple, however exactly? What possible interest could there be in copying an object which nature provides in unlimited quantities?'"
The above quote does not prepare one for the blue dress and what comes next. A large photo of the model who posed in the blue dress is hanging next to the blue dress in question, and then a row of ten smaller black and white photographs are laid out at waist level. The name of the painting is 'The Large Blue Dress.' The smaller photos are, quite obviously, of ten different canvases of ten different paintings of the same subject--except that they're not. A cautionary note is written about these ten photographs by the Met to avoid confusion. The photographs, taken between 2/26/37 and 4/3/37, are different stages of the same painting!
Instead of one photograph 'copying' the final painting, a painting that followers of Matisse have been exposed to for an unlimited number of times, just as with the apple referred to above, the viewing public is being shown the many layers of this painting that are beyond the ability of the human eye to see. As we learn more about apples by seeing how Matisse paints them, we learn even more about Matisse as we pull back and expose the layers of his painting and reveal the essence of his thought-process and ask even more questions.
What does it mean for Matisse to have made so many significant reworkings of the original pose? Was he struggling the same way that a novice artist struggles when he doesn't get the pose just right? Or was this just a part of his process, not being wedded to any brushstroke, feeling the freedom to be able to change anything for the good of the painting? An optimistic voice opts for the latter explanation and uses the earlier paintings in the exhibit as evidence to support this conclusion.
The white band that travels down the blue dress in the final painting does not exist in the original dress. The way the hair falls on the model is not the way it falls in the painting either. Matisse has made his artistic choices and the members of the artistic community, some of whom may have made that wide band a little thinner or more golden or less straight, may have made other choices. Most of that community, however, once those choices have been made, would stay with them unless their eyes see the shapes in question with more clarity and precision than before.
Matisse was looking somewhere else. His mind may have been open in a different way.
For more information about this exhibit, please visit: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/matisse?utm_source=ho....