Monday, April 05, 2010

New Matisse Exhibit Takes Radical Approach

Art Exhibit Review

Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917
Art Institute of Chicago
Thru June 20, 2010

With the short time span specified in the title of the Art Institute's new Henri Matisse exhibit and the statement, in the first sentence of the introduction, that its focus is the "most innovative and momentous, yet little studied, time in his long career," one is prepared that this is far from a full overview of the French artist who lived from 1869 to 1954. Nor does it include a large selection of his most defining, emblematic and--per his principal legacy--sublimely colorful works.

So while it answers "only somewhat" to the baseline criteria of "is it a nice selection of paintings (and/or sculptures)?--and therefore may have limited appeal to art fans looking for more aesthetic beauty and less scholarly lesson--it would be unfair to knock the exhibit for what it isn't. Given that unlike many of the Art Institute's high profile exhibitions, this one is included in your museum admission--and Bank of America customers can get in free to the museum on the first weekend of every month--the Matisse show is certainly worth a walkthrough for anyone, despite having only about a dozen truly "can't miss" paintings.

With the depth of research and preparation clearly obvious, the ambitious exhibit is likely more rewarding to those willing to read the wall text (or listen to an audioguide, which I didn't) and look a bit beyond the surface. And it's probably very enlightening to Matisse aficionados with solid knowledge of his overall output and career progression. Where it could have been considerably better is in providing non-experts with a better awareness of where the specified period, and Henri's "Radical Invention" within it, fits into a fuller picture of Matisse.

Nowhere within the exhibit did I see mention of Matisse's life-span (I had to look it up on Wikipedia while there), and while it may have been contrary to the show's focus to borrow and display Matisse paintings that didn't fit into the context of the given theme--as did the included works predating the 1913-1917 period--a wall display showing the arc of his 50+ year career with illustrations of a few highlights, would have been quite welcome.

For such an overview, reference the Matisse section of the wonderful online Olga's Gallery as well as his Wikipedia entry. Because with such understanding, the current exhibit conveying the experimentation he undertook during the specified period, including scraping off paint and re-creating Bather's By A River (atop this post  and part of AIC's collection) numerous times, is considerably more fulfilling.

For it is as an exploration of a great artist's methods, challenges, creative process and psyche--with World War I raging around him, although its effect is never clearly prevalent in his art itself--and how it affected his future oeuvre, rather than simply a gathering of sensational paintings, that makes Matisse: Radical Invention truly engaging.

While I liked Bathers By A River and the exhibit's other centerpiece, The Moroccans (right), as well as many of the works shown in context--you can see a nice smattering here--I really enjoyed a few things that were either less noticeable or not quite as directly  substantive to the display's overall theme. But they jibe well with my some of my own observations.

One was a quote by Matisse, from 1919, saying:

"When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new."

This is about as succinct an explanation I've ever read of the creative ambition--and unrest--that takes artists  in many realms on new and different paths, often outside of their comfort zone, sometimes resulting in greater critical & commercial success, sometimes lesser. In other words, even if you don't like your favorite band's third album because it's "so much different" than their first two, the fact that they weren't content to repeat themselves should still command your respect.

I also really relished seeing the least "Matisse-like" painting in the exhibit: his 1893 student copy of A Table of Desserts by 17th Century Dutch painter Jan Davidsz de Heem. The original is at left; I couldn't find Matisse's copy online but it was a pretty close replica.

Much as when I've seen early paintings by minimalists/modernists like Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky and Rothko, it demonstrated that Matisse only developed his own style--which may appear less strenuous and detailed than a more classical approach--after mastering the fundamentals. In a variety of art forms, I get the feeling that some practitioners today have a tendency to "skip to the end."

Matisse's student copy was all the more fascinating paired with his 1915 reworking of it in a more personal and progressive manner (above). Part of his creative "searching" was answered by rediscovering where he began.

Given Matisse's fame as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, it would be easy to perceive the Art Institute's exhibition as a blockbuster similar to showcases it has culled of some of art's superstars. But given the price point, if nothing else, it isn't intended as such.

So be forewarned. This show isn't an illustration supporting Matisse's reputation as a supreme colorist, nor is it likely as acutely enjoyable as such an exhibit would be. But if you do a bit of homework beforehand and approach it simply as a study of a brief-yet-pivotal interval along a visionary's long artistic journey, you are apt to appreciate your eyes being opened.

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