A new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago
takes a close sometimes even microscopic look at one short and enigmatic phase in the 65-year-long artistic career of France's Henri Matisse.
Matisse, who lived from 1869 to 1954, is often seen as the least controversial and the most serene of the great 20th century modernists. Though his occasional early sculptures are darker, Matisse's paintings and prints seem to live in a sunny place outside of time. Their tone of bright calm makes their reproductions favored decor for hospital corridors.
Looking at them, you would not know that Matisse lived through both world wars and the Great Depression, or that Paris fell to enemy troops twice in his lifetime in 1871 and 1940.
Except for the academic interiors and still lifes he painted as a student after abandoning the law for art at age 20, Matisse's enduring trademarks were bright colors and a deceptively simple approach to form.
Those aspects were present from the oils Matisse presented in 1905 as leader of the fauvists to the vast paper cutouts he created late in his life when arthritis made painting impossible. But they disappeared suddenly when he returned to Paris from a trip to Morocco in 1913 and did not fully reappear until after the end of World War I. During that time, Matisse's paintings were dominated by blacks and grays, and there was an uncharacteristic density to his composition.
That period is the focus of the new exhibition "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917," which opens March 20 at the Art Institute. Stephanie D'Alessandro of the Art Institute and John Elderfield of the Museum of Modern Art in New York curated the show.
It contains nearly 120 of Matisse's paintings, sculptures, etchings and drawings many from that crucial period, but some from before and after.
Some critics attribute the change to war pressures and the challenge of a younger generation of painters, particularly the cubism championed by Matisse's younger friend and rival, Pablo Picasso. But D'Alessandro and Elderfield believe Matisse decided to reinvent himself artistically and develop new methods of art construction.
To explore that idea, they delved into Matisse's writings and had technicians examine his works with microscopic and X-ray analysis.
"Our study was inspired by our own collection at the Art Institute especially by that wonderful painting 'Bathers by a River,'" D'Alessandro said Thursday at a press preview of the exhibition.
D'Alessandro noted that when the Art Institute acquired the work a year before Matisse's death, the artist told the museum it was one of the five most pivotal works of his career. She also said he had kept it in his studio for years as an object for study.
Matisse began "Bathers by a River" in 1909 and revised it several times over the next year. He reworked it again several times in 1913, and again in 1916-1917.
"We have learned that the canvas experienced more than 20 states (of composition) over the years, and that Matisse deliberately left traces of some of the older versions visible in its final form," D'Alessandro said.
It was a practice he continued when he returned to a brighter palette and lighter forms in the 1920s and 1930s.
"He said once that the greatest works were those in which you had to start over from scratch to rework them," she added.
Elderfield said that in his later paintings, Matisse often scraped off almost as much paint as he applied, and he made no effort to conceal that he had done so. He also moved elements around on the canvas multiple times.
Gray and black are dominant tones in "Bathers by a River," but traces of brighter pigments remain on its four monumental and faceless human figures.
Elderfield conceded that the somber tone of the painting probably had something to do with World War I. He noted that Matisse who was 44 and in poor health in 1914 had been rejected for military service and he also was distressed that so many of his younger colleagues and friends were in the trenches.
"How does an artist respond to a war?" Elderfield asked. "For one thing, with a refusal of ostentation, which may account for the dark tones and the fact that Matisse would not mount any shows of his work during the war."
But both curators said the change in the artist's work went beyond reaction to the war, and showed he was striving toward what Matisse called "methods of modern construction."
Once he had established those methods, they said, Matisse could return to an apparent simplicity achieved through distillation.
The exhibition runs in Chicago through June 20. It will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from July 18 through Oct. 11.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.