Is there any artist more pleasing than Matisse (1869-1954) — his intoxicating palette, his depiction of life’s basic delights and joys, his simple approach to the human form? Probably not, but he also pursued abstraction with rigor, as evident in MoMA‘s exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917, on view through October 11. During this period, he experimented with a stronger move toward abstraction — to stretch his legs artistically, and perhaps in part resulting from a change of location, but the war may also have had a sobering effect on his work. The show of 110 drawings, paintings, and sculptures is curated by John Elderfield (MoMA) and Stephanie D’Alessandro (Art Institute of Chicago).
It’s sometimes difficult to remember how radical Matisse was in his time, since his work is so familiar to us. For reasons listed above, among others, his paintings are pretty loveable. They burst with delectable fruit and gemstone colors, with exotic locales, with simple, child-like celebration. And yet, his compositions often exclude structural elements, leaving blocks of color to define the space and narrative. He counted on our minds to be able to construct what he left out, to make sense of his world of shapes essentially as abstract as musical chords.
He also managed to do this in a way that didn’t feel didactic, as sometimes other modern pioneers could, such as Cezanne (1839-1906) and Picasso (1881-1973). Their paintings clearly and creditably diagram their intentions. Yet Matisse’s paintings nearly always convey their subjects first, not his manifesto or underlying process. Matisse presumably believed in pleasing people, so perhaps he feared making anything jarring or radical to avoid any semblance of ugly. Or perhaps he was just that much of a genius to be able to practice near total abstraction without indicating that he was causing a revolution, a kind of subterfuge.
The Blue Window, for example. Obviously, from the title and image, we’re looking at a window dividing the interior foreground from the outdoor background. Indoor stuff, like vases, flowers, lamps, clearly sit on a table. Trees, clouds, and a neighboring house are seen in the distance. But analyze the actual indication of space, and… there is none. The table is the same hue of blue as the sky and slightly lighter than what we perceive as tree foliage, which is actually a cluster of circles. The vertical band to the left completely absolves the painting of any debt to physics, and reminds us that we’re looking at a piece of canvas with some paint on it. It’s like a magic trick, teasing the mind by suggestion. Matisse proved how smart we can be.
Image: The Blue Window by Henri Matisse. Issy-les-Moulineaux, summer 1913. Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 35 5/8″ (130.8 x 90.5 cm). Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund. © 2010 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.