Sunday, August 8, 2010

Museum Visit: MoMA: Matisse's Radical Years

The Museum of Modern Art exhibition called "Matisse: The Radical Years," the art of Henri Matisse from approximately 1913 to 1917, features major works created during a pivotal time in his career, when he was influenced by the cubism of Picasso and Braque. It is a smallish exhibition, but a very important one.

The exhibition includes one of Matisse's most magnificent paintings, the "Bathers By a River." It is larger than I remembered, more powerful, extremely beautiful, and very architectural. (Some of Matisse's greatest paintings were composed for architectural settings.) The color is almost monochromatic black, grays, and white, with green. The canvas is divided into vertical bands, like columns. The figures, like the figures in a Greek frieze, are confined to the bands. There are four stylized figures: one is side view facing right, one is back view, one is side view facing left, and one is front view, like the views of elevations in architectural plans. Matisse labored on the canvas for several years, constructing and re-constructing the figures, over time, making them more geometric. MoMA offers xray photographs of the changes.

Matisse always created near-perfect compositions. But each time I see "Bathers By a River," I am awed by his patient search for the ultimate composition. Wow.

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