Arts » Visual Arts

A many-sided man: Matisse in transition

Art Institute showcases the painter's cubist roots with Picasso, Gris

Photo: the Art Institute
Henri Matisse's painting, Bathers with a Turtle.

  An artist must be in constant evolution. French painter Henri Matisse is a perfect example of an artist who was constantly changing and innovating throughout his life as he experimented with different artistic movements. The Art Institute’s new exhibit, Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917, explores what is perhaps the most dramatic era of the artist’s evolution. 

  The Matisse that the exhibit represents is one that is a departure from his usual repertoire. After his rejection by the French Army during World War I, Matisse redirected his frustration into the development of a new form of artistic invention, focusing less on color and “the spontaneity of the moment” and instead placing more emphasis on detail, precision, and “re-painting.” Unlike his most popular pieces which drew influence from the Postimpressionist movement, the pieces shown in the exhibit lack soft, animated colors, harmonious patterns, and everyday scenes. The show presents a different Matisse: one influenced by cubism and concerned with geometric exactitude, mechanical drawing, still lifes, and using opaque, dark colors to represent abstract figures.

  This contrast between his earlier work and his later, more radical period is highlighted throughout the exhibit. The exhibit does an impressive job of demonstrating Matisse’s artistic evolution by placing the paintings he did during his Postimpressionist era next to the work from his later experimental era. The lively, colorful, and spontaneous “Goldfish and Palette,” painted in 1914, is juxtaposed with a redo from 1915 that is more geometric. The naturalistic and colorful “Apples” contrasts with his more cubist-like painting “Still Life with Lemons.”

  Likewise, Matisse’s innovative style is placed beside that of other painters as a means to further highlight the cubist influence in his art. The opaque and geometric “Still Life after Jan Davidsz de Heem’s La Desserte” is contrasted with its original “realist” painting from 1640. The cubist influence of his painting “Still Life with Lemons” is highlighted by its placement next to one made by cubist painter Juan Gris. The clever presentation of the pieces, focused on contrasts and similarities between different paintings, demonstrates to the viewer the extent of Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris’s influence on Matisse, as well as on the drastically innovative nature of his “time of invention.”

  A less cubist but still spectacular and different example of Matisse’s most popular style is the “Portrait d’Auguste Pellerin II,” painted in 1917. The limits of the black paint becoming undefined as the subject’s jacket bleeds into the background. The oval-shaped head atop the dark suit and the expressionless, profound eyes invest the painting with mystery and obscurity. The painting is a profound and intriguing mixture of caricature-like portraiture and a frightening and mysterious ambiance. 

  The masterpiece of the exhibit is “Bathers by a River,” a painting that took Matisse eight years to finish. It was painted in different stages, each highlighting a different episode of his dynamic artistic career. The painting demonstrates how these stages changed and interacted with his exposure to different artistic movements. The piece is a perfect work of aesthetic harmony: a balance between bright and dark colors, pouring curves and rigorous geometry, shadows and light, and movement and stillness.

  It is a pity that Matisse’s artistic exploration between 1913 and 1917 is often underestimated by art fans as an era of transition. What they do not realize is that art without innovation, invention, and reinvention is dull art. Many masterpieces can often be found in an artist’s transition periods, in the moments of their most radical explorations. Matisse was one of the brave painters who, for four years, abandoned most of his previous artistic styles and explored within the profundities of his own talent. He reinvented his art, and the result was extraordinary.

  • Victor Enyutin

    Henri Matisse’s “Bathers with a Turtle” and “Game of Balls” (both painted in 1908)
    Through the analysis of the formal features of these two Matisse’s paintings we try to comprehend his unconscious concept of specificities of adolescent psychological development for girls (“Bathers…”) and for boys (“Game…”).
    The two paintings are like an expression in visual images and its rhythms the painter’s observations, intuitions, and geometrical thinking. Matisse is playing colors and contours like a violin, and in addition, as if, whispers their meanings as words.
    Following the artist we try to grasp and to formulate the particularities, similarities and the differences between the adolescents of both genders in their psychological development and analyze how the impressions of mind and heart of the painter find their way on his canvass.
    Find two articles about Matisse’s paintings – “The Vitality, the Melancholy and the Desire to Understand Life” (posted on Sept. 1, 2010), and “Competition, Adolescent Sexuality and Psychological Development” (posted on Sept. 4, 2010), and also essays dedicated to the works of Picasso, Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Giorgio de Chirico and Konstantin Brancusi at:

    By Victor Enyutin