After the Museum of Modern Art’s successful “Matisse Picasso” show in New York (2003), Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, asked the curator John Elderfield what his next project would be. “Well, it certainly won’t be a Matisse,” he said.
Fortunately, the Art Institute of Chicago later invited Mr. Elderfield to take part in the conservation and technical study it had begun on Matisse’s monumental “Bathers by a River.” Thus began a five-year collaboration that has resulted in a revelatory exhibition co-curated by Stephanie D’Alessandro, “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-17.” It appeared first in Chicago and is currently at the Modern until Oct. 11.
While studying under the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) learned to copy paintings in the Louvre; and for the rest of his life he studied his predecessors. “I owe my art to all painters,” he said. A slow learner who first painted somber, traditional pieces, he later lightened his palette in Arcadian scenes in the early 1900s. During the summer of 1905, Matisse visited Provence with his artist friend André Derain and began an inventive use of brilliant color that did not always correspond to the object being painted. Shown at the Salon d’Automne the following October, their canvases earned the artists the label “les Fauves” (“the wild beasts”).
In 1909, the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin asked Matisse to decorate the staircase of his Moscow home. The artist proposed scenes of dance, music and bathers. Shchukin preferred the first two. But Matisse, using a sketch he had sent his patron, pursued the bathing theme independently for the next eight years, which culminated in the enigmatic painting that occasioned and now closes the current exhibition.
“Radical Invention” opens with figurative work from 1907-9, including the powerful “Blue Nude” (1907). The first of his four larger-than-life-size “Back” reliefs is also here, documenting the artist’s increasingly abstract vision and his practice of reworking pieces for the sake of “a true, more essential character.” But Cézanne’s “Three Bathers” (1879-82) sets the tone of the gallery. Matisse bought the painting from Ambroise Vollard in 1899 and later said: “It has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist. I have drawn from it my faith and perseverance.”
Matisse was savagely treated at two important exhibitions in 1910 and drew back from involvement in the Parisian art world. Two trips to Morocco proved to be invigorating. The Modern’s exhibition focuses on the years between his return to Paris in 1913 and his departure for Nice in 1917.
Living with his wife in the suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux and then moving in 1914 to an apartment on the Quai Saint Michel, Matisse revisited familiar themes—interior scenes, still-lifes, portraits—but with a new attention to formal structure. He used “the methods of modern construction,” he said, referring to the contemporary ascendancy of Cubism and to the more fractured style of other modernists. In pursuing revisions and simplifications, he began to scrape and incise, leave erasures visible and allow earlier drawing to appear through what is painted over it.
Indeed, on entering a gallery that displays half of the 12 major canvases from the first six months of 1914, you feel as if you are inhabiting the artist’s imagination, seeing familiar paintings as if for the first time. Brilliant color yields to blacks, dark blues and grays. Strong vertical bands organize the picture space, strangely drawing it both apart and together. The flat geometric organization of “Interior With Goldfish,” the first in a series that looks out from the studio to the Seine and the île de la Cité, develops into “Goldfish and Palette,” a piece of sheer magic, with the goldfish of happiness and the painter’s palette anchored by a broad black band left of center and a jutting angular passage to the right. Nearby, the startling “Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg” presents the lovely young woman with a mask-like face, curves radiating from her body like a radioactive field.
The onset of war in August 1914 troubled Matisse deeply. Rejected for military duty because of his age and health, he lamented that “Derain, Braque, Camoin, Puy, are at the front risking their lives…. How can we serve our country?” He bought a hand etching press and made numerous prints, lithographs, monotypes, dry points and etchings, many of which he sold to pay for weekly shipments of food to family and friends deported to Germany. With portraits, printed or in oils, he pressed his experimentation—placing a grid pattern over a drawing of his wife and flattening his curling, sensuous line in severely abstracted renderings of patrons and performers. But he also continued to revel in color, which he poured into the Cubist-influenced “Still Life After Jan D. de Heem’s ‘La Desserte’” (1915), a reprise of a student exercise from 1893.
The year 1916 was a terrible one for France, but Matisse considered it his duty to press on as an artist. His effort yielded extraordinary works like “The Window,” his family’s drawing room in Issy-les-Moulineaux rendered as a turquoise harmony centered but dematerialized by a thick band of white paint in the center of the canvas. “The Moroccans” was of even greater importance for Matisse. It presents two figures before a violet building to the right, a burst of yellow melons and green leaves in the lower left, and an architectural complex in the upper right. But the startling innovation is that the different parts are set against pitch black. Matisse used pure black, he said, “as a color of light and not as a color of darkness.”
The last gallery leaves one gaping. It contains the third “Back” relief, “The Piano Lesson,” and the “Bathers”—all from Matisse’s studio in 1917. “Bathers” (about 8? feet by 13 feet) is not an easy picture, no more than is Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” to which it is an obvious response. Here it has a grandeur, almost an inevitability, that astounds. This is our condition, the four massive figures in their infected Eden tell us (a snake rises from the bottom of the canvas). Two of the women are on a verdant bank beside the black band of river; two turn toward us, faceless but questioning; all inhabit a barren geometry of black, white and blue bands. In this version of the Golden Age theme, the figures are at once together and alone, idyllic but exiled, torn from their time into a century of terrible conflict yet with hope for the human.
In his years of radical questioning, Henri Matisse struggled to maintain continuity through change. He came to favor the process of his art over the result. His painting still asks how our feelings can be visualized in a new era and how the insecurity of our questions, their risk and root, can be honestly dealt with. A humanism courses through the Modern’s exhibition, a daring care for human life and its expression that has something exalting about it.
The risk inherent in Matisse’s art during these years becomes increasingly evident as he searches for true expression of his feelings before the world. It bears an analogy to the risk a believer accepts when setting out to be a disciple who cannot know, and is not told, exactly where his journey will lead. For a modern artist like Matisse, all claim to finality lies beyond him—it is in fact rebuffed as ideology. But the modern believer also recognizes that the finality of hope is a gift from a Holy Mystery worthy of confidence, but impossible of calculation.
“All art worthy of the name,” said Matisse late in his life, “is religious.” But he did not venture to say that he himself was so. Rather, he showed us how he existed: unfinished, incomplete, struggling to be true to his talent, often jubilant about the look of life but still uncertain as to its outcome. For anyone who believes in a Love before and beyond all our own, in a Word that bears our deepest questions and is as well their answer, in a Spirit poured out daily on this good but broken world, the authenticity of Matisse’s art calls such faith to be equally true to itself.
The words of Marie-Alain Couturier, the great Dominican priest and supporter of Matisse, bear pondering: “I believe that artists have a God and that he catches up with them at the end of that road taken by all prodigal children.”
View a slideshow  of additional images from Matisse at the MoMA.