MATISSE Sense of radicalism, reserve pervades huge retrospective of the master's work

October 04, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

New York -- In the grand and glorious Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art, many works are more famous than the painting "Still Life with Blue Tablecloth" of 1909, but there may well be none that better exemplifies the artist's stance with respect to his time.

It is a painting of a bowl of fruit, a coffee pot and a small carafe

on a tablecloth covered with a large-scale swirling decorative pattern that serves as the principal subject of almost all of the picture.

Because the tablecloth descends from the top of the picture behind the objects, and they also sit on it, we have some sense that it fulfills both a vertical and a horizontal function. But we would have very little sense of that dual function -- the cloth would seem virtually a continuous two-dimensional surface, in effect pushing space out of the picture -- except that just at the right-hand edge Matisse stops the tablecloth and shows us a bit of vertical wall and horizontal table or ledge. That tiny sliver of the painting gives the viewer his bearings, and makes this a less radical work than it would otherwise be.

Make no mistake about it, the picture is certainly radical for its time; but it also possesses a certain sense of reserve, almost of good manners, in seeing to it that the viewer doesn't get totally disoriented by this picture -- making sure we know where we are in relation to the art we're seeing.

And that sense pervades MOMA's 400-work exhibit, surely the most complete retrospective ever of an artist generally considered one of the two greatest of the century.

Two giants

The other, of course, is Picasso; these two giants invite comparison with one another and each constitutes an unseen presence at the other's exhibits. They were both powerful innovators throughout their long careers; but as the curator of this exhibit, John Elderfield, notes in his long, probing, difficult essay, they both also made use of the past and neither ever abandoned representationalism.

One has, in progressing through the Matisse oeuvre, also a sense of how they differed, which helps in understanding their complementary gifts to their century. They differed in content, certainly, if not always in subject matter. Picasso was continually engaged with the world and its discontents, and with death; Matisse creates an ideal world, beyond life and death, into which we can retreat from the problems of the real one.

Picasso's works are dynamic and can be loud and jangly; Matisse's are, in comparison, static and invariably quiet and serene (even, to our eyes, the fauvist or "wild beast" paintings). Picasso often draws on the power of ugliness; Matisse, even at his most challenging, never releases his hold on the beautiful.

With Picasso, one feels that theory is a means to an end, and the end is engagement with the world; with Matisse, one feels that theory is much closer to the center of his being, as he indicated near the end of his life when he wrote of his commitment "to respect the purity of the means." As a result, there is a cool detachment behind the warmth and sensuality of his subject matter.

But above all Picasso communicates the sense of looking forward, Matisse of looking backward. That takes nothing away from Matisse as an experimenter, innovator and influential artist. But one inevitably feels that if Picasso borrows from the past, he does so for ends that are completely contemporary; while when Matisse experiments it is for the purpose of preserving and continuing the relevance of the past and particularly the past of art history.

Perhaps that is partly because Matisse was somewhat older than Picasso (Picasso was born in 1881, Matisse in 1869) and also partly because Picasso came to painting so early and Matisse relatively late. Picasso was painting at 10 and was a great artist by his early 20s. Matisse discovered his true calling at 20, when he was already trained as a lawyer and recovering from an illness. As the early works in this reprospective show, Matisse made a rather tentative start in the 1890s and made his first major impression on the art world in 1905 when he exhibited as part of a group who were dubbed "wild beasts" because of their highly colored canvases.

It was in this period that Matisse began, as Elderfield puts it, to "construct from color," and color would always remain primary for him in his development of an art of commingled decoration and abstraction.

Greatest experimentation

The fauvist period itself proved short, and more or less culminates with Baltimore's "Blue Nude" (1907), which is something of a transitional work. But the years from 1905 to 1917 were those of Matisse's greatest experimentation, producing what are now some of his most famous paintings, such as "Harmony in Red" (1908) and the two versions of "Dance."

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