Today, Henri Matisse is regarded as such a towering figure of 20th-century art that it's easy to forget this is not how he saw himself, especially during the difficult early years at the turn of the 20th century.
He was stubborn about his ideas, but also uncertain about the direction of his art and dismayed by the vituperation of critics. He didn't set out to invent a theory or even a definition of modern art. Rather, he simply produced works that were themselves daring acts of exploration and discovery.
His method was a continual project of creative self-doubt that enabled him to slowly advance toward artistic goals even he couldn't fully comprehend until they had been achieved.
This is the narrative thread that runs through Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, the landmark exhibition of more than 160 Matisse sculptures and related works that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It is the first major exhibition of Matisse sculpture in a generation, and it promises to throw new light on an important body of work that is often overshadowed by the artist's more famous paintings and paper cutouts.
Perhaps even more than in his paintings, drawings and prints, Matisse used sculpture as a means of exploring his most radical creative impulses and linking them integrally to the art of the past.
One might make an analogy with the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz's famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means.
Matisse considered himself part of a long tradition of Western art, and he thought of his art as a continuation of that tradition -- but by other means.
Everything we think of as modern in art -- abstraction, the flatness of the picture plane, the preoccupation with materials as means of expression independent of appearances in the real world, and the deliberate imprint of the artist's process on the finished work -- is already evident in Matisse's earliest mature works from the first decade of the 20th century.
Because Matisse sculpted throughout his career, and because he often translated motifs from sculpture into painting and vice versa, the sculptures offer a unique window onto his creative process.
One can see that in two of Matisse's earliest works, the pair of small bronzes called Madeleine I (1901) and Madeleine II (1903), which greet visitors in the first gallery of the exhibition.
The first Madeleine's historical antecedents are easily recognizable in the Venuses of classical Greece and Rome and their Renaissance reincarnations in the paintings of Botticelli and others.
But Matisse has radically simplified the figure and altered the pose by crossing the arms over the chest rather than allowing them to fall over the pubis in the traditional gesture of modesty, allowing him to emphasize the unbroken upward spiral line that runs from the figure's right heel to the top of her head.
The arabesque was a motif Matisse frequently used in his paintings and drawings from this period, and it reappears in later works throughout his career. Comparing his own approach with that of his friend and fellow sculptor Aristide Maillol, Matisse once remarked that' Maillol worked with mass, like the Ancients, and I worked with the arabesque, like the sculptors of the Renaissance.
Yet how different in feeling is the Madeleine II, created just two years later. Here, the arabesque is almost all that remains of the figure's classical smoothness; Matisse has broken up the contours of the body in a savage rearrangement of surfaces beyond anything that even Rodin, whom he admired, would have attempted, a brutal metamorphosis that rendered the transitions between torso, head and limbs all but unrecognizable.
No wonder early critics were baffled and outraged by what they regarded as Matisse's willfully ugly distortions. When the artist first exhibited his sculptures, one writer denounced them as decadent, unhealthy, certainly unreal, like some dreadful nightmare.
Yet these early works provide an important insight into the meaning of modernism for Matisse and its relation to the tradition he had inherited.
Matisse's art is modern because it is simultaneously both a continuation and a violent disruption of that tradition, and because the way he disrupted the tradition -- Clausewitz's "other means" -- mirrored the violent disruptions that were transforming Western society at the turn of the 20th century.
These two seemingly contradictory impulses, continuity and disruption, reasserted themselves again and again during the artist's career, each time appearing more incomprehensible, aberrant and threatening to those who insisted on clinging to the reassuring certainties of the past.
In 1907, the same year Matisse created Reclining Nude I (Aurora), he also produced one of his most famous paintings, the Blue Nude: Memories of Biskra, whose muscular, oversized limbs and roughly modeled surfaces echo the anatomical distortions of the sculpture.