Instead of presenting the public with an exhibit bouquet of popular works, an art museum will occasionally turn its formidable scholarly spotlight on an artist or a period from a lesser known perspective. Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917, at the Art Institute of Chicago now through June 20, 2010, is just such an exhibit.
Centered on AIC’s major Henri Matisse oil, Bathers by a River, the exhibit uses more than 117 paintings, drawings, sculptures and etchings to explain the artist’s changes in style and approach during the period he worked on the painting.
Started in 1909 to 1910, changed in 1913 and again altered from 1916 to 1917, the construction, deconstruction and rebuilding of the painting was an amalgamation of Matisse’s changes in attitudes towards modernism, his process of applying paint and his change in views and surroundings because of World War I.
“When Bathers by a River was acquired 57 years ago the Art Institute wrote to Henri Matisse to say it was acquired. He replied and said it was one of five of the most pivotal works of his career. We didn’t have time until now to understand what he meant,” said AIC Comer Curator of Modern Art Stephanie D’Alessandro during a luncheon to introduce the exhibit.
The challenge of learning why the painting was so important was picked up by D’Alessandro about seven years ago. She pulled into her quest: Douglas Druick, curator and chair of Medieval to Modern European Paintings and Sculpture and the Museum of Modern Art’s John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture. Working with conservators and researchers the team came up with the examples and dialogue that have now been brought to light in AIC’s landmark exhibit.
For viewers to understand what Matisse meant, the exhibit can best be seen while listening to the accompanying audio tape. To understand an important influence on Matisse, visitors should stop and read or play the tape at Paul Cezanne’s Three Bathers at the beginning of the exhibit. Matisse knew Cezanne had worked up to this painting after several earlier works on the subject. In quotes on the walls next to other paintings, visitors read that Matisse, himself, worked and reworked a subject until it evolved into a finished painting that might have appeared deceptively simple.
By the end of the exhibit, viewers should understand that Matisse constructed his paintings. Sometimes it was through several sketches of the same or similar figures. Sometimes it was through layering paint and scraping it off or “etching” through it. And sometimes it was by covering up with more layers.
To see how Matisse evolved his interpretation of modernism and cubism, visitors only have to look at his black bas reliefs I through IV. Rounded shapes later are squared or flattened and details are obscured or gone.
A similar pairing down and move to geometric shapes is happening at the same time in his paintings. He dabbles and flirts with the grid format. Verticals become more important to him during this period as can be seen in his 1914 Goldfish and Palette.
A surprise to many viewers may be his 1893 Old Masters rendering of La desserte (after Jan Davidsz de Heem) and his 1915 geometric take on the subject in Still Life after de Heem.
The main surprise is arguably how much art aficionados enjoyed Matisse’s art without really knowing the artist – that is, until now.
Admission and hours: Admission to the exhibit is included in the museum price but tickets are necessary. Museum admission is $18 adults, $12 students and seniors 65 and older. Free to age 13 and younger. Hours are Mon-Wed. 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Thurs. 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri. 10:30 extended during the show to 8 p.m. Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. First hour is members-only viewing.
For more info: Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue between Adams and Monroe Streets, Chicago, IL 60603, 312-443-3600
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