Matisse at the Norton
Post #742 • March 1, 2006, 9:04 AM • 2 Comments
Matisse in Transition: Around Laurette gathers paintings done during the same three-year period as the Norton's Laurette work below.
To my surprise, I found the exhibition underwhelming. From 1916 to 1919, Matisse was pushing hard to develop a figure limned with a heavy, dark outline. (I've tried to do it myself, and although I'm no Matisse, I've learned that it's hard to throw a heavy line around a figure in a painting and not to make it look idiotic. Using intense colors at the same time, as Matisse did later, only exacerbates the difficulty of the problem.) The late Teens saw him gearing up towards his extraordinary Nice paintings, in which this line takes on a sweetness that hardly seems possible given its weight. He produced more than a few major masterpieces during that time, notably The Music Lesson, which I saw last month at the Barnes.
Matisse in Transition shows the artist repeatedly turning to a favorite model, Laurette, and Matisse's daughter, Marguerite, as he tries to advance his work. Hard, crescent-shaped areas of modelling that Picasso could have pulled off in his sleep turned awkward and alien in Matisse's hand. The distortions have all the signs of something that looked good in a drawing but refused to translate into color. Many of the other works in the show exhibit the same unease of handling - unresponsive lines around forms, distorting them into caricatures. His Cubist assaults on the figure seem less Bruce Lee and more Jackie Chan - they have an undercurrent of playfulness that characterizes the artist perfectly but don't come off as the epitome of artistic achievement. We don't associate Matisse with struggle, but here he is, beating his supremely gifted fist against barriers to his own greatness.
Several paintings make the show worth the drive up to Palm Beach, though, including a three-image series of Laurette lying on the floor, under a little table with an enticing cup of coffee on it. I had no idea that there were other versions, and I enjoyed seeing them together. Here's where the struggle leads: the distortions become charming, the modelling becomes less overtly Cubist, and the image as a whole begins to evince Matissean virtues like repose, design, and healthy eroticism. It's refreshing to see reminders that good art comes out of mighty labors against doubt, confusion, and insufficient skill in the face of one's ambitions, and that not even the embodiment of artistic ease, Matisse, escaped them.