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Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917

Stephanie D'Alessandro

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In the time between his 1913 return from Morocco and his 1917 departure for Nice, Henri Matisse produced some of the most demanding, experimental, and enigmatic works of his career—paintings that are abstracted and rigorously purged of descriptive detail, geometric and sharply composed, and dominated by the colors black and gray. Works from this period have typically been treated as unrelated to one another, as aberrations within the artist’s development, or as responses to Cubism or World War I. Matisse and the Methods of Modern Construction will examine the physical production of the paintings and the essential context of Matisse’s studio practice. In shifting the focus to the paintings as paintings, this exhibition will reveal deep connections between this body of work and demonstrate the artist’s critical development at the time.

Matisse himself acknowledged near the end of his life the significance of this period when he identified two works—the Art Institute of Chicago’s Bathers by a River (1909–10, 1913, 1916–17) and the Museum of Modern Art’s The Moroccans (1915–16)—as among his most “pivotal.” The importance of this moment resides not only in the formal qualities of the paintings—what Matisse called “the methods of modern construction” —but also in the physical nature of the pictures. Each bears the history of its manufacture: multiple layers of paint from numerous revisions that Matisse worked especially by scraping and incising to near-sculptural handling. That few related sketches exist for many paintings in this period indicates the artist’s search for a new way of working, as does his temporary break in making sculptures. Rather than produce alternate versions of compositions in graphite, ink, clay, or paint, Matisse limited his exploration to a single canvas, which in its heavily reworked and abstracted final state suggests that the act of painting itself became an added subject for him.

The concept of Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913—1917 evolved from the study of Bathers by a River that employs new analytical and scientific technologies to uncover the evolutionary history of this painting’s creation. This groundbreaking research has revealed much about Matisse’s methods, as well as a number of unexpected connections with other works, most significantly, The Moroccans and The Piano Lesson (1916) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. MoMA is likewise engaged in an investigation of works in its collection. The partnership of the Art Institute and MoMA has resulted in new information about Matisse’s pigments, experimental techniques, and compositional choices. These findings hold the promise of a fundamental reassessment of Matisse’s experimental working through new, “modern” pictorial means and its impact on the rest of his career.

The exhibition will include approximately 120 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints primarily from the years of 1913–17 in order to fully consider Matisse’s meaning of the “methods of modern construction.” In doing so, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917 will be the first sustained examination devoted to the work of this important period.

The Art Institute of Chicago 2010
9 3/4 x 12 3/4 in.; 368 pages; 650 illustrations