I distinctly remember my first visit to the new MoMA building. I was nineteen and had just celebrated my first New York City anniversary (so I am of the generation that cannot clearly recall MoMA in its pre-2004 guise). Of the many snapshots in my mind from that day, none is as vivid as the vision of Henri Matisse’s 1909 painting Dance (I). As some may remember, it was hanging in an interior stairwell that joined the fourth- and fifth-floor galleries. In addition to being viewable from those stairs, it could also be glimpsed through a window that opened up to the Marron Atrium below, and that is how I first saw it. As I rounded a corner and entered the space, cosmic in size, I raised my head and the familiar piece of history slowly unfurled above me, and I let a smile unfurl with it.
Though in that moment I was delighted to be teased by the treasures that awaited my ascent into the galleries, I, like many, came to question the positioning of the painting in the stairwell. I longed not just for the peek-a-boo novelty, but for close examination. I finally got my chance in late 2008, when the canvas was moved from its perch to join the company of other paintings and sculptures by Matisse in Gallery 6 on the fifth floor. It seems like a new painting now, more explosive and dynamic and hanging mere inches from the ground.
I may prefer it in its new home, but the painting’s move nonetheless proves that there is more than one way to look at a Matisse—or any painting for that matter. Matisse is himself a particularly apt subject for showing that there is also more than one way to look at an artist. For someone who is so universally celebrated and so rich with material to mine, even applying a seemingly narrow focus on his career can yield an expansive view. Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917, currently on view at The Art Institute of Chicago, does just that. These four years are widely believed to be the most determinative of Matisse’s oeuvre, and not because he produced some formally coalescing group of works. Rather, as the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition explains, the art he made during these years is wholly enigmatic. The intro states that “this period was one of experimentation and flux as much as any solid sense of definition or unity.” Matisse was, as the authors explain, working to develop his own “methods of modern construction,” and he looked to “the legacy of Cézanne, the developments of the Paris avant-garde art world…and most especially Cubism” as he pursued this objective.
The exhibition, co-organized with MoMA, opens here on July 18. In the meantime, we have a not-to-be-missed Matisse display of another sort. Since many of MoMA’s regularly exhibited works are included in Radical Invention, we took the opportunity to display a handful of works from storage. The Musketeer (1903), is one of the earliest Matisse paintings in the collection, and it is visually discretely different. Some may think it could have been rendered by another artist. And indeed, to demonstrate the scope of Matisse’s alternating reliance and influence upon other artists, curators hung two paintings by André Derain—Fishing Boats, Collioure and L’Estaque—alongside three of Matisse’s small oils—La Japonaise: Woman beside the Water, Landscape at Collioure, and Study for “Luxe, calme et volupté”, all from 1904–06.
Another new work is Still Life with Aubergines (1911), which hasn’t been on view in three years. The bold forms, especially the paisley pattern in the wallpaper, call forth Matisse’s late career, such as Blue Nudes, the gouache découpées of the 1950s. The Piano Lesson (1916), The Moroccans (1915–16), The Rose Marble Table (1918), Goldfish and Palette (1914), and View of Notre-Dame (1914), all removed from view in February, will return in July, and with them will come not only significant works from collections around the world, but other long-unseen works from MoMA’s vast collection of more than 1,000 objects by Matisse—Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal) (1914) and Gourds (1915-16) among them—as well as sculptures and scores of drawings and prints. But if you’re in Chicago before June 20, don’t miss the show in its AIC iteration. For as with works of art and their artists, there is also more than one way to see an exhibition.