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Matisse's Radical Inventions

By Laura M. Browning in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 24, 2010 5:20PM

2010_03_Italian Woman.jpg
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). The Italian Woman, 1916. Oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, by exchange, 1982, 82.2946. © 2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The Art Institute’s Matisse exhibit is beautifully spare and concise - white walls, no visual distractions - and in many ways echoes the art itself. Subtitled Radical Invention 1913-1917, the works in this exhibit were created at the height of World War I, and many of them bear the fervor and darkness of war, painted in shades of olive greens and murky grays not typically associated with Matisse. The exhibit was built upon a key painting already in the Art Institute’s collection, Bathers by a River, named by Matisse himself as being “most pivotal” to his work.

Matisse’s radical invention was, in his words, the development of “the methods of modern construction.” To better understand this, you can’t be afraid of the art in this exhibit: get close to it, run your eyes over the textures, let your mind sink into his palettes. Matisse worked paint as though it was bronze, scraping and incising, forging three dimensions out of two.

Radical Invention has all sorts of pleasant surprises: a Cézanne that Matisse purchased and was deeply inspired by; the stunning heart-shaped incisions of the Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg; a selection of brighter, more saturated paintings influenced by his time in Morocco. One of our favorite pieces, The Italian Woman, is a bold portrait with gentle suggestions of Cubist influence, the model’s right shoulder cloaked in shadowy background.

One strike against Radical Invention is its small, text-heavy labels, which will be largely missed if the exhibit gets the expected high attendance numbers. However, many of the labels include small photographs of earlier iterations of the work, so those of us without an encyclopedic knowledge of Matisse’s work can easily see the artist’s complex progression through a painting.

Any museum curating an exhibit with such a well-known and beloved painter faces the challenge of meeting the expectations of Matisse fans who might be expecting more well-known works like La Danse or the Blue Nude series. Though you won’t find those works here, you will be comforted by familiar palettes and subjects, and you will be introduced to a Matisse burdened by war and experimenting with the process of creating art.

Radical Invention is open at the Art Institute, 111 South Michigan, until June 20, but we suggest seeing it soon to avoid the inevitable crowds. Some times are set aside for members only, so check their Web site before you go.