MoMA’s “Radical Invention” of Matisse is Simplicity in Chaos

Matisse’s WWI-Era Paintings and Sculpture Diverge From Earlier, Later Works


Published: September 22, 2010

What separates the “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917” exhibition from other exhibitions presented at the MoMA is that it actually makes sense. This may not be a huge deal for the art authorities who visit the MoMA regularly, but for the average college student looking to go out after a long day of Guitar Hero, being able to understand and enjoy the art on display is a big deal, especially if it makes a $12 incision in their poor undergraduate pockets. Not to worry; this exhibition is completely worth it.

Before diving into the “Radical Invention” era of Matisse’s work, which the curators argue “produced some of the most demanding, experimental and enigmatic works of his career,” the exhibit opens with a Matisse oil on canvas classic known as “La Danse” (Dance). This piece is presented in two versions, the first painted in 1909 and the second in 1910. The scene, which depicts five seemingly androgynous people holding hands as they dance together in a circle, does not change between the two paintings, but there is a dramatic shift in color and detail from the first version to the second. In the first, Matisse experiments with pale colors for the sky, grass and skin tone of the figures. There is not much detail in the figures’ bodies, just simple definition in the breasts and backsides. In the second, however, Matisse replaces the pale tones with vibrant greens and blues, and he paints the figures’ bodies with a sharp, rustic color. The bodies have also become heavily detailed, with each muscle defined in the dancers’ arms, legs, neck, back and torso.

For someone who is not familiar with Matisse’s work, the curators’ choice to place these two paintings at the beginning of the exhibit is like handing the viewer with a Matisse starter’s kit. These paintings equally represent Matisse’s celebrated radical experimentation with color and his fondness of realistic portraiture. The context of these works helps the viewer understand the importance of the years 1913 to 1917, in which Matisse shifts to a more abstract approach to his work and ditches the excessive use of vibrant colors to experiment with darker tones. Matisse’s change in artistry can also be identified with his desire for simplicity, which is represented in his famous “Jeanette” sculptures.

From his first version of the “Jeanette” sculpture, created in early 1910, to his last, created in 1916, the shift from realistic portraiture to abstract interpretation is dramatic. “Jeannette I” is constructed with the most attention to realistic facial detail, with distinct, personalized features. The nose, for example, has a bump on the bridge, the cheekbones are defined, and her eyes give a solemn expression. For the “Jeanette II” sculpture, Matisse softened these distinct traits by making her face more round and flattening her nose. There is no longer definition in her cheeks, and the overall expression has become rather dull and vacant. “Jeanette II” (1910) to “Jeanette III” (1911) illustrates the most extreme change in facial detail as we near closer to the “Radical Invention” era. Her face is now thin and gaunt, parts of her hair have been removed, forming a cluster of round chunks crowning her head, the nose has been extended and her eye sockets have been stretched.

By “Jeanette IV,” which was sculpted in 1913, the cheekbones have become heavily defined, her eye sockets have been deepened, the nose has been extended dramatically and pointed, and the round chunks in her hair from “Jeanette III” now have a cubic structure. This sculpture, along with Jeanette I through III, is arranged together in the first part of the exhibition. The last sculpture, however, is separated from the first four, since it was finished in 1916 and can be better understood by the viewer after seeing the overall shift in his other work throughout this period. “Jeanette V” is the least reminiscent of the first Jeanette sculpture because it is the most simplified version. Her hair is now completely removed along with top right and left sides of her forehead. All that is left is a long straight nose, a cubic forehead, and a single eye, the other having been replaced with a cubic chunk.

As seen in “Jeanette V,” Matisse was very concerned with finding simplicity in his art throughout this era. His desire for simplicity was in part a result of World War I, in which Matisse did not actively participate, but he was deeply affected by the loss of close friends and family. Whether it was conscious rebellion against the war’s political complexities or a subconscious effort to escape, Matisse was able to redefine the perception of both simplicity and color in his work. By 1916 he had said to have used “pure black as a color of light and not as a color of dark,” which could not better define his strength and character. Matisse may have suffered during the war, a dark period of his life, but the light of his paintings can still be seen by art patrons and interested students alike at the exhibition currently on display at the MoMA.