An Artist at War: MoMA Opens a Matisse 1913-1917 Blockbuster Sunday

It is particularly fascinating that the two large, marquee paintings in “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917,” Bathers by a River and The Moroccans, were works that he began before the First World War and finished near its end. Shortly before he died in 1954, at the age of 84, Matisse cited these two paintings — a large view of four nudes in an Eden-like setting, and a scene of an Arab, seated, on the terrace of a cafe —  as being among the five most pivotal works he ever executed. Cleaned (and painstakingly analyzed using computer tecnology) for the Museum of Modern Art’s blockbuster exhibition opening Sunday, July 18,they have never looked fresher nor more radiant than they do at this show.

With all of his blue and green, with all of his genius, Matisse lulls you into believing you are looking at Arcadian settings. However, when you look closely here, you discover much is awry.

The intriguing, tight focus of this exhibition are the Matisses of the years of the First World War, a time book-ended by a trip to Tangiers on one side and his extended stay in the south of France on the other. It also focuses on the artist’s thinking behind the artworks of that time. As a visitor scans the X-rays, “infrared reflectograms” and high-tech documentary material that MoMA has gathered for the first time, it is clear that the painter, who once studied to be a lawyer, is still energetically arguing his cases one way or another as he develops his works. Should figures be dressed or nude, seated or standing? Should he depict hillsides or a waterfall? He sought to confound expectations: he might apply paint to canvas as if he were slathering plaster on a sculpture, Or he’d scrape pigment from a picture as if he were making an etching on a metal plate. Which options should he pursue? It appears Matisse never had a ready answer.

He also, as this blockbuster clearly shows, defiantly never dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s. There are more than 100 oil pictures, bronzes, graphite drawings, monotypes and etchings in “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” and it would be hard to find another show where the hands in so many paintings don’t have fingers and many feet have only four toes. Imperfections abound. Some faces resemble masks; one doesn’t have lips. There is a deconstructed candlestick as well as a table missing a leg. With all of his blue and green, Matisse lulls you into believing you are looking at Arcadian settings. However, when you look closely, you discover much is awry.

To be sure, the Matisse on view in this exhibition was not living in a perfect world. At the time, he was based in Paris, in a studio facing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a country home not far away. As the war threatened, then began, his palette grew darker, dominated by rich, deep blacks as well as generous amounts of gray. The men and women he portrayed became starker and more architectural in character, sturdy and stoic. After posing twice a day for three months between July and October 1913, Madame Matisse cried when she saw her completed portrait. Though the painting was greeted as a masterpiece back in the day, and continues to be treated as one, the woman who modeled for it vowed never to sit for her husband again.

Then, too, during the early months of the war-a war many thought would be over quickly-the military requisitioned the house in Issy, and Matisse had to roll up his paintings and bury sculptures in the garden. He lost his Russian patrons, and after the revolution, they never returned. It became difficult to order art supplies. Besides worrying that his teenage sons might enlist-he himself, in his 40s, was too old to fight-he had the anxiety of losing touch with his mother, who was behind enemy lines. Throughout his life, Matisse suffered bouts of insomnia and doubt. The war exacerbated these conditions.

Amid all this, Matisse masked his artistic intentions well. It’s hard, for one, to pinpoint his sources in the period. Consider Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra) of 1907, which is based on two different statues in the Louvre. The top half of the figure is based on a sleeping Ariadne while the bottom echoes a marble Hermphordite. Because there is something sauvage about both the colors and brushwork, it’s difficult to reconcile there being any connection with classical art. Yet, that’s the case.

Each work in this show-nudes, portraits, studio views, cityscapes and still lifes-is a singular invention. The portraits, for one, tend to be haunting. Heads float, eyes are as black and vacant as nuggets of coal. Though they are disembodied, flowers and plants vibrate pleasure. A blackened-out window depicted in September 1914 gives rise to others in the house in Issy and the atelier in Paris, where seasons come and go. With his sublime colors and exquisite touch, Matisse, as the war dragged on, conveyed the notion that life goes on.

An Artist at War: MoMA Opens a Matisse 1913-1917 Blockbuster Sunday