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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

ART REVIEW

Exhibit puts the heroic Matisse on display

Compelling works from 1913-1917 show how the artist grappled with Cubism — and rose to the challenge

CHICAGO — For much of the past century, two distinct versions of Henri Matisse have vied for the attention of the public, resulting in two different views of his art. On the one hand, there is the hedonistic Matisse: the great emancipator of color, the draftsman of limpid fluency, the decorator, the man who said he wanted his art to be like “a comfortable armchair,’’ the painter of odalisques in Nice, and the old keeper of pigeons who used scissors to cut out joyous shapes from colored paper.

This is the view of Matisse that prevails, I think, in the public imagination.

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But there is also the heroic Matisse: the great modern innovator who was subjected to hobbling ridicule for exhibiting paintings of unprecedented roughness and crudity, yet who would not compromise his vision; the austere, professorial painter who rarely smiled for the camera; and the late starter for whom painting was bound up with rage and frustration, chronic insomnia, high blood pressure, drumming in the ears, and profuse nosebleeds.

This is the view of Matisse beloved by the scholars of modernism and — because of its exemplary nature — by artists, too.

The ambitious Matisse show that opened in Chicago in March and will travel to New York in July is a salute to the heroic Matisse. The cover of the catalog all but announces this: It reproduces a black-and-white photograph of a bearded, bespectacled Matisse standing on a ladder before a huge canvas. Dressed in a painter’s smock that resembles a lab coat, he looks down at the camera, a furrow of determination bisecting his forehead like a well-aimed ax blow.

This man is not a hedonist. There’s not an odalisque or an arabesque in sight. The absence of color alone speaks volumes. The show’s title, confirming the impression of purposeful sobriety, is “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917’’ — a retreat from the even more forbidding “Matisse and the Methods of Modern Construction,’’ which was for a time the working title.

Immediately we wonder: Is this a Matisse we can legitimately believe in — this grave and unyielding technician preoccupied with the “methods of modern construction’’? A Matisse without color?

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Or is it rather a distortion peddled by puritanical ideologues who harbor a secret conviction that expression, decoration, and feeling — all those qualities to which Matisse was so deeply committed — are intolerably bourgeois?

In truth, Matisse’s creations between 1913 and 1917 have long been treasured by doctrinaire modernists wishing to claim Matisse for themselves (echoing the Cubists who, at the time, shouted, “He’s captured! He’s ours!’’) There are compelling reasons.

In this crucial half-decade, Matisse did indeed cut back on his use of bright colors, favoring instead agitated grays, matte blacks, and drenching blues. He also emphasized angular geometry, extreme simplifications of form, and ambiguous relationships between figure and ground.

All these changes reflect Matisse’s vexed fascination with Cubism, the fractured method of picture-making invented by Picasso and Braque in 1908.

Cubism’s ascendancy was well and truly established by 1913. The Cubist method dominated discussion of avant-garde art. Matisse — until then the recognized leader of the avant-garde — felt himself pushed to the periphery. And yet in these crucial years, he fraternized with the Cubists, befriended them, and, though he was loath to admit it, learned what he could from their innovations.

Perhaps the most pressing question raised by this exhibition, then, is whether the 1913-1917 period was Matisse’s greatest and most heroic, as many maintain, or an aberration, a period of confusion that saw him, under extremes of pressure, lose sight of his true nature.

Simply inspecting the pictures does not instantly resolve the matter. Yes, Matisse painted several of his most powerful works between 1913 and 1917: huge, hypnotic canvases such as “Bathers by a River,’’ “The Moroccans,’’ and “The Piano Lesson,’’ all three of which hang together here in a single gallery, to overwhelming effect. But he also turned out some fantastically odd clunkers, such as the boxy “Head, White and Rose’’ (a portrait of his daughter) and the awkwardly overwrought “Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg.’’

Clearly, he was also involved in a great struggle. The achievement of this show, impressively organized by Stephanie D’Alessandro of the Art Institute of Chicago and John Elderfield of the Museum of Modern Art, is that it takes us right inside this struggle. It sets aside the ideological and emotional questions about Matisse’s “true nature’’ and, using every available resource, digs as deeply as possible into what Matisse was actually doing in these years.

The big, beating heart of the exhibition is the Art Institute of Chicago’s own “Bathers by a River.’’ Recently cleaned and restored, it — along with half the other pictures in the show — has been subjected to a barrage of technical analyses: X-radiography, infrared reflectography, ultraviolet illumination, laser scanning, examination under raking, specular and transmitted light, and so on.

The technical findings, tallied with information gleaned from the Matisse archives, reveal that Matisse worked on “Bathers by a River’’ on and off over seven years, as it went through at least six distinct states. (Ingeniously, computers in one room allow us to isolate and combine the different states in a single image).

The painting was originally intended as part of a commission from the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin, who wanted to decorate his staircase. An initial watercolor sketch is on view near the start of the exhibit. Matisse ceased work on it for three years, but took up the challenge again in 1913. We don’t see the painting itself until toward the end of the show, but our awareness of Matisse’s continuing revisions to it provides a sort of background hum that chimes with all the other works in the exhibition.

Although the focus is on 1913-1917, there is a substantial section devoted to Matisse’s earlier works, starting in 1906. Thus we see the path he was already on. From “Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra),’’ a painting that did so much to spur Picasso’s proto-Cubist masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,’’ we get a sense of Matisse’s developing habit of working on pictures in a series of distinct campaigns. We also register his willingness to preserve traces of earlier designs in the finished picture (the nude’s right shoulder is a particular ruckus) and his readiness to risk superficial ugliness for the sake of a deeper unity, a stronger impression.

Well before the arrival of Cubism, in other words, Matisse was developing a radical new way of painting. Unlike the more methodical approach soon to be forged by Picasso and Braque, it relied wholly on intuition and had as its fundamental goal the expression of feeling.

Many years later, Picasso, with his flair for theatrical pronouncements, would describe his own painting as “a sum of destructions.’’ But in this period, Matisse was already enacting the notion. Starting with a naturalistic image, he would pare it back to the point at which it expressed the original emotion the subject engendered in him. The 1913-1917 works, in particular, are visibly marked — in ways that can only be appreciated in their presence — by evidence of scouring, scraping, wiping, and incising. Matisse was trying to preserve, on the canvas itself, not so much the picture’s evolution but what he called its “involution’’: an inward-turning distillation of his own feelings as a work progressed.

Undoubtedly, there was something hermetic and self-engrossed about his approach. It created pressures on the artist that were ultimately, perhaps, unsustainable (in 1917, Matisse moved to Nice and embarked on a less strenuous, more liberated way of painting).

But it is precisely this self-involvement, this ever-shifting, often inscrutable inner tension — like the shifting configurations of clenched muscles in an overburdened back — that makes the 1913-1917 works so compelling.

The German invasion of 1914, and the prolonged period of catastrophic losses that followed, profoundly affected Matisse. He tried twice to enlist, but was rejected both times because of his age (he was 44) and his weak heart. His mother and his brother’s family were stranded behind enemy lies in his hometown of Bohain-en-Vermandois, and his brother was sent to Germany as a prisoner of war.

Matisse did all he could to support family, friends, and colleagues caught up in the maelstrom. He raised money to send supplies to the civilian prisoners from Bohain and provided employment, accommodation, and support to the wives of artists and critics who had been sent to the front. Yet he was haunted by feelings of uselessness and guilt.

His work was inevitably affected by the upheaval. One major work, the remarkably minimal “French Window at Collioure’’ was left unfinished, the curators suggest, when wartime events forced Matisse to hurry back to Paris. And it is possible to see, in the intensification of his grueling working methods, a reflection of the stresses of war.

The closest Matisse came to adopting the Cubist idiom wholeheartedly was in late 1915, when he repainted a copy he had made earlier of a Dutch still life by Jan Davidsz. de Heem. This was the painting to which he was referring when he used the phrase “the methods of modern construction.’’ One can see why: It was, as the catalog entry for the painting notes, “the most methodically, geometrically premeditated work of his career.’’

It was also an anomaly. In every other canvas of the period, Matisse’s interest in Cubism, though clearly evident, is far less overt. We see it in Matisse’s adoption of a more geometric approach to forms, and in brilliant devices like the vertical black and white bands that dominate the compositions of “Bathers by a River’’ and other canvases of the period.

There is no doubt Matisse was rattled by Cubism. How could he not have been? Those who were proselytizing on its behalf had virtually declared war on him. In 1912, André Salmon, a friend of Picasso, accused Matisse of having “the taste of amodiste,’’ comparing his love of color to “a love of chiffon.’’ Apollinaire, writing the same year, was similarly dismissive: “his influence is almost entirely brushed aside’’ (he would later claim Matisse as an “instinctive Cubist’’).

What is impressive, in the end, is Matisse’s response. If in some cases, the challenge seemed to blow him temporarily off course, for the most part it brought out the best in him — his intelligence, his suppleness, his integrity, and a handful of pictures, including “Bathers by a River’’ and “The Piano Lesson,’’ that outclass anything ever achieved by any Cubist.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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