Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is “Matisse: Radical Invention” an exhibition which reveals the extraordinary experimental qualities of Matisse’s oeuvre during the years of 1913 when he returned from Morocco and 1917 before he left for Nice. It was during this time period that Matisse produced some of the most powerful works of his career. They are works which are greatly abstracted, geometric and void of description yet hold deep and profound meditative qualities.
The exhibition includes 120 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by Matisse within the span of four years. Until recently these works have been disregarded as a pivotal moment in the artist’s career except as probable outcomes to Cubism or World War I. The year 1913 has now come to mark a turning point in Matisse’s oeuvre. During this time, in the advent of World War I, the artist moved towards conceptual distortion. While he worked in German-occupied France his brother was in a prison camp and his mother was living behind enemy lines. These were the conditions that he termed “methods of modern construction”- methods which would ultimately change the course of his personal and artistic development.
During this time Matisse’s works neared the state of abstraction through the aberration and blurring of lines and the transformation of photo-realistic paintings into mere shapes and shadows. The subjective quality of these works most likely echoes the inhumane suffering he would have witnessed during these years.
Due to a weak heart Matisse was unable to serve in the French army. While his contemporaries Georges Braque and Andre Derain fought on the battlefield, he recreated the war through his art. “I sometimes emerge victorious, but winded,” he said, relating his artistic struggles to the hardships of wartime. His paintings were full of sad blacks and grays reflecting the dire state of life in Paris.
This unique period is further emphasized by a return to the conventional renderings of space and form when the war ended and Matisse moved to Nice. Although brief, the work of these four years would undoubtedly influence subsequent developments in modern art such as Color Field painting during the 1950s. Inspired by artistic invention and exploration as much as he was by the sentiments of his times, from 1913-1917 Matisse played with structure in its pure form just as wartime chaos played with conventional subject matter.
Matisse: Radical Invention (1913-1917) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through October 11, 2010