Thankfully, Matisse didn’t stay stuck. The same processes he developed while working on The Dance (charcoal tracing, movable cartoons, a reduced palette) were put to powerful new use in works like Large Reclining Nude (1935), in which his desexualized model (and future caretaker) Lydia Delectorskaya appears as a spiraling geometrical abstraction, the wild curves of her limbs spiking like asymptotes against the lined Cartesian grid of her bed. Abstraction is present too in the minimalist black-and-white drawings Matisse began producing for illustrated books, including French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun (1933) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1934). The few details Matisse provides—a nymph reclining beside a row of trees, an oared ship gliding down the face of a wave—feel provisional and evocative, as if Matisse, instead of competing with the text for readers’ attention, is content to suggest a partial sketch for our own imaginations to complete.
A similar spirit of collaboration animates Matisse’s costumes and set designs for Rouge et Noir (1939), an avant-garde ballet choreographed by Léonide Massine. Set to music by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and conceived as a “vast mural in motion,” in which masses of spinning dancers alternatingly gather and scatter from opposite ends of the stage, the ballet incorporates the farandole, a Provençal folk dance that Matisse had studied as he was preparing sketches of The Dance. The installation, which recreates the arched backdrop of the set and features Matisse’s paper models of red-and-gold bodysuits mounted alongside a video of a performance, is the highlight of the show. It reveals a Matisse who conceives of art no longer as rivalry (his feuds with Picasso were legendary) but as collaboration, both with other artists and with earlier versions of himself. The show’s final gallery, filled with botanical still lifes and quickly drawn portraits that Matisse made in the 1940s while recuperating from a cancer operation, drives home this last point: revisiting and reworking former motifs with a less guarded, sloppier style becomes a way forward.
In his insightful review of Matisse in the 1930s, Washington Post critic Sebastian Smee observes the absence of politics in Matisse’s work in this period. It’s especially glaring because Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, who collaborated with the French partisans, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. In one sense, that’s true: instead of confronting Nazism and fascism head-on, Matisse plunged himself into form, color, myth, and art for art’s sake—and often for the sake of the rich, like Albert Barnes and Nelson A. Rockefeller, for whom Matisse made The Song (1938), a floor-to-ceiling mantelpiece that drew on earlier portraits like The Three Sisters (1917). It’s tempting, then, to dismiss Matisse as an aesthete. But is attentiveness to the beauty of the body and the spark of imagination it inspires—in short, the cultivation of humanism—really apolitical? If anything, Matisse’s work during the 1930s, with its exaltation of contact and motion and its frank admission of aging and vulnerability, does contain the seeds of a quiet revolution.
Had he lived past thirty-five, Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani might have arrived at abstraction, too. His distinctive modernist portraits, with their elongated features and mysterious blue-eyed gazes, are often paired with Matisse’s throughout the permanent galleries at the Barnes, highlighting their similar subject matter and overlapping time in Paris. If during those years (the early 1900s and 1910s) Matisse appeared as the consummate insider, his unimpeachable status as an artistic “influencer” bolstered by his methodical work habits and buttoned-up bourgeois appearance, Modigliani, a Jew from Livorno, was chronically on the outs, his career hampered by his propensity for drinking and affairs.
There’s a lot more to Modigliani than that, though, a point gracefully made by the Barnes’s new show. Modigliani Up Close features around fifty objects—portraits, nudes, and sculptures—grouped across five thematic galleries. Modigliani’s comparatively small output is partly a result of the short time he was active (he arrived in Paris in 1906 and died of tuberculous meningitis in 1920 in Nice). He only had one solo show in his lifetime, in 1917, and only gained recognition as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century after his death. Modigliani’s works are now among the world’s most valuable; in 2015, a Chinese billionaire paid $170.4 million for Reclining Nude (1917), the second highest price ever recorded for a single painting.
A novelty of the Barnes show is the way it incorporates “scientific” or material analysis, which expands the study of art beyond biography and visual interpretation to include details about paintings and sculptures as physical and commercial objects. Mounted beside Modigliani’s canvases and sculptures are x-ray images accompanied by granular information about thread counts, paint pigments, and rasp marks. Visitors can use their smartphones to zoom in and learn more, though I confess I didn’t see too many doing so. Occasionally, it’s interesting. Drill marks confirm that in the early 1910s Modigliani likely robbed construction sites to obtain stones for making sculptures; wax residue hints that he probably mounted lighted candles on top of them in his studio, using them as makeshift lamps for his nocturnal painting sessions. For the most part, though, such information is too specialized and tends to get in the way of the works themselves.
If Matisse’s odalisques were evidence of artistic impasse, for Modigliani, nudes (he made about thirty of them in 1917) constituted a real breakthrough. From a technical standpoint, there’s much to admire: by layering bright, warm pinks atop a gray-blue base, Modigliani makes his subjects appear to glow against their darkened interior surroundings. He lavishes great care and attention on facial features and hairstyles, the precise brushwork mimicking a gentle caress. Still, there’s a kind of surface sterility inherent in such explicit, hypersexualized poses. (Modigliani was censured by Parisian critics for his inclusion of pubic hair.) It’s as if by showing too much, Modigliani reveals nothing. We get a lot of flesh, but not much else.
That all changed, though, after Modigliani also moved to Nice. He’d fallen in love with the young painter Jeanne Hébuterne, with whom he had a daughter in 1918. The Barnes show conveys this abrupt shift with a progression of increasingly clothed portraits—no longer of hired models, but of ordinary people Modigliani encountered in the south of France. The cast of characters ranges from fidgety peasant boys in shorts to circumspect middle-aged women and haughty industrialists. It’s at this point that Modigliani’s paintings—which combine the facial elongation of traditional African masks, the grave postures typical of Renaissance portraiture, and the experimental color schemes of French modernism—really start to gel.
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