PRINT March 2010


With the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917” poised to open later this month, art historian JEFFREY WEISS reflects on this pivotal period in the artist’s career—assessing not only the show’s remarkable discoveries about Matisse’s working process but also the advanced technologies and the curatorial approach that made such insights possible.

IN HIS 1957 ESSAY “NEW YORK PAINTING ONLY YESTERDAY,” the critic Clement Greenberg observed that, during the 1930s, Henri Matisse’s painting Bathers by a River, 1909–17, was on view for some time in the lobby of the Valentine Gallery on East Fifty-seventh Street.¹ He claims he saw it there so often he could have “cop[ied] it by heart.” The implication is that it was an object of close study for many painters as well. What Greenberg ascribes to Bathers (and to Matisse’s work in general) is an anticipation of the “Abstract-Expressionist notion of the big picture,” with specific reference to the pictorial surface as something “breathing and open.” Yet while artists may have drawn pictorial lessons from Bathers, it would not have been because of anything like a breathing surface. This magisterial canvas shows an enormous amount of labor, evincing none of the ease of execution for which Matisse had, by the ’30s, been celebrated in the critical and popular press. To paraphrase Jasper Johns (speaking of his own work), Bathers by a River is a massive sum of corrections.

Such corrections are the chief preoccupation of “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917,” a remarkable exhibition—accompanied by a catalogue jammed with art-historical discoveries and new information—opening this month at the Art Institute of Chicago (and traveling to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in July). Organized by Stephanie D’Alessandro, from the Art Institute, and John Elderfield, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, the project is revelatory. The show was conceived five years ago as an exhibition devoted to Bathers, which was then being cleaned by conservators in Chicago—where it resides—in preparation for the reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection in a new annex. The results of the conservation analysis were far-reaching, and that motivated a larger show, one premised on a reexamination of Matisse’s methods throughout the five-year phase from 1913 to 1917, with substantial consideration of relevant works as far back as 1909, when Bathers was begun. The exhibition now includes some 125 works in various media—painting, sculpture, and works on paper (including a body of monotypes little discussed in the literature on the artist). Nearly all of the paintings included have, for this occasion, also undergone fresh examination through X-radiography and infrared reflectography. As a methodology, applying the lessons from the conservation studio to those of the artist’s studio is not new; indeed, over the past two decades or so, museums and scholars have instigated a heightened, examination-heavy wave of art-historical study made possible by the application of technology to the analysis of painting and sculpture. But “Radical Invention” marks an apogee for the approach: The results will surely alter our understanding of this artist’s work, even as they raise questions about the complexities of beholding in the age of the forensic eye.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, given the focus on technical analysis, the most significant claims being made by the curators concern process—the way in which both the pictorial and the material nature of the paintings in particular can be directly accounted for by the groundbreaking methods used to produce them. The 1910s have long been characterized as a period of experimentation for Matisse. For most authors, this specifically refers to the artist’s investigation of Cubism in paintings of quasi-architectonic construction often executed in a highly restricted palette, dominated by gray, ocher, blue, and black (some of the paintings even verge on the monochromatic). The degree to which Matisse can be said to have “understood” Cubism has been the subject of much debate, and it is clear that his approach to it was always exceedingly idiosyncratic, perhaps even conflicted. D’Alessandro and Elderfield spend a good deal of time accounting for the role of Cubism, which is probably what Matisse was referring to when he spoke at one point of adopting the “methods of modern construction.” But the chief premise of the show is to ground the artist’s experimentalism in a new aggressiveness of means: Matisse sought to reinvent the language of his work in both formal and material terms. The exhibition claims he was doing so in an open, strategic fashion.

Many paintings of the time, especially large ones such as The Moroccans, 1915–16, The Piano Lesson, 1916, and Bathers, endured major campaigns of revision, and the evidence of that remains visible—at times, according to the argument of the exhibition, deliberately exposed. Much emphasis here is placed on procedures of vigorous subtraction—the scoring, scraping, and incising of the paint surface with various tools. While Matisse’s closest observers have long remarked on this, paintings from the ’teens are alive with such activity, and its intensity has been insufficiently examined. The terms we use to characterize the techniques are drawn from printmaking and sculpting, two practices Matisse also pursued during this period, which saw the production of numerous etchings (and etched monotypes), as well as the first three in a series of four large relief sculptures titled Back. The first one, from 1908–1909, was executed in clay and then cast in plaster; subsequent versions (from 1911–13 and 1913–16, respectively) were produced from a fresh plaster cast of the previous work, which was subjected to further applications of plaster and to carving or chiseling away, resulting in an increasingly schematic anatomical form. (As the catalogue says, paraphrasing the artist’s daughter, Marguerite Duthuit, the Back series is “one sculpture that passed through several states.”) Matisse also worked in the round; the Jeannette sequence, for instance, a run of five heads, also dates from this period. But bas-relief presupposes a physical adherence to the wall plane, like painting; that helps justify the claim for a certain equivalence between painting and sculpture in Matisse’s practice, each being said to represent an effort in both adding and subtracting medium.

It is clear that the phase of work covered by this exhibition represented a profound shift for Matisse: He would later refer to 1917 as a moment of “synthesis both pictorial and moral.”² The intensity of the period is heightened by the fact that many of the lessons of the ’teens were virtually rejected during the ’20s. The word consolidation comes up several times in the catalogue text, and it speaks to our impression of the work. Paintings grow in size, and forms expand in scale, yet composition becomes increasingly rectilinear, and modeling endows figures and objects with a sensation of weight. New quantities of black are applied in substantial areas or planes. Matisse referred to his black as light-filled, but he also called it “ballast,” and in relation to his palette of the previous decade, its darkness is indeed heavy. The development of the Back series figures the shift in the painted work: It begins with the modeled relief of 1908–1909, in which the surface is activated by a variety of touches; the second Back is as much carved as modeled, with flesh represented through sharply faceted planes; in Back (III), a series of reductive vertical forms prevails over surface incident. Through the reliefs, which are six feet in height, we encounter the body—in a one-to-one fashion—as an object not just of increasing volume but of accruing mass.

As a device, the facet could be said to represent Matisse’s interest in Cubist form, although if Back (III) resembles anything outside of the artist’s work it is various drawings of the back view of a standing female nude that Picasso produced during late 1907 and 1908; even so, the Matisse of 1916 is less aggressive in his reinvention of the body than Picasso had been between the Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, and Three Women, 1908. D’Alessandro and Elderfield carefully walk us through Matisse’s personal associations with Cubist painters, including Picasso and especially Juan Gris, with whom Matisse spent time in the south of France, and they narrate the support he received from Guillaume Apollinaire, who referred to Matisse during this period as practicing an “instinctive” form of Cubism. Various aspects of Cubism are closely traced through his work, although the authors are cautious about leaning too hard on Cubism’s significance. Matisse’s “cubism” remains a frustrating topic: There is little in his work of the grid-based interpenetration of volume and space that occurs in the “analytic” Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque, and—notwithstanding his later use of pasted papers—Matisse never practiced Cubist collage. (The most convincing case for Cubism in Matisse’s work can, however, be made on behalf of collage as a prototype for the banded planarity of pictorial space in paintings made between 1914 and 1916, such as Goldfish and Palette, 1914–15). The astonishing Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg, 1914, in particular, is sometimes said to approximate a Cubist approach to volume, with radiating curves that cut into the sitter’s body, producing segments and contours that leaf into pictorial space; but these sprung lines do little to disrupt the visual integrity of the figure. While the exhibition catalogue does associate this portrait with the devices of Cubism (and the so-called force lines of Futurist painting), it also brings us to another place: With recourse to eyewitness accounts of Matisse’s work on the picture (which was said to have been entirely repainted at each sitting), as well as scrupulous new examination of it, the authors turn our attention to the painting’s material complexity, including multiple scraping and incising procedures. Their approach asks us to see the figure as a creature of the paint surface, and allows us to ascribe the extremism of the Landsberg portrait more to Matisse’s own developing process than to the intervention of Cubism. Compare it with Bather, a painting from as far back as 1909, where exposed changes already result in contour lines that clearly cut from the bather’s back into the blue field, which is both a pictorial space and a material ground. The difference between the two works now looks like one of degree rather than of kind.

TO PORTRAY AN ARTIST’S PRACTICE in this way is to address it with a materialist bias that is uncommon in Matisse studies. In “Radical Invention,” the bias is understood—based on the evidence of the work—to belong to Matisse, not just to his interpreters. It is accompanied by a second large claim: that the artist’s practice further depends on a striking degree of repetition—of compositions painted twice. Matisse produced pairs of paintings from the beginning, but examples mount after the Fauvist period. These include: two variants of Le Luxe from 1907 plus a drawing equal in size to the painted versions (the exhibition catalogue contains an authoritative treatment of Matisse’s conflicting statements regarding the role of the esquisse in relation to a “final” composition); two of Dance, from 1909 and 1910, respectively; two still lifes from 1910 that, side by side, have the appearance of a filmic jump cut from long shot to close-up; two versions of Nasturtiums with ‘Dance’ from 1912; and two views of the cathedral of Notre Dame painted from the Quai Saint-Michel studio in 1914. As the Back reliefs and the Jeannette sculptures show, the progressive development of a single form across a longer sequence of related works also occurs; drawings and etchings further demonstrate repeated attention to motifs that appear in paintings.

The series, or sequence, is a crucial modernist device. For Matisse, the model of Cézanne, in particular, is clear. Yet in grasping the serial’s precise role in Matisse’s practice, we might acknowledge a secondary but related impulse: Matisse’s apparent interest in having paintings photographed both in progress and on completion. During the prewar period, both kinds of photos were formally taken at the behest of the gallerist Eugène Druet. Shooting a painting can be a way of defamiliarizing it; Picasso also used the camera, and in 1913 he said that photographs of his paintings “surprise” him: “I see my paintings differently from how they are.”³ Much later, beginning in 1935 (a phase of work that far exceeds the chronological bounds of “Radical Invention” but that can be taken to reflect on the work of the ’teens), Matisse—or his studio assistant and model Lydia Delectorskaya—photographed works in progress with a handheld Kodak, producing a proliferation of images, sometimes as many as twenty or more so-called états (states) of a single painting or drawing. The small photos, which were often pasted together onto sheets of gridded notepaper, are startling, especially to the degree that they conjure a sense of system. In any case, they radically formalize Matisse’s methodology, and we might go so far as to speculate that, by this time, Matisse was painting states for the camera. The fact that he permitted these photographs to be published and that he even showed some of them—enlarged and framed—together with the final painting in a gallery setting surely also suggests such a thing. This is to argue (as I have done elsewhere) that the photographs came not just to record the artist’s working method but to motivate it—or, better, that they served to stage process as both developmental and iterative.⁴

Extrapolating from the Chicago/MoMA exhibition, we are speaking, then, of two modalities: that of a material intensification of process, and that of repetition, sometimes quasi-serial in nature. In cases of significant revision (“successive omissions and deformations,” according to one visitor to the studio in 1910, as the catalogue tells us), the two can become one. In some cases, the changes add up to the reconception of an entire work, and there Matisse can almost be described as having produced variants one atop another (without—as the artist would come to do in the ’30s—wiping out areas each time and starting over). Pairs and sequences, in other words, are at times conflated in a single work. Scoring, scraping, and “carving” into the paint surface are techniques that simultaneously efface and create new passages of pictorial form. Ultimately, a painting becomes a conflicted site of material procedures and accumulated labor.

The question remains, To what degree are we inclined to see Matisse’s work in this way because our technological capacity—recently further enhanced by new digital-imaging software, which was also applied in preparation for this exhibition—encourages us to do so? The conservation studio is a mesmerizing place: A painting is laid bare like a body on a dissecting table (metaphors of the corporeal abound in the common discourse of conservation treatment), many of its material secrets revealed. Technical analysis was originally devised in order to diagnose the condition of a damaged or deteriorating object, but over time, as the means have improved, such analysis has become indispensable to historical and critical interpretation. Yet as penetrating as it is, there is nothing transparent about the relevance of forensic vision: With it, we look into and across paint surfaces, engaging in a manner of prosthetic scrutiny that is foreign to the norms of aesthetic beholding. The very value of such scrutiny lies in this distinction, but it is not without its own biases, which include the unstated but inevitable presumption of neutrality—of unvarnished truth, so to speak. The inescapable implication—and it is almost subliminal, given enough time spent with paintings in a conservation studio or a research lab—is that this (the X-ray or infrared image, the analyzed paint sample, the peeled-apart layers of painterly activity) is what painting really is. A case could be made for the rise of technical analysis as a critical operation, its emergence partly conditioned by various ideological upheavals in the discipline of art history, in that the science of forensic examination means to circumvent methodological debate. Finally, though, it is closer to representing a methodology itself; perhaps it can be said to have replaced connoisseurship, a significant and subtle yet vexed practice—claiming to be a hybrid of objectivity and intuition—that has fallen into a certain disregard (and is irrelevant to many kinds of artmaking after 1960).

What is it that we see, after all, when we examine composite X-radiographic images of, say, Bathers by a River? Something that, in its optical transparency, is extremely dense; this static, deeply ambiguous image records a process of fabrication occurring not only through time but through periods of work reflecting varying states of attention: of urgency, of discovery, of frustration, of rote labor. All of these elements and the decisions they represent are equalized by the imaging process. Again, that can be useful, as it requires us to scan data absent the familiar hierarchy of pictorial information or considerations of artistic psyche. But interpreting the evidence comes with often unacknowledged risks. In erasing the distinction between significant changes, on the one hand, and the mere residue of technique (the things that happen while proceeding from one step to another in the course of applying paint), on the other, the technical image can deceive. Moreover, it is a kind of ghost that settles into our faculties of seeing, one that compels us to take process for truth: to address what we see now—precisely because we could never see it before—as something like the painting’s unconscious, the place where its ulterior motives reside. Such a claim can be legitimate; yet in its seductiveness, it can just as often be a trap.

What does a painting want? Different kinds of work demand different kinds of looking, but these terms are provisionally bracketed when we turn to technical analysis. How do we weigh the significance of change without making a fetish of it? In “Radical Invention,” hidden changes—now revealed by technology—are assimilated to exposed changes by way of concluding that the temporality of change itself represents the very content of the work. (The philosopher Henri Bergson, whose theories of “duration” and “life force” had currency in avant-gardist circles and were well known to Matisse, is called on to support this argument.) But it might be worth reconsidering process instead as a means. If we look to the work of the ’30s and ’40s, we find Matisse’s fixation on process taking a dialectical turn: the stages of work now distinctly separated, and preserved by the camera rather than by a layered paint surface. Throughout Matisse’s career, varieties of repetition may have constituted a deliberate check on facility; in any case, the artist in later interviews consistently opposed the labor of reworking to the impression of “simplicity,” “clarity,” and “spontaneity” that he desired for a finished painting (though these terms are never very well defined). In other words, he could not attain the one without enduring the trials of the other. Simplicity is vague; labor is specific. Given the technical evidence from the ’teens, and the acutely close reading of it in “Radical Invention,” we might say that the process of painting during that period signifies the emergence of a self-critical extreme. Later iteration, which could be mistaken for a kind of facility, therefore begins to look instead like a new form of induced resistance: Rather than expedite results, the iterative état is a procedure that pushes back. Matisse’s ethic—in a body of work so often engaged with a thematics of pleasure—is expressed (through restless permutation) as a deployment of conflict, if not of doubt. With respect to the period of “Radical Invention,” such a characterization is supported by the fact that, as the catalogue tells us, work on French Window at Collioure, 1914—which is striking for its austerity (above all, for its large center of unrelieved black)—was interrupted by Matisse’s movements during the war and never resumed. It remained unexhibited and unpublished in his lifetime. Matisse was prepared to withhold a work that was incomplete, by his standards, even if—and this is the crucial point—it is, to us, not noticeably less finished than any number of other paintings in this show.

“HE IS LIKE A WRITER, striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and redrafting, canceling, advancing by endless recapitulation, never admitting that his work has reached its final stage: from sheet to sheet, copy to copy, he continually revises his drawing, deepening, tightening, closing it up.”⁵ This is Paul Valéry, writing in 1936 of Edgar Degas. In the remark, the passage from writing to drawing is almost imperceptible: Describing a mechanics of process, Valéry could be speaking of either almost to the end. This helps us acknowledge that Matisse’s practice—the way it looks in “Radical Invention,” and the way in which it was reinvented between the wars—is an attenuation of certain conventions: By the ’30s, his work had become a serial staging of intuition through labor, an application of logic to sense.

“Drafting and redrafting”: The languages of drawing and writing share the implication of a graphic system and, by extension, of erasure. With his photographs, Matisse explained in 1945, he could determine whether he had “advanced or regressed” with respect to an imagined goal, but the strenuousness of the working process had long been betrayed.⁶ Much earlier, in 1931 (before he began recording separate états with the camera), the artist showed a heavily worked drawing of a nude figure to an interviewer, Gotthard Jedlicka, explaining that it had been in progress for more than two months: “I worked on it for an hour and a half every evening. . . . It consists, if you will, of hundreds of sketches superimposed one on top of the other.”⁷ Such was the tenacity of Matisse’s labor that he was forced to attach a second sheet, probably over an area of the original support that was about to give way. Jedlicka describes the drawing as an accumulation of “furrowed and erased lines.” He identifies the subject as “the flayed body of a woman, in which the strings of muscle were delineated with a throbbing tension,” but it could be that the many changes simply made the figure look that way. Regardless, the image is apt, for it is clinical even as it evokes extreme pathos, all in the name of process. And it recalls us to the painting or drawing as body (through an implied equivalence between the interior of the depicted figure and the furrowed and erased traces contained on—almost within—the sheet). Greenberg later wrote that, in Cubism, “the world was stripped of its surface, of its skin, and the skin was spread out on the flatness of the picture plane” (and that, in this way, “pictorial art reduced itself entirely to what was visually verifiable”—his rhetorical recourse to flaying in order to make a claim on behalf of pure vision is extraordinary).⁸ Matisse reverses the formulation: His materialism amounts to a kind of depth, allowing the picture—partly through the tenacity of process—to be likened to the exposed anatomy of the écorché.⁹

Degas rarely comes up in the discussion of Matisse’s work. Pictorially, he is the wrong model. But a materialist history of art might value Degas in relation to Matisse, for the older artist was, as Valéry and others would have it, a restless reworker gripped by an experimental approach to media and techniques, and this drive became a method: A picture, Degas is quoted as saying, is “the result of a series of operations.”¹⁰ Degas died in 1917, as Matisse was bringing the experimentalism of the ’teens to a close; Valéry, who was Matisse’s contemporary, wrote his essay about Degas around the time of the photographic états. The generational frame is relevant because Valéry spoke of Degas’s death as the demise of a kind of practice, solitary and, above all, relentlessly self-critical: “He cannot see a work of his own hands without longing to destroy it or begin it over again.”¹¹ Now that Matisse’s labor has long since lost purchase on subsequent practice (on the work of art), forensic scrutiny—which is opposed to beholding—is a placeholder: It allows us to substitute our relentlessness for Matisse’s own. Carol Armstrong has described Valéry’s Degas as a disappearing author: A man of method, he created work that was modernist in its abstraction and self-referentiality yet antimodernist as well—repetitive and impersonal; the artist was not the free agent of avant-garde myth, but, Armstrong writes (summarizing Valéry), a figure of sublimation, “bound to work against and outside of himself, against and outside his own libido.”¹² This, too, gets us strangely close to Matisse’s method (an accumulation of labor over surfaces and, later, a procedure of repeated efforts wiped away), which is antiheroic. It was not until after midcentury that radical method emerged as a necessary condition of new artistic practice. In that context, Matisse’s project—hedonistic, yes, but possessed of incipient seriality and perhaps secretly self-negating—strikes one as eccentric and prescient. Gertrude Stein was onto Matisse and, writing about him in 1912, said it first: “One was quite certain that for a long part of his being one being living he had been trying to be certain that he was wrong in doing what he was doing.”¹³

“Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from March 20 through June 20; the exhibition travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 18–October 12.

Jeffrey Weiss is an independent curator and critic living in New York.


1. Clement Greenberg, “New York Painting Only Yesterday” (1957), reprinted in John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–1969 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 22.

2. André Verdet, Entretiens, notes et écrits sur la peinture: Braque, Léger, Matisse, Picasso (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1978), 124.

3. William S. Rubin, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 415.

4. Jeffrey Weiss, “The Matisse Grid,” in Eik Khang, ed., The Repeating Image: Multiples in French Painting from David to Matisse, exh. cat. (Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2007), 173–93.

5. Paul Valéry, “Degas Dance Drawing,” in Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, trans. David Paul (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 39.

6. Interview with Léon Degand (1945), reprinted in Jack Flam, ed., Matisse on Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 161.

7. Interview with Gotthard Jedlicka (1931), reprinted in Flam, Matisse on Art, 103.

8. Clement Greenberg, “On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting,” in Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 172.

9. Frank Stella characterized the material depth of Matisse’s complex paint surface in 1975: “I almost feel that he gets three kinds of surfaces: the slightly raised surface of relatively undiluted pigment, the very diluted, scrubbed or thinned-out pigment, and the surface of the canvas itself. With these three surfaces he gave himself plenty of depth, plenty of area in which to work.” Stella refers to the paint surface as a “skin.” In Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, “Eight Statements,” Art in America (July/August 1975): 74. Such depth (and its defoliation with the procedure of the état) represents an inverse material analogue to what Yve-Alain Bois has described as a “sensorial diffraction” in Matisse’s paintings, an unsettled, allover “diffusion of his gaze.” See Bois, “On Matisse: The Blinding,” October 68 (Spring 1994): 79.

10. Valéry, “Degas Dance Drawing,” 6.

11. Ibid., 101.

12. Carol Armstrong, Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 225. Armstrong’s larger argument, relevant to my own, posits that Valéry’s representation of Degas is also a self-representation.

13. Gertrude Stein, “Matisse,” Camera Work (August 1912), reprinted in Ulla E. Dydo, ed., A Stein Reader (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 139.