Henri Matisse's Young Sailor II, 1906. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (1999.363.41). © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
NEW YORK - The Metropolitan Museum of Art currently features a great show with a bad title: Matisse: In Search of True Painting, up through March 17. That grand billing could mean anything, really, as we assume the great master was always on that search. And by all accounts he found it, becoming one of those artists we keep coming back to – a nearly bottomless well of innovation and inspiration.
The show is something much more interesting than a vague quest: It’s about Matisse’s paired paintings and his repeated canvases on the same subject (I won’t presume to suggest titles to the Met, but I can think of a few that would have neatly addressed this topic). Interiors, odalisques, bowls of fruit and landscapes are all represented with major loans from institutions and collectors from around the world.
Henri Matisse's The Dream, 1940. © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The section I found most fascinating was “Using Black to Paint Light.” As soon as I read the wall text, I realized that from The Piano Lesson on down, Matisse’s work has always gained huge strength from his use of black – not only to frame shapes, not only to contrast with his amazing palette of color, but to give a sense of light.
The curators use his various paintings of the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Nice, and his Interior with a Violin, to tell the tale. The master himself said it best: His use of black and gray helped him get across “the silver clarity of the light in Nice.” I might argue that some of that clarity could have been used on the show’s title, but that doesn’t mean it’s not eminently worth a trip while the exhibition is still on view.