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MeTube: Elderfield and D’Alessandro Describe “Matisse: Radical Invention”

The Critic Sees: Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker ponders Matisse’s celebrated “Blue Nude,” 1907, from the Baltimore Museum’s Cone Collection

I felt about Matisse: Radical Invention (which opens to the public on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art) much as I had felt a month ago about Picasso Looks at Degas (to Sept. 12 at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA).

Both high-concept and well received shows were exhaustively researched over the course of five years, involving the close collaboration of a pair of highly respected curator/scholars: John Elderfield and Stephanie D’Alessandro for Matisse; Richard Kendall and Elizabeth Cowling for Degas/Picasso.

But although I approached both with the highest expectations—given the distinguished organizers, the high masterpiece count and the superlative artists, I ultimately felt let down by each show’s failure to deliver a satisfying take on its overriding premise.

With their breathtaking array of great works drawn from international sources, these exhibitions couldn’t have failed to impress, even had they not attempted to map a corner of little explored territory in the artists’ oeuvres.

In the case of Picasso/Degas (as curator Kendall acknowledged to me in conversation after the press preview), the impression left by the art on display was not that Degas’ style or artistic goals had significantly influenced Picasso’s, but that there were certain affinities of subject matter and parallels in the artists’ lives and artistic practice. Both, for example, had serious academic credentials as draftsmen, but eventually felt impelled to create sculptures, for which they lacked formal training.

As the Clark’s director, Michael Conforti, acknowledged to me when I expressed my quibbles, upon meeting him in the final gallery of the show:

Picasso would have been Picasso without Degas.

Below is what, to me, was the great moment in the Clark’s show—three very different females, all roughly assuming the stance that ballet dancers know as “fourth position.” (In the center, flanked by two very diverse Picassos, is the Clark’s own Degas, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”):PicDegDanc.jpgThe great moment in MoMA’s show is the entire last room. (Tip to visitors: Leave enough time at the end of your stay to do justice to this grand finale.) Below is the curators’ juxtaposition of iconic Matisses from their museums’ respective collections (MoMA’s “The Piano Lesson” on left; Chicago’s “Bathers by a River,” on right):

What didn’t quite work for me in MoMA’s show (which originated in Chicago) was its hammering away at the curators’ “big idea”—that Matisse, during this more austere and experimental period in his career, 1913-1917, was obsessively reworking his paintings and sculptures, leaving evidence of his process in the finished product. The voluminous catalogue laboriously records every tweak in every work, often aided by the scientific evidence of various imaging technologies. It’s interesting for a while, but lacks the interpretive essence that we crave from a Matisse-ian exploration.What was insufficiently expressed, to my mind, was the curatorial intelligence so much in evidence during the brief comments to the press at Tuesday’s preview, where the organizers explained to us why all this visual and scientific evidence matters—in terms of the importance and impact of Matisse’s work and what he was trying to achieve.Below are two samples from their comments—the first featuring D’Alessandro; the second, Elderfield. D’Alessandro begins by talking about the initial inspiration for the show—Chicago’s “Bathers.” At the very beginning of Elderfield’s riveting oration. you’ll see a white-haired man in a blue jacket. That’s Claude Duthuit, Matisse’s grandson.

an ArtsJournal blog