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The great French modernist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was not a joiner. In the early 20th century he led the brief blitz of the Fauves — those “wild beasts” of fiery colors and blunt textures — but otherwise abstained from the signal movements of modern art.
He communed with artists of the distant or not-so-distant past, from Giotto to Cézanne, and periodically brushed shoulders with Cubism and the work of his chief rival, Picasso. But his main desire was, as he put it, to “push further and deeper into true painting.” This project was in every sense an excavation, and he achieved it partly by digging into his own work, revisiting certain scenes and subjects again and again and at times also making superficially similar if drastically divergent copies of his paintings.
His rigorous yet unfettered evolution is the subject of “Matisse: In Search of True Painting” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the most thrillingly instructive exhibitions about this painter, or painting in general, that you may ever see. As ravishing as it is succinct, it skims across this French master’s long, productive career with a mere 49 paintings, but nearly all are stellar if not pivotal works.
Organized at the Met by Rebecca Rabinow, a curator of modern and contemporary art, this exhibition, which is in previews for members through Sunday and opens to nonmembers on Tuesday, sheds new light on Matisse’s penchant for copying and working in series. (It was seen in somewhat different versions at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen.) To this end, the paintings proceed in pairs or groups aligned by subject: two still-life arrangements with fruit and compote, from 1899; two versions of a young sailor slouching in a chair, from 1906; four views (1900 to 1914) of Notre Dame seen from Matisse’s window across the Seine; three portraits (1916-17) of Laurette, a favorite dark-haired model, seen from various distances in a voluminous green robe from Morocco.
By Jim McKinniss