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The premise of this show, if I’m reading between the lines of the catalog correctly, is as follows: most critics think Matisse was floundering during the period covered by this show (1913-1917), and, yeah, okay, sure, but it was purposeful and important floundering, resulting in “pivotal” works of art. “Pivotal” (as opposed to “major” or “beautiful” or even “interesting”) being a key concept: from here, new directions.

Here’s how they put it:

Works from this period have typically been treated as unrelated to one another, as an aberration within the artist’s development, or as a response to Cubism or World War I […] the exhibition reveals deep connections among these works and demonstrates their critical role in the artist’s development at this time.

Bathers by a River (1909, 1913 & 1916)You get to see numerous layers -- amounting to multiple versions -- of this painting at the show, via vintage journalistic photographs as well as x-rays taken by the museum.

One of the ways he purposefully floundered, per the meta-information provided on the walls, and in the audio tour, and in the catalog, is by “tipping his hand,” as they say in card games. In a few of the paintings, for example, he smeared huge lines across the canvas, sort of outside and above the composition, to show the underlying organizational strategy of the thing, the way that an art history teacher might mark up a masterpiece in the course of a PowerPoint presentation for his students. In others, Matisse scraped the top layers of paint down to a thin, thin film, allowing us see the earlier placement of figures underneath the “final work,” forcing us, as viewers, to think about the painting as something that once existed in flux, and even to concentrate on that flux as the key to the meaning of the work, rather than on the surface image alone.

Back (1909)

Back II (1913)

Back III (1916-17)

Back IV (1930)

The perfect emblem of the show is the “Back” series of bas relief sculptures: four separate hunks of bronze, created years apart (the first and the last were actually created outside the self-defined boundaries of this show, but are included anyway), each starting its life as a plaster cast of the previous incarnation, before being transformed by the restless Master. We’re supposed to think of the series as one living, almost molten sculpture, which evolved over time, and for which these four incarnations are simply “snapshots,” the point being the evolution and the change, not the snapshots. The process = the product. At least, that appears to be the curatorial thesis, as I understand it.

This thesis causes the curators to pull out, and place front and center, some works that, frankly, look weird and awkward to the untrained eye, the kind of works that are confusing in the context of the other stuff in the room at first glance, and are usually hidden in the corners for this reason, or disincluded from shows altogether. Fair enough. That’s part of what a serious-minded exhibit like this is supposed to do: force, or at least propose, more than a first glance, and maybe even a re-evaluation. The kind of minds who work such angles have to be given angles to work. I’m not trying to imply that that’s a bad thing. A show like this is supposed to be part of an argument — maybe one that goes over most of our heads.

But don’t let that turn you off, either, if you’re not one of those participating in the argument, or even following it. Most of us (me included) just want to see the beautiful things. As you would expect from a Matisse show, there are more than enough beautiful things — just flat-out open-your-eyes-and-let-them-drink-it-in beautiful — to make up for all the intellectual heaviness of the meta-information around the experience. It’s a great show, in other words. You should go if you can.