The word “Matisse” instantly throws down a picture in my mind of vibrant color and shapes, as in Le bonheur de vivre. However, the exhibit “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” presently at the Chicago Art Institute, re-taught me what those two words can mean.
Sketches, drawings, and etchings informed painting, painting informed sculpture, sculpture informed painting, painting informed painting as Matisse worked out his ideas with shapes, form, and color during those four years.
His simple line drawing of Greta Prozor arrested me: face shape—a triangle; hair—four lines; eyes—ovals with pointed ends. One of the eyeballs is shaded, offsetting the other one, which is not. The woman draws you in with one eye, keeps you at a distance with the other.
Matisse’s painting Portrait of Sarah Stein continues with the shapes he used in his study of “Portrait of Sarah Stein”; he pulls in similar shapes from his drawing of Greta Prozor. Blue “roads” of color back the dark hair, luminous tan face, and neck of Sarah Stein. The viewer is allowed to see the inside of the person because both model and artist, through their special bond, have decided to invite the viewer in.
Bathers by a River, a forceful painting—five meters long—embodies Matisse’s giant struggle before and during the World War I years to find a complex integration with distinction of parts. He built and reduced paint of grey, black, white, pink, green, and blue to “discover in nature how my sensations should come” mixed with “the essential character of a landscape,” or mixed with the essential forms in a landscape. His final dynamic product finds a balance in the vertical rhythmical lines.
Once seen, Greta Prozor (48f), Portrait of Sarah Stein, and Bathers by a River carved a place of permanence in my mind.