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The Matisse you didn't know, now at MoMA

Though Henri Matisse is one of the most well known artists of all time, widely considered one of the three seminal artists of the 20th century (along with Picasso and Duchamp), the work he produced from 1913-1917 is the least studied and arguably most innovative of his career. 1913 falls several years after his popular fauvist period, a style he would return to later in life, and marks the beginning of an experimental time during which he allowed the mark of the artist or “the means of making” to show in the finished canvas.

Take, for example, “Bathers by a River” (above), which Matisse first began in 1909-10 and then went back to twice more in 1913 and 1916-17. Considered by the artist himself as one of his most important paintings from this period, Matisse’s reworking of the piece shows the changes in his style and influences over the 8 years it took him to complete it. In 1907 Matisse began sketching bathers and dancers, subjects that allowed him to take his fauvist color palette and apply it to moving figures that still, nevertheless, retain his characteristic flatness. “Bathers” also takes us through Matisse’s personal struggle during the outbreak of WWI, when, at 44, he failed the health inspection and was not able to enlist. 1914 also marks the beginning of his response to cubism, which would prove to be a heavy influence on his later portraiture.

Call it a midlife crisis, it’s clear from the outset is that 1913-1917 was an experimental time for Matisse. Stylistically, he’s all over the map, making this a difficult collection of work to curate as a cohesive exhibition. As the period is his least researched, MoMA enlisted the help of the Art Institute of Chicago to conduct special technical examinations of the work that “revealed an evolution of works of art from the period and illuminated previously unknown relationships among them.” They discovered techniques that “provided the foundation for the artists most radical inventions.”

Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917” is currently in member previews. The exhibit is open to the public from July 18 – October 11,2010.