There must be something in the air. This fall has brought to New York not one but two major museum shows dedicated to high modernism, both beautiful but nearly aesthetically opposite. On display are the two great collage moments of the twentieth century, the explosively revolutionary work of the Cubists and the charmingly bright cut-outs of the elderly Henri Matisse.
The Museum of Modern Art has on view the magnificent “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” through February 5, 2015, the largest museum show ever staged of the late paper-based work of the great French master. In his final years, Matisse virtually invented an entirely new medium, taking his place among the rare artists whose later work remains as vital and innovative as ever. The result is a blast of color and form that mesmerizes and dazzles. Earlier in his career, Matisse had experimented with color cut-outs – literally cut pieces of paper pinned down in composition – notably in his studies for his large scale mural for the Barnes Foundation and for various book cover and other graphic design projects. But it was not until after the Second World War when Matisse, then in his late seventies, devoted himself to a medium he essentially created. After a series of traumatic events including a life-threatening bout with cancer, his separation from his wife, and the conflagration that had enveloped Europe, Matisse spent his final years working with an unusual technique that allowed him to explore the elements of color and form that had been the hallmark of his genius.
While the publisher Christian Zervos, who had been the first to commission Matisse cut-outs for his magazine Cahiers d’Art years earlier, criticized the work as an “agreeable distraction,” the passing of years has come to view the cut-outs as important works in their own right. Although physically debilitated, Matisse was able to work productively and create an entirely new effect. After carefully selecting colors and dying the paper accordingly, Matisse would then cut out shapes and pin them to various surfaces, using techniques remembered from his childhood in the north of France among textile artisans. The artist could then move the images around until the composition suited him perfectly. The result was often a magical combination of drawing, printmaking, sculpture and painterly composition.
Matisse was similarly creative in the uses of his new media and most of his ambitious major projects of the time are on view at MoMA. “The walls of my room are full of découpages,” declared Matisse, and cut-outs surrounded him in this period. The Swimming Pool, a major work in the museum’s own collection whose restoration was the genesis of this exhibition undertaken with the Tate Modern in London, was created to provide the debilitated artist with an imaginary place to do the exercise his body could no longer do. The various decorations of Matisse’s various homes and studios — including the masterpiece Parakeet and Mermaid — are also on view, as is the entirety of the richly colored Jazz of 1947, one of the great artist’s books of the twentieth century which at once explores joyous circus motifs and alludes to the horrors of war the world had just lived through. There are even elements, including brightly colored vestments, from the chapel in Vence that Matisse designed and which was perhaps his last great undertaking. Away from the art, one of the show’s highlights is surely the film installation of Matisse at work, where you can see the cut-outs emerge from the paper sheets in an explosion of incisions from oversized industrial scissors, inspiration for connoisseurs and children alike.
Meanwhile, uptown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other side of modernism, all line, angle and geometry, is on display in “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection.” Picasso and Matisse were, of course, great friends and rivals, and the differences are never so much apparent as in these two bodies of work, several decades apart. The Met’s exhibition contains the eighty-one works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger assembled over a forty year period by the cosmetics executive and philanthropist Leonard Lauder. Lauder’s gift to the Met last year was one of the largest of its kind to any museum and single-handedly transformed the Metropolitan’s collection of modernism at a time when it is seeking to expand its presence in twentieth and twenty-first century art. The pictures will actually go back to Lauder following the show for a time, and the patron continues to add to the collection. The exhibition in fact includes two acquisitions made after the gift’s announcement.
Cubism was perhaps the most important revolution in twentieth century modernism, what Lauder refers to as “the great moment that changed Western art forever.” With its much tougher aesthetic, Cubism captured the angst and excitement that came from the tectonic changes unleashed by the industrial revolution and urbanization. The show does a good job first of tracing the progression of Picasso’s African period into the highly structured collages of newspapers, pipes, and other objects that mark the most pure of the still life forms. There is an excellent room dedicated to the work of Picasso and Braque at the height of their collaboration, where it was almost impossible for even the artists to tell their work apart.
Lauder has collected these four artists in depth, often acquiring works from the great Cubist collections of the past including that of their original dealer and advocate, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. There is a great breadth on display from each highlighting the various phases of the movement from the more abstract shapes of the earlier works to the inclusion of collaged graphics and images in the later synthetic period ending with the outbreak of the Great War. Towards the end of the exhibition, after an immersion in monochromatic painting and collage, color returns to the work of the Cubists as they continue to progress, and there are some particular gems among the collages and works on paper.
The high quality and focus of Lauder’s collection is impressive and the result of decades of pursuit and refinement. But even more impressive is, of course, the work of the artists. And while these works will eventually go to the Met, they are only on view for the moment this fall. Something not to be missed.