As the blockbuster “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” moves into its final weeks at the Museum of Modern Art, we look back to the first time the museum held a major show of Matisse’s work. The retrospective, MoMA’s 13th exhibition, ran from November 3 to December 6 , 1931, and included 162 works. (Matisse did not start making his cut-outs until the late ’40s, so they were not included in the show.) In the exhibition’s first week, ARTnews, then a weekly, called it an “intelligent and revealing selection,” albeit one with work that varied in quality. Ralph Flint’s thoughts on the show follow in full below.
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“Matisse Exhibit Opens Season at Modern Museum”
By Ralph Flint
Important Works in All Styles Included in Most Complete Matisse Showing Ever Held in the United States.
The retrospective exhibition of the works of Henri Matisse that inaugurates the Museum of Modern Art’s third season fairly bristles with the attendant excitements of success. Following hard upon the triumphant demonstration of his art that formed the climax of the Paris art season last spring this fifth—and most comprehensive—showing in America is practically a bestowal of final honors, made doubly conclusive by being accorded with the artist’s own time by New York’s most representative and glamorous body of art lovers. This new acclamation, plus the highly flattering commission by the Barnes Foundation, leaves little to be added in the way of public acceptance in America. His success is sure on both sides of the Atlantic. He has triumphed in his own time—more so perhaps than any of his contemporaries. He has made a success of his art and an art of his success. He will doubtless be thronged during the next few weeks by eager hordes of impressionable folk taking him in with perhaps more gusto than understanding. His stock will be sent sky-rocketing, and those dealers lucky enough to have even an option on one of his canvases will be reaping their reward.
Already Matisse has provoked a very considerable bibliography. But, despite his terrific popularity, he remains a rather disquieting disciple of modernism. Not all of his varied output is of equal merit, although historically it is all of importance as illustrating the way the various winds have veered about the Paris studios these past twenty years. Since the French have a way of secretly welding together the various links in their historic chain of pictorial accomplishment, there will be little chance for future criterions to seriously affect his ranking. He has doubtless swayed his contemporaries into more daring digressions of thought than any other member of the School of Paris group with the single exception of Picasso. His sensation-seeking brush has quickened many a brother artist into new flights of fancy. He has served as driving wedge to weaken those stubborn walls that stand in the way of all insurgent investigation. And yet, withal, he has remained a brilliant but signally uninspired master. He has played the art game with skill and courage, sustained from step to step by the growing success that has attended him. His giddiest flights have, however, seldom been sustained. He has veered this way and that, trying his hand at various styles of expression, but all the while remaining at heart a still-life painter of the first order.
Henri Matisse, while trying to be many things at many periods, has ended by becoming splendidly himself. His play of brush ad his brisk flair for patterns are dynamic only within fixed limits. His smallish interiors, mostly adorned with attendant houris and odalisques of nondescript charm and vintage, are his most signal accomplishments. These are unrivaled transcriptions of a nature—more or less—morte. A small nude like the Reclining Nude from the Valentine Dudensing collection is worth a dozen “Moroccans,” no matter what the intermittent decorative bravura.
The Museum of Modern Art has made a most intelligent and revealing selection of Matisse’s works in various media, there being some eighty canvases ranging from the early Storm at Sea of 1894 to his latest inventions, as well as groups of drawings (mainly from the artist’s collection), etchings, monotypes, lithographs, woodcuts, and sculpture, 162 additional items in all. We read the story as it runs from the early Louvre transcriptions into the impressionistic period with its gradual simplification of effect, and on into the fauve progression with its pictorial excesses and liberties that in time became more duly restrained and somewhat reduced to a state of semi-abstraction. But it is in his later work, almost without exception, the work that came out of his so-called Nice period—bright, decorative, inspired performances of wide dexterity and intelligence—that we find the real Matisse in the full pursuit of his calling, with his pictorial powers in fine organization and his mind untroubled about extra-territorial problems. The last few years, however, would seem to indicate a renewed enthusiasm for pictorial investigations, and now that he is in the throes of creating the huge decorations for the Barnes Foundation, he will most likely be heading off the tracks.
But when I think of Matisse is in the light of the small but select group of canvases of the Nice period that Stephen Clark has nicely assembled in his New York home. Here is the residue of the man’s art, made possible no doubt by all the many investigations, fauvish and otherwise. It is certainly a checkered career that Matisse has led in the way of style over pictorial substance, but that he has won through is the main point. As a landscapist he has also achieved a brilliant and consistent success, having kept to the more or less straight and narrow path. His line work and sculpture, on the other hand, reveal his inordinate curiosity about the human form and its contortive possibilities.
The Museum of Modern Art has issued another of its splendid catalogue raisonnés for its Matisse exhibition, which will run through the sixth of December.