One of the fun bits about an exhibition that tells one curator’s story of the beginning of abstraction isn’t just seeing who’s there, but seeing who was left out. If there’s a better art historical parlor game than musing on who isn’t in MoMA curator Leah Dickerman’s thrilling “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” I don’t know what it is. So over the next week or three, I’ll share some artists I was surprised weren’t included.
The obvious place to start is with Henri Matisse. I understand why Pablo Picasso is the first painting in Dickerman’s show: She’s arguing that the coming abstraction was enabled by cubism. That’s true, to a point. There’s more to the story: Much in the coming abstraction — in particular its bright, shining hues — is descended from Matisse and his fauvist pals… but there’s no Matisse at the entrance to the MoMA show, nor is there a Matisse in the exhibition. (Notable nomenclature: Dickerman’s show is subtitled, “How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art.” In 2010 MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago launched a show of Matisse works from 1913-17 titled, “Radical Invention.”)
Leaving the tricky question of foundation for another time, it could be argued that Matisse pushed harder toward abstraction than Picasso did. Here’s a selection.
What women with mandolins were to Picasso in 1910, Moroccan gardens were to Matisse in 1912. Matisse made three paintings of the gardens at the Villa Brooks, near his Moroccan hotel. This is the Morocco painting in which Matisse pushed the furthest toward abstraction.
Henri Matisse, French Window at Collioure, 1914. Collection of Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
In the catalogue for the aforementioned 2010 AIC/MoMA exhibition “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-17,” John Elderfield, Stephanie D’Alessandro and their team argue that Matisse left this painting unfinished. Their arguments, based substantially on Matisse’s writings about things other than this painting, aren’t wholly convincing. Numerous art historians have read into French Window the coming Great War, which had just started. Jack Flam regards it as Matisse’s “most daring evocation of a Mallarmean absence.”
Matisse called this painting Composition, an acknowledgement of how far he abstracted away from the painting’s ostensible subject, a view from a curtained window in the artist’s home in the Parisian suburbs. Art historians have added the name of the suburb to the title of the painting. (Apologies for the washed-out quality of this JPEG; it was the best I could find.)
Henri Matisse, Shaft of Sunlight, the Woods of Trivaux, 1917.
Like many early 20th-century abstractions and near-abstractions — and not just Matisse’s — the title provides a means by which forms on the canvas may be assigned. Without it, would the two tree limbs (they are tree limbs, right?) be identifiable?