“Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917,” a power-packed show at the Museum of Modern Art, surveying the most adventurous phase of one of the greatest modern painters, prompts the writer to ruminate on his preference for Matisse’s “The Piano Lesson” (1916) and compare it to his preference for the movie “Psycho.” On themes hardly apt for great art, both exalt their mediums by sabotaging normal orders of response. “The Piano Lesson” renders a sweet domestic scene huge and dead flat, with violently summarizing forms and colors that we seem to see before we can start looking at them. The MOMA show—curated by Stephanie D’Alessandro, of the Chicago Art Institute, and John Elderfield—is an analytical exercise, focused in scholarly minutiae and the lavish use of X-rays, laser scanning, and other current gadgets of the field. The show pays exhaustive attention to “Bathers by River,” which lacks the surplus joy and generous story-telling of “The Piano Lesson.” Matisse had no argument with the conventional uses and meanings of painting. We enjoy what such an artist does to the point of almost feeling that we have done it ourselves. The key reward is a sense of complicity in our own excitement, as if our mere appetite conjured the means of its gratification.
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