It’s a funny thing to see one of the heroes of modern art at work. Viewing Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum is kind of like watching a YouTube video of Pablo Picasso painting. The artistic act is present and impressive — you are seeing a great painter create great art in real time — but also somehow underwhelming, like uncovering the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. They’re only human, after all.
By displaying multiple versions of the same painting or subject matter, the Met’s compact show puts Matisse’s artistic practice on display, not simply highlighting his masterpieces in the manner of a retrospective or looking at a particular period of his career, but tackling how the artist worked in his everyday life. It’s an impressive curatorial feat that brings to life the artist’s mindset and day-to-day milieu, aspects that are sorely missing from most shows.
The exhibition begins with two still-life canvases of fruit and compote, both from 1899 and redolent of Cezanne. The compositions are identical, but the first is a less finished picture — it’s more about the swaths of bright, flat color, qualities the artist would later embrace, while the second shows Matisse mixing the unstable compositional techniques of Paul Cezanne with the pointillism of Paul Signac, with variegated strokes of complementary color.
Throughout the early part of the show, it’s possible to see Matisse evolving before our very eyes. “Still Life with Purro I” (1904), a chunky, Cezanne-esque painting, becomes “Still Life with Purro II” (1904–05), an abstract haze of paint daubs in the garish yellows and reds and soft blues that Matisse became known for. It’s a huge jump that occurs in the space of a year, a fact that the exhibition makes visible.
Throughout his next slew of subjects — a young sailor, a trio of female nudes called “Le Luxe,” and the interior of his studio with the now-iconic glass tank of goldfish — we see Matisse constantly testing his own boundaries. Areas of color become flatter and compositions looser and more skeletal. Between 1914′s “Interior with Goldfish” and “Goldfish and Palette” of the same year, a coherent domestic space with a view out onto a public square becomes a cubist puzzle of angular outlines and color blocks, with curlicues replacing architectural flourishes. The artist never stays in one visual idiom for too long.
One fascinating aspect of the exhibition is the inclusion of a few paintings surrounded by black and white photographs that depict the final canvas in different stages of completion, arranged in chronological order. In the 1930s, Matisse hired a photographer to document his progress on certain works. He used to the photos as a personal reference to judge whether or not progress had been made.
What makes this even more interesting is that Matisse exhibited his paintings with the photographs when they were first shown, a gesture that seems both honest and egotistical — the photos bare his process in the deepest possible way (at the time, at least), but they also pay testament to his genius of omission, choosing which visual qualities to leave out of a composition and which to emphasize. He tests out possibilities one by one until he arrives at the solution.
The Metropolitan show doesn’t always do Matisse favors. A strange, harshly colored series of paintings completed in 1920 depicting variously a pile of eels, two rays, or a collection of fish slumped at the bottom of a cliff shows that no matter the artist, there are always stinkers and dead ends that must be pursued in order to move on. Which, thankfully, Matisse does: Ever restless, he progresses on a trajectory that is visible to us now but was a continuous, unknowable quest for the artist during his lifetime.
Matisse: In Search of True Painting is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 17, 2013.