New light on Matisse in Nice. Seldom-seen paintings surface in a luminous exhibition

THE show could be called ``Desperately Seeking Matisse,'' but the National Gallery has chosen a more restrained title for its new hit: ``Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930.'' Art historians regard this as something of a mystery period in Matisse's life, a period when he first discovered the sunswept south of France and, with it, a radical new painting style. The show brings together for the first time 168 paintings from this period, in 12 galleries. Getting ready for the exhibition took three years of international sleuthing.

``We did not know where half the paintings were,'' says Dominique Fourcade, international authority on Matisse who helped put the show together. ``We had to be detectives from Japan to San Francicsco, from Sweden to Spain. We asked everyone we knew in the art world to help.''

Mr. Fourcade and Jack Cowart, curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery, were partners in the Matisse hunt. Among the clues: dozens of old black-and-white photos from the period. Fourcade estimates that 40 paintings still haven't been found, and he notes that 15 of these are of extremely high quality. He believes that some perished during World War II, others may have been stolen, and still others are in private collections of people who cherish their anonymity. He predicts that publication of the show's illustrated catalog, which he penned with Cowart, will probably ``shake more paintings loose.''

The exhibition conveys the luminous brightness of the French Riviera, with its flowers, palms, beaches, and shuttered windows opening on the blue Bay of Angels. It is also replete with variations on a theme, like the work of a composer who explores a motif from many dimensions. Matisse's ``music'' includes several series: one consisting of 40 paintings of a brunette model named Lorette in various moods, fills an entire gallery; paintings of his daughter Marguerite Matisse; the ``F^ete des Fleurs'' in Nice, and endless odalisques. As Fourcade says, ``We wanted to make sure that there were beautiful paintings, that there were innovative paintings, that there were obsessive paintings.''

Matisse, nearing 50, was already considered one of the two great artists of the 20th century, together with Picasso, when he turned his back on family, fortune, and fame and left Paris in December, 1917, for a new life in the south of France. He took a small, meager room at the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Nice and began to paint.

Matisse had been told that the light on the Riviera was wonderful for painting, but it rained for a solid month. In a self-portrait from that period he included his umbrella stuck in a tall jar. At the end of this soggy month, Fourcade says, Matisse decided he was not going to find what he was looking for and determined to leave the next day. When that day came, however, the rain stopped, and he stayed a bit longer.

Within five months his new style had emerged in a series of remarkable paintings. This hotel room and then another near it became what Fourcade calls ``a box of light.'' In it Matisse searched for his own being as a painter, working out problems of space, color, scale, dimension, and pattern in new ways.

In introducing this Matisse-in-Nice exhibit, National Gallery director J. Carter Brown said, ``This is risky business. Show biz is risky business. And art is risky business, as Matisse knew more than anyone. And I must say that, until the pictures ... were all hung and properly ordered and lit ... I wasn't entirely convinced - that this gamble would pay off.''

Carter Brown was talking about what he calls Matisse's ``bum rap'' for these paintings of his middle years. ``The middle has had a very rocky time in its critical fortunes. The critics have always sort of cleared their throats when it came to the middle part of Matisse's career: `It's one of his midlife crises, and the less said about it the better.' Well, what this show does is take those monumental bookends away and take a look at what's in the middle on its own terms.''

Carter Brown has a theory as to why this long-overlooked middle period is now, like a rosy peach, ripe for plucking. ``It will come into its full due because the time is also ripe,'' he says. ``We went through a period when the avant garde was equated with a stripping down of the Bauhaus symbolism that is our architectural history. And we are in love - and have been for decades - with sheer surfaces and crispness, all of that revolution against Victorian clutter. In the '80s there has been a monumental swing in public sensibility, and we are now very receptive to just the Victorian clutter and the marvelous sense of ornament and piling on of details the Bauhaus aesthetic was out to get.

``And so the middle period of Matisse now, instead of being a throwback, ... is perhaps the bellwether of the post-modernist aesthetic.'' Brown suggests that ``Matisse in the middle period was 50 years ahead of his time, not 50 years behind, and what is really exciting is to come to these pictures with the fresh eyes of the middle '80s. This has always been true of great artists.''

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