Matisse's Obsession With Light

POOR Henri Matisse. Whenever he decided to try a major new breakthrough in his painting, by traveling to some light-drenched place, he found a deluge. ``The chief goal of my work is the clarity of light,'' he said late in his life. ``A picture must possess a veritable power for generating light.'' But the rains came as soon as Matisse landed in Tangier on Jan. 29, 1912 - great gushing torrents of rain that went on until Feb. 12.

Matisse (1869-1954), a captive of the rain in his room at the H^otel Villa de France, became depressed and decided to leave. But the tempestuous weather began to calm down, and by March 1 Matisse had begun to paint in the mellow, soft Moroccan light he would rave about in his letters. And he had taken another giant step in a career that made him, together with Picasso, one of the great painters of the first half of the 20th century.

Four years after Morocco, in December 1917, Matisse turned his back on his family and art in Paris to strike out toward a new phase of his work, in the silvery light of Nice. When he arrived, the rain sluiced down for a month. He painted a self-portrait that included a large umbrella in a jar.

Just when he'd decided to leave Nice, the next day the rain stopped. He stayed on, and in five months began the series of paintings that signaled a remarkable new stage, what Dominique Fourcade, the co-curator of the National Gallery's 1986 ``Matisse in Nice'' show called ``expression through light.''

Henri Matisse's obsession with light shines through in the dazzling brilliance of ``Matisse in Morocco,'' the small but significant exhibition that opened this week at the National Gallery of Art. It will shimmer through June 3 here before traveling to New York and the USSR.

``Matisse in Morocco: The Paintings and Drawings, 1912-13'' is billed as a ``USA/USSR joint project,'' the first time an exhibition has been worked out in all phases jointly by Western and Soviet curators. It was organized by the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, and the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. It will be on view at all four museums.

AS soon as you step through the Matisse drawings at the entrance of the exhibition, your sight is pulled toward a narrow doorway, like the entrance to an exotic street, which frames a fabulous blue Matisse painting. It lures you into the painting section of the show. Called ``The Casbah Gate,'' based on the one in Tangier's old city, it is the third painting in a three-picture Moroccan triptych acquired by Matisse's influential Russian patron, Ivan Morosov.

The other two parts of the triptych are ``Landscape Viewed from a Window,'' capturing the view from Matisse's hotel, and ``On the Terrace,'' a view of Matisse's Moroccan model, Zorah.

All three are on loan from the Pushkin Museum. These triplets have never been seen before in the United States and are among the most important paintings in the show. They are hung exactly as Matisse stipulated.

So the singing blues and greens, the opalescent violets, and the pungent pinks that Matisse later added to unite the paintings as a triptych for Morosov - all those glorious colors can be seen together in one panoramic glance from across the room.

Individually, they take your breath away with their beautiful, pulsing color and the bold simplicity of their design.

This is the first time since 1913, when Matisse himself exhibited his Morocco paintings in Paris, that they have been shown. But as participating curator John Elderfield of the Museum of Modern Art points out, this show contains more than Matisse's did - all but two of his paintings.

The show also includes sleuthing by the show's conceivers and organizers - Jack Cowart, 20th-century-art curator of the National Gallery, and Matisse authority Pierre Schneider of Paris - which has turned up dozens more drawings, bringing the total from 12 previously known to 70.

Mr. Schneider points out in the catalog, ``Every step forward in Matisse's painting took place in a specific corner of the world'' and that he ``became an Impressionist in Brittany ..., a Fauve in Collioure.''

In Russia in the fall of 1911, the icons, triptychs, and post-Byzantine art with its human figures inspired him and affected his later work. As Schneider explains, ``Matisse did not travel to see places, but to see light, to restore through a change of its quality, the freshness it had lost.''

IN the catalog he also notes, ``During the various stages of [Matisse's] career, what the painter called `inner light, mental, or moral light' and `natural light, the one that comes from the outside, from the sky,' dominated in turn.'' He adds (quoting Matisse's words), ``It is only after having enjoyed the light of the sun for a long time that I tried to express myself through the light of the spirit.''

Indeed, the light changed on his second trip to Morocco, where he found Tangier not lush and green but seared by a drought that turned the landscape to the color of a lion's skin.

The contrast between the two trips can be seen when you compare the tawny golds and oranges of the nearly abstract ``Open Window at Tangier'' with the same scene, the blue-and-green-steeped view from the first trip, ``Landscape Viewed from a Window'' shown here.

Matisse, in love with triptychs after Russia, did a floral trio known as the Moroccan Garden Triptych, which included his explosions of color in ``The Palm,'' ``Acanthus,'' and ``Periwinkle.'' A third triptych, never before on display together, is a series of three Moroccans in vivid native costumes, full-length portraits of ``Amido,'' ``Zorah Standing'' (both from the Hermitage), as well as ``Fatma, the Mulatto Woman.''

All had been bought by Sergei Shchukin, the other important Russian patron, whose collections, along with Morosov's, have made the Hermitage and Pushkin museums so rich in Matisses. Shchukin and Morosov together acquired more than half of Matisse's Moroccan paintings.

After you have dazzled your eyes with the sunshot colors of the ``Matisse in Morocco'' paintings, his drawings come as a quiet interlude in the shade. They offer fascinating insights into his Moroccan trips and Matisse the painter. In ``H. Matisse by Himself,'' we see the artist merrily sketching a marabout, or domed Moroccan tomb; eyes drawn on the tails of his coat echo those of a veiled Moroccan woman at his left.

The National Gallery's Jack Cowart, who both worked on the Matisse ``Cut-Out'' show (of his late art of scissored paper) and was co-curator for the ``Matisse in Nice'' show, stands in a meadow of Matisses and explains: ``Where the ``Cut-Outs'' ... and Nice ... began was in Morocco. And they are consistent in the sense of the search for illumination, the sense for Islamic patterning, the sense for the exotic, the sense for the lush beauty of color. They punctuate three major areas of his work, almost all in the same key, and it becomes increasingly expansive.''

Schneider, taking time out to talk between takes of a French TV interview, says Matisse went to Morocco to, in his words, ``effect the necessary transition'' - going back to nature without betraying his past abstract art.

``Because the abstraction is in nature itself - the light is so profound, so strong - it leaves nothing but the soul of color, you might say. The light floats in front; it is more immaterial. So in a sense Morocco did that for [Matisse].''

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