Getting Matisse weirdly wrong, and getting Renoir weirdly right.

Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917

Museum of Modern Art

Renoir in the 20th Century

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The astonishing variety of modern art, by turns bewitching and confounding, has been brought into the sharpest imaginable relief by exhibitions this summer in New York and Philadelphia. At the Museum of Modern Art, “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917” highlights the audacious asceticism that the painter whom many regard as the greatest artist of modern times was pursuing immediately before and during World War I. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Renoir in the 20th Century” culminates in the glorious excess of the canvases that the aging Impressionist, an artist the middle-aged Matisse admired enormously, completed in the years leading up to his death in 1919. On the face of it, the works in these exhibitions could not have less in common; they appear to inhabit different universes, so much so that many observers cannot see why Matisse was interested in Renoir. With Matisse, you have pared-down geometries and monastic tonalities. With Renoir, you have melting arabesques and perfervid color. Look again, though, and you may begin to suspect that the extremity of Matisse’s and Renoir’s positions suggest two ways of achieving the same goal, which is total artistic freedom. In their utterly different ways, they were reaching for a hyperbolic vision.

Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917

Museum of Modern Art

Renoir in the 20th Century

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The astonishing variety of modern art, by turns bewitching and confounding, has been brought into the sharpest imaginable relief by exhibitions this summer in New York and Philadelphia. At the Museum of Modern Art, “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917” highlights the audacious asceticism that the painter whom many regard as the greatest artist of modern times was pursuing immediately before and during World War I. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Renoir in the 20th Century” culminates in the glorious excess of the canvases that the aging Impressionist, an artist the middle-aged Matisse admired enormously, completed in the years leading up to his death in 1919. On the face of it, the works in these exhibitions could not have less in common; they appear to inhabit different universes, so much so that many observers cannot see why Matisse was interested in Renoir. With Matisse, you have pared-down geometries and monastic tonalities. With Renoir, you have melting arabesques and perfervid color. Look again, though, and you may begin to suspect that the extremity of Matisse’s and Renoir’s positions suggest two ways of achieving the same goal, which is total artistic freedom. In their utterly different ways, they were reaching for a hyperbolic vision.

There are sound historical reasons to make a comparison between the work that Matisse and Renoir were doing in the years around World War I, for the impact of Renoir’s compositional and coloristic strategies on a younger generation can be traced through many canvases not only by Matisse but also by Picasso, Braque, and Bonnard. And this is a case where the historical record has powerful contemporary resonances, because the whole question of how we understand the variety of early twentieth-century art has implications for the way we understand the variety of early twenty-first-century art. However one chooses to describe the combination of forces that were shaping artistic expression in the decades after 1900, the result was a stylistic pluralism unprecedented in the West. Look at the work done between 1900 and 1925—by Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Bonnard, Beckmann, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, Chagall, Miró—and you will find a range of visions that are not easy to reconcile and that often reflect qualities of nostalgia, eclecticism, impurity, and ambiguity that by many people’s lights are inherently antimodern. The strangest thing about the pluralism of early twentieth-century art, at least from our vantage point, is that it brings to mind the dissonance and the diversity that we associate with our own moment, which is commonly referred to as postmodern.

The idea of early twentieth-century art as a coherent evolution, propounded by historians and critics for a hundred years, may well be a phantasm. Certainly there is now widespread agreement that the view of modern art as an evolution toward abstraction does not fit the facts. And the realization that the modern adventure may not lead us in any particular direction, confounding as it is in certain respects, helps us begin to grapple with our own late-modern confusions. If they did not know where they were headed, why on earth should we know where we have arrived—or if we have arrived anywhere at all? But the case is more curious still, because somehow the early moderns, even without some overarching sense of order, managed to approach the challenges that their work posed with considerable confidence. What explains their self-assurance? If Picasso, Brancusi, Bonnard, and Mondrian were inventing everything for themselves, figuring it out as they went along, what was it that steadied them and guided them? And how do we explain the way this healthy eclecticism degenerated into the rancid promiscuity that characterizes so much of the contemporary scene?

For answers to these questions, we need to look to the artists. There is probably nothing that takes us closer to an explanation than one of Matisse’s observations toward the end of his “Notes of a Painter,” the extraordinarily intrepid essay that he published in 1908. “Rules,” Matisse explains, “have no existence outside of individuals.” This is a fascinating statement, on the face of it clear and succinct, but enclosing what amounts to an enormous conundrum. Aren’t rules arrived at through some communal or historical process, so that by their very nature they are general, and therefore transcend the individual? True enough. But Matisse believes that the meaning or the value of a rule depends entirely on what the individual can make of it. “Any one of us,” Matisse observes, “is capable of repeating fine maxims, but few can also penetrate their meaning.”

When it comes to setting the rules, it is every artist for himself. “I am ready to admit,” Matisse writes, “that from a study of the works of Raphael or Titian a more complete set of rules can be drawn than from the works of Manet or Renoir, but the rules followed by Manet and Renoir were those which suited their temperaments.” For all the talk of rules, there is something very risky, almost anarchic in Matisse’s thinking, for he is arguing that an artist must choose the rules that he lives by, and that those rules will only have meaning insofar as they accord with his temperament. So perhaps what links Bonnard, Mondrian, Brancusi, Picasso, and Monet—what makes them part of a shared experiment, however various the results—is that each artist has developed a set of rules that make sense for him as an individual.

“Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917” traces what is without a doubt the period when Matisse was most insistently testing the extent to which rules can be transformed or traduced in an effort to remain true to one’s own temperament. It is a portrait of the artist not necessarily as a rule-breaker but as a man who is searching for the rules that are right for him now. The exhibition was organized by John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and Stephanie D’Alessandro, Gary C. and Frances Comer curator of modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the show was mounted this spring. What D’Alessandro and Elderfield see as a key picture, the disquieting, darkly Arcadian Bathers by a River, is in the Art Institute’s collection, and the extraordinarily lengthy discussion in the catalogue of this painting turns the exhibition into something of a salute to one of the Art Institute’s major treasures.

From the vantage point of the Museum of Modern Art, “Matisse: Radical Invention” offers a close-up view of the artist’s work during a period that MoMA has long emphasized in its permanent collection. For Elderfield, who is by any reckoning closer to the end of his curatorial career than to the beginning, the exhibition may have some of the quality of a swan song. He is once again drawing our attention to those moments when it looked as if Matisse might abandon nature entirely, a move that according to some people confirms the old progressivist vision of modern art.

In “Matisse: Radical Invention” we see Matisse plunging into an orgy of denials-an exercise in counter-sensualism, which yields its own kind of sensualism. He is in a less-is-more mood, fired by his romantic anxiety rather than by any yearning for serenity. Subtraction becomes the great theme of the exhibition. Although Matisse never painted an abstract painting, he is frequently pushing his work to the brink of abstraction, seeing how much of nature he can do without while still sustaining the essential experience of the world, whether the subject is a figure, a landscape, or his studio. The process is not so much logical as it is intuitive, speculative, contemplative. The overload of color that had characterized his Fauve paintings and the canvases precipitated by his visits to Morocco is by and large reduced, either to orchestrations of grays or to an all-over effect. And the essential structures of bodies and of spaces are pared down, as if Matisse were seeing how little of the world he needed in order to hold the world together. In Woman on a High Stool, a back leg of the stool evaporates, and there is a table that appears to be missing three of its legs. In The Italian Woman, Matisse feels free to simply wipe away the dark-haired model’s right shoulder. In View of Notre-Dame, the Parisian vista from his studio on the Quai Saint-Michel is reduced to little more than a few black lines scrawled on a surface of blue.

The atmosphere in much of the work that Matisse was doing just before and during World War I is impulsive yet saturnine, aggressively casual and self-consciously deliberate, not quite like anything else in modern art, or for that matter in any art. We have what D’Alessandro and Elderfield describe as a period of “experimentation and flux as much as any solid sense of definition or unity. It was, in fact, his radical, unbridled, and ambitious invention, rather than any formal characteristic or subject, that defined his efforts.” Matisse embraced what Merleau-Ponty, a generation later, called “Cézanne’s doubt” before the phenomenon of nature, and he lingered over and taxonomized those doubts. The results are very strange indeed. There are many works here-including Flowers and Ceramic Plate and The Rose Marble Table—that I would count as outright failures, so idiosyncratic in their abstinences and obfuscations as to defy the viewer’s experience. And when the result is ravishingly beautiful—and nothing here is more beautiful than The Piano Lesson, one of MoMA’s treasures—it is not that the confusions are overcome so much as that they are formalized, turned into the most exquisite enigmas the world has ever seen. The Piano Lesson feels cool and classical, but its classicism is unresolved and somehow unresolvable—ultimately confounding. With its sweeping diagonal, implacable right angles, and eccentric passages of rococo scrollwork, The Piano Lesson is an equation of great elegance and even greater impenetrability.

D’Alessandro and Elderfield want to probe the nature of Matisse’s imagination. They want to reveal his experimental method. Their approach, which is perhaps better grasped in the catalogue than on the walls of the galleries, involves understanding not only what the canvases look like today, but also what they looked like before they were finished, and how they changed over periods of weeks or months and in some cases years. The curators have studied vintage photographs taken while certain works were in progress. They have used x-radiographs and infrared reflectograms to attempt to see what is under the surface and to establish the appearance of earlier versions. In the case of the series of monumental sculptures of backs that Matisse was working on at the time, they have produced digital models to show how he altered the relief in various areas. And they have experimented with digital recreations of what they believe are lost states of paintings. In the case of Bathers by a River, the huge study of four enigmatic, faceless nymphs that Matisse worked on off and on between 1909 and 1917, they have used a combination of vintage photographs and x-radiographs and microscopic analysis of the painting as it is today to establish what they believe are six distinct states, which are presented in the catalogue as six separate entries interspersed chronologically, as if those five earlier versions of the painting actually did exist.

There is something affecting about the zeal with which D’Alessandro and Elderfield labor to uncover the method behind what sometimes seems like Matisse’s madness. There is a conviction here that if only we can see the changes that have been wreaked on these canvases, we will know what was going on in the artist’s mind. I can sympathize with their yearning. And this fascination with process is at least in part supported by Matisse’s own practice, for he did indeed from time to time see that photographs were taken of various states of his works. But the pursuit of what is hidden from view is taken to such extremes by D’Alessandro and Elderfield that the hunt takes on a life of its own, until the catalogue begins to suggest a modernist version of The Da Vinci Code.

I am not convinced that x-radiographs and other scientific methods of analysis yield as much reliable information as curators would like us to believe. And even if they have managed to track certain transformations with a reasonable degree of accuracy, we are left with the question of whether knowing where certain lines or colors were once located gets us any closer to understanding what has gone on in the privacy of Matisse’s imagination. There is a limit to what the rejected operations of the hand tell us about the ongoing operations of the mind. There is an ideology behind what D’Alessandro and Elderfield would like us to accept as impartial scientific method, a fetishizing of process, a belief that the reality of the painting is not the reality we see with the naked eye. In the case of Bathers by a River, D’Alessandro and Elderfield seem to want to resurrect Matisse’s abandoned versions as freestanding works. In doing so, aren’t they undermining the very concept of artistic completeness?

There is no question that Matisse wished to cultivate an atmosphere of doubt in many of the paintings and drawings of these years. When he leaves certain lines and color shapes only half obscured, he is making a conscious decision to reveal some of his doubts. He is drawing us into his own questing, inquiring, even skeptical spirit. At the same time, he does know where he wants to go, which is in the direction of a new kind of lyricism—a neurotic lyricism, an anxious lyricism. I am not sure that we are brought any closer to an understanding of Matisse’s doubts when they are complicated by the curators’ speculations. And their speculations tend to lead only in certain directions. Matisse often alternated between works that were more or less naturalistic and more or less abstract, setting up a wholly original dialectic as he tried to figure out exactly what it was he wanted. But D’Alessandro and Elderfield are inclined to exclude the more naturalistic works, probably because they do not fit in with the “radical invention” of their title.

Thus the show includes the magnificently telegraphic Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, with its haiku-precise evocation of Parisian light, but none of the bluntly sculptural paintings, done at the same time, of Laurette, the model who reclines on the bed in that studio. I know that it can be difficult to borrow certain paintings, but the absence of those works is symptomatic of a more general unwillingness to admit how often Matisse’s will toward abstraction is grounded in or even contradicted by his will toward representation. When it comes to favoring more forcefully simplified or abstracted paintings, the curators do not hesitate to violate the very terms of their show: it is said to cover the period 1913-1917, but for reasons that are rather difficult to understand it begins with paintings done in 1907. I imagine D’Alessandro and Elderfield got to the point where they included anything that evinced what they regard as “radical invention,” and to hell with the dates.

At the very outset of the catalogue, D’Alessandro and Elderfield explain that they place great store on Matisse’s concern with what the artist called “the methods of modern construction.” They would say that all their x-radiographs and digital reconstructions are meant to reveal those methods. By the time I made it to the end of the catalogue, I felt a little sorry for the curators, because nearly everything they show us about Matisse’s practice leads away from the rationality suggested by “the methods of modern construction.” For all Matisse’s evident fascination with the rule book, it sometimes seems that he is wondering if there are any rules at all that he can live by. It is important to remember that in the period covered by this exhibition, avant-gardism was already spawning its own academies. If Matisse was rejecting the high-keyed complementary color associated with Fauvism, it was surely in part because that color had already descended into kitsch in the hands of countless imitators. As for the interest that Matisse takes in Cubism, his variations on Cubist construction are so aggressively improvisational as to register as a Dadaist riposte to the theorizing of Cubism that, to the dismay of Picasso and Braque, was already flourishing in the writings of Gleizes and Metzinger and others.

Perhaps the best way to understand the spirit that animated Matisse in the years immediately before and during World War I is by looking at a remark he made thirty years later in the text for Jazz, his magnificent album of cut paper compositions. “The artist must never be a prisoner,” he explains. “An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, prisoner of a success.” What D’Alessandro and Elderfield are perhaps reluctant to admit is that what they call “radical invention” could itself become a prison, and that the classical completeness Matisse pursued at certain points in the 1920s could feel like a new kind of freedom. Of course that is not the end of the story. Classicism could in turn become a prison. And so it went, until in his seventies Matisse was carving with scissors into pieces of colored paper.

This insistence that “the artist must never be a prisoner” is a key to understanding the fascination that Renoir exerted on Matisse, as he did on a large number of artists and adventuresome collectors in the early twentieth century. In the years after 1910, Renoir, who was then in his seventies, refused to be a prisoner either of his own earlier career or of contemporary taste. He had abandoned the Impressionist method of dissolving the natural world into a surface of flickering color and light. Surely he felt he was now too old to continue as the painter of modern life that he had been when he created The Luncheon of the Boating Party, that unrivaled novelistic vision of Parisian pleasures. As for the contemporary taste for slender, long-limbed, angular feminine beauty, Renoir rejected that ideal in favor of a primordial monumentality—a return to the earth mothers of antiquity. Renoir had never felt at home with the sense of dislocation and disillusion that was threaded through the modern movement, and in the last decade of his life, in the very face of World War I and a widespread belief that civilization was falling apart, he dedicated himself to wholeness and fullness and completeness with a Bacchic intensity.

“Renoir in the 20th Century”—which has already been seen at the Grand Palais in Paris and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—is a curious affair. Claudia Einecke at LACMA and Sylvie Patry at the Orsay, who coordinated the catalogue, have brought together a large cast of curators and historians, some of whom do not seem convinced of the greatness of the work that they are presenting. One of the essays in the catalogue is titled “Why Did Matisse Love Late Renoir?” And although the organizers do not come right out and say it, the show might have been subtitled “Why Does Anybody Love Late Renoir?”

I blame the widespread dismay with which his work is regarded by sophisticated museumgoers on a mistakenly literalist reading of the overblown proportions of his female figures. These over-the-top visions, which point to the essentially anti-naturalistic character of Renoir’s Arcadian world, are all too often discussed as if their immense thighs and great rolls of flesh were being presented on some porn site for people with special tastes. I judge this a failure of the museumgoers’ imagination. After all, nobody talks about how unsettling it would be to go to bed with the fractured bathers in Cézanne’s late canvases, although by any naturalistic standard they may well be infinitely more grotesque than Renoir’s creations. The difference, I guess, is that Cézanne’s nudes are fragmented, which makes them acceptable to modern taste, while Renoir’s are overripe, which to many people suggests kitsch. And kitsch is indeed one of the risks that Renoir takes as he pursues his opulent vision.

The list of artists and connoisseurs who in the first quarter of the twentieth century were embracing Renoir as an essential modern voice is extraordinary. Matisse and Picasso collected his work. In the 1910s and 1920s both of them did many paintings that were deeply affected not only by Renoir’s powerfully sculptural vision of the figure, but also by his scintillating color. Braque’s paintings of caryatids are closely modeled on compositions by Renoir. Bonnard, who became good friends with Renoir, had a tiny painting that Renoir had given him hanging in his studio until the end of his life; and the color in Renoir’s very late paintings is almost a recipe for the color of Bonnard’s mature work. Leo Stein and Albert Barnes, essential collectors, were avid admirers of late Renoir; Barnes saw his vision and Cézanne’s as closely related. And in the New York home of the legendary collector Walter Arensberg, a small late Renoir nude at one time hung adjacent to Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase.

Maybe they were all wrong. Maybe Clement Greenberg was only echoing their errors of judgment when he included an essay in praise of Renoir in Art and Culture, the only collection of his own work that he himself put together. Or maybe, as the organizers of this exhibition sometimes seem to argue, everybody just felt sorry for the old man who was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and could go on painting only with the brushes strapped to his hand. In this interpretation, the modern infatuation with late Renoir is an exercise in political correctness, a special disabilities exemption for the guy who did the overblown nudes.

Although “Renoir in the 20th Century” is full of extraordinary works and is beautifully installed, I do not think it makes the best case for the central canvases of Renoir’s last five or ten years. Perhaps the thought behind beginning the show with the more naturalistically oriented paintings of the 1890s was that this would help to ease museumgoers into the unfetteredness of Renoir’s ultimate manner. My feeling is that a more tightly focused show would have made a clearer case for Renoir’s leap into metamorphosis and mythologization. After spending much of his life painting the world as he saw it, he seems to have decided that he could use paint to give body to a disembodied ideal of beauty—to the intoxication of volumes and colors released from strict rules of representation.

In his final phase, Renoir operates with some of the abandon of a Symbolist poet, splattering rich images here and there, with less concern for their particular meaning than for their general effect. He continues to paint portraits of particular people, frequently studies of women associated with the world of dealers and collectors where he was revered, and he conceives of these figures in the sort of fantastical metaphoric terms that we know from Proust’s salutes to the heroines of the Guermantes Way. He transforms Madame Gaston Bernheim de Villers in her feathered hat into a gorgeous blue-eyed goddess, perhaps the Queen of the Feathered Kingdom. Madame Thurneyssen, an important German collector who is shown holding her young daughter, becomes a fertility goddess.

There is a what-the-hell freedom about the work that Renoir did from around 1910 until his death in 1919. He had never been susceptible to the doubts and anxieties that are often seen as characteristic of the modern artist, and in the end he becomes a glorious monster of optimistic hedonism. He paints the young son of the Thurneyssen family as an androgynous shepherd, naked except for a straw hat and an animal skin, suggesting a pan-sexuality that confounds conventional interpretations of his erotic agenda. Impossibly crippled, Renoir nonetheless turned his attention to the third dimension, guiding a series of young assistants who helped him to construct figures that are climactic achievements in twentieth-century sculpture and surely inspired Matisse’s equally monumentalizing efforts in this direction. In the Philadelphia show, the turning point comes with a small canvas, Gabrielle with a Rose, in which the woman who had been his son Jean’s nursemaid and became a favorite model is the occasion for an essay in the transformation of paint into hair, flesh, flower, fabric. The result is a shivering, shimmering romanticism. To turn from the beatific woman in this painting to a photograph of Gabrielle Renard in the catalogue, where her features look hard and sharp, is to realize that Renoir has entered a realm of fantasy. He is painting not what he sees but what he wants to see.

In the last couple of years of his life, Renoir’s color is keyed-up and cacophonous. He is now painting not in red, orange, yellow, blue, green, gray, and white, but in carnelian, copper, gold, lapis, jade, pewter, and silver. Applied in brief, gentle strokes, with colors dabbed over one another and often a topping of white flicks, the colors swim and hover, forming arms, backs, flowers, hair, lips, fabrics, grasses, bits of sky. The Philadelphia exhibition concludes rhapsodically, with studies of women in loose-fitting, vaguely North African robes and turbans and the final Bathers, which some regard as his crowning achievement, although I think I prefer another climactic work, The Concert. In both paintings Renoir weaves his fantasy around two women—one a reddish blonde, the other a brunette. There are roses everywhere in The Concert, a study of the two women seated indoors in flowing robes, one playing a mandolin, the other listening. There are roses in a vase and roses in the women’s hair and roses on the wallpaper. And they are the key to a painting that itself unfolds like the petals of a rose. Renoir examines arms, hands, necks, faces, and fabrics with the loving seriousness with which a lover might study the gift of a rose. Who are these women? What are they doing? Yes, the blonde one has her fingers on the mandolin. Yes, the brunette appears to be listening. But here sound, smell, touch, and above all sight are as detached from fixed expectations as Renoir’s anatomy is sometimes detached from the facts of the human body. The painting is a slowly unfolding paroxysm-sensation for sensation’s sake, and in this sense thoroughly modern. Here Renoir links arms with Titian. Not even Titian’s Rape of Europa is a better painting than the Renoirs in this final room.

Matisse visited Renoir in the last years of his life, and after Renoir’s death he spent time in the old man’s studio, studying the canvases of the master’s final phase. That a painter of modern life such as Renoir should have become a painter of Arcadian myth suggested that an artist had to keep reinventing the rules that he would live by. This was an important lesson for Matisse and Picasso and Braque, who had pushed art to the brink of abstraction and now found themselves re-thinking a set of rules they had helped to invent but were not sure they could live by. A few paintings by Matisse, Picasso, and Bonnard have been included in “Renoir in the 20th Century,” and they point to a rich history of borrowings and inspirations.

These are matters of historical record, but how one chooses to interpret them is another question entirely. The most common way to describe the more or less simultaneous creation of Matisse’s most ascetic paintings and Renoir’s most opulent paintings is in terms of a clash of radical and conservative tendencies. By this logic, Matisse is a radical artist in 1915 who becomes a conservative artist in the 1920s, after which he is radicalized again. But it seems to me that the language of advances and retreats, which is as old as modern art, is incapable of explaining what actually matters to us in a work of art—in any work of art. “Radical Invention” would be as good a title for the show that is now in Philadelphia as it is for the Matisse show currently at the Museum of Modern Art. Words such as “radical” and “conservative” should be used with great discretion, at least when it comes to the arts, because otherwise they force us into the straitjacket of ideology. They turn a work of art into a judgment of the world, about what the world is or ought to be. And although works of art surely tell us a great deal about our experience, their value has everything to do with their remoteness from the impulse to dictate or to legislate, which is the ideological impulse. Matisse’s asceticism and Renoir’s opulence are personal matters—matters of considerable consequence precisely because they are personal.

What is very interesting about both “Matisse: Radical Invention” and “Renoir in the 20th Century” is the extent to which the organizers appear to feel somewhat unsure about the lessons that might be drawn from these exhibitions. If the curators of the Renoir show seem at moments to wonder why they got themselves into this in the first place, D’Alessandro and Elderfield, in their infinitely subtler and more sophisticated way, seem uncertain about the nature of Matisse’s radicalism. The more the scholars struggle to fit Renoir and Matisse into one or another old modern scheme—into some theory of avant-garde and rearguard actions—the more the artists appear alienated from any art-historical program. I found something poignant, almost bittersweet, about the catalogue of the Matisse show, because in spite of all that D’Alessandro and Elderfield have done to reveal the nature of Matisse’s radicalism, he slips past them. The Piano Lesson is not a radical painting so much as it is a painting with a particular atmosphere, a particular perfume. And the wonder of “Renoir in the 20th Century” is that whatever the organizers’ doubts, there comes a point in the exhibition when the paintings are telling their own story and all the theories of modernism fall by the wayside.

Could it be that we are approaching a promising turn in our understanding of modern art? Certainly there are fewer people who any longer believe in the old orthodoxies of modernist history, in the narratives that turn artistic achievement into a matter of radical advances and conservative retreats. But do we have the courage to live without all the theories of the avant-garde, and without the comforting habit of labeling paintings as radical or conservative? If we give such categories up, we are left with what Matisse called the individual temperament, and the struggle of that individual temperament to discover the rules that will make it possible to construct a work of art. “My destination is always the same,” Matisse declared in “Notes of a Painter.” “But I do not think exactly the way I thought yesterday.”

How are artists to judge the quality of their own thinking if it keeps changing? And how are we to judge what artists are doing if we cannot locate their work on some chart that tracks radical and conservative developments? These are the great questions that are raised by “Matisse: Radical Invention” and “Renoir in the 20th Century.” They are questions that have yet to be adequately answered. Perhaps now is the time to try. We have had far too many theories of the avant-garde and far too few attempts to understand the nature of the modern artistic temperament. 

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. 

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