Eight years in the making … Matisse’s Bathers by a River. Photograph: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a cracking Matisse exhibition on at the moment. Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 concentrates on four years of the painter’s life, in which he scratched and gouged his way to a whole new style. Or, I should say, set of styles – so extraordinarily various are the ways he attacked his art in those years.

Superbly curated, the show is especially fascinating because real trouble has been taken to put these paintings in the context of the works that influenced their creation, as well as in the context of Matisse’s previous experiments with subject matter and composition. “Cezanne, hmm, yes,” you say, looking hard at an oddly proportioned Cezanne and seeing, sort of, how it relates to the figure in the Matisse to its right. “Legs too short.”

You start to get a sense of how urgently Matisse is trying to convey how he actually saw – how the quotidian physical world, for him, was vibrating with possibility; how volumes, planes and blocks of colour interrelate; how gestures in paint could negotiate between the typical and the particular.


Sam Leith