Bathers with a Turtle, 1907-08, Matisse (Photo: Saint Louis Art Museum)

In 2003, the Museum of Modern Art put on an important show comparing Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, maybe the two greatest European painters of the 20th century. They were friends and rivals; they influenced and even collected each other’s work.

Now a marvelous new show at MoMA — “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917” — suggests one central way Matisse was very different from Picasso. The Spanish master, practically a synonym for modern art, had an unstoppable sense of direction. He’d pursue one style — a Blue Period, a Rose Period, Cubism — and when he got to the bottom of it, he’d move on to another.

But in the four-year period this Matisse show investigates, that artist’s development emerges as much less linear, much less divided into straightforward chapters. Matisse seemed to be trying all sorts of different things at the same time, and he produced some of his greatest paintings. But it would be hard for anyone not an art historian to place the work in chronological order.


Lloyd Schwartz