Guilty of Obsession: A Critic's <I>Mea Culpa</I>

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There are so many exhibitions in town worth talking about right now, but somehow I've become obsessed with one particular painting at an exhibition I've already talked about. Probably it would be wise to let it go, but I can't help myself. Now I know what Oscar Wilde meant when he said that he could resist anything but temptation. I want to talk about three paintings that simply took my breath away when I saw LACMA's exhibition of French Masterpieces from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. I talked about this show already in my last program but here I go again.

Three early works by Matisse placed in a separate gallery, almost at the end of the exhibition are, for my money, the showstoppers. It's tough, maybe even impossible, to decide which of these three paintings is the best. I wish I could bring all of you to the museum so I could ask which is your favorite? And why? Are you sure? Come close, no, even closer, with your nose almost touching the canvas, but don't let the guard catch you.

Henri Matisse  Goldfish  1912The famous still life of goldfish burns in the memory with powerful brushstrokes of orange-red color. The nearby still life of calla lilies, irises and mimosas becomes a joyful explosion of color amplified by the wild patterns of the tablecloth and wallpaper. But it's the last of the three paintings, the one with the nasturtiums and The Dance, that I would sell my soul to the devil to get my arms around and never let it go. It depicts the corner of the artist's studio dominated by a large canvas with dancing naked figures. Here Matisse quotes one of his most famous paintings, The Dance. One version of The Dance now belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the other is at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Henri Matisse  Nasturtiums and The Dance  1912Here at LACMA, in "Nasturtiums and The Dance", I'm staring at the canvas so closely I feel like I can smell the paint. The surface, the texture is so deliciously messy, I feel as if I'm being allowed into a great chef's kitchen while he prepares a formal dinner. There is something very mercurial about the way Matisse keeps changing the composition by endlessly shifting the torsos and limbs of the naked figures against an intense blue background. It pays to see the painting up close and at a slight angle so the numerous changes done by the artist can be easily noticed: a totally different position of the legs on the figure to the left, a totally different torso on the figure at the top. Matisse is not even concerned about hiding the previous versions. He is clearly after some bigger-than-life truth. The painting is rocking. Its severely cropped composition is amazingly cinematic. The application of the paint is purposefully crude. And almost a hundred years after it was finished, it still hasn't lost its shock value.

About how many contemporary works we once thought of as daring can this still be said? This painting is practically oozing primordial energy mixed with dangerous beauty. Who else but Matisse could invest deep blue with such dramatic power? Who else but Matisse could give Picasso, with his Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon, a run for his money?

"Old Masters, Impressionists, and Moderns:
French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow"
July 27- October 13, 2003
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 857-6010