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Matisse at the Moma, New York | Sam Leith

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.

Two hi-tech video presentations give you a clearer sense of the struggle. One concentrates on Matisse's monumental sequence of reliefs, Back I to Back IV, which show a long-haired woman from behind. We see how he went back and forth from clay to plaster to clay as he adapted the hefty, boulder-shouldered original to its monumental but minimal final form, thickening her bum here, carving off a curve there. Some 3D imaging lets you see exactly how it changed over the two-and-a-bit decades between I and IV.

The other astonishing presentation reconstructs the progress of Bathers by a River, over the eight years Matisse worked on it. Using x-rays as well as computer-enhanced glimpses of the canvas in photos of Matisse in his studio, it shows you how dramatically and obsessively that piece was reworked.

I found it thrilling. But taking these paintings in is hard, slow, intellectual work. You really have to look. By the time I was two rooms in, I was what art critics call pooped. If Matisse spent eight years getting Bathers right, how long should we do him the courtesy of looking at it for? This is a widespread problem. For people who, like me, are eager-but-bewildered amateurs of the visual arts (what Ben Elton would call "farties"), the process of travelling round a gallery, particularly one stuffed with masterpieces, is fraught.

Buried within us somewhere is the feeling that fine art is less something to be looked at and enjoyed, than a field of knowledge to be conquered as a badge of cultivation. In this respect, we resemble my late grandfather: having once been told by a Finnish merchant seaman that anyone who had read Paradise Lost could regard himself educated, he promptly did so – and barely read another book thereafter.

As well as causing you to annoy people by bending forward to peer carefully at the notes on the wall ("Ah, impasto," you note and inwardly digest), it gives you what could be called quantity anxiety. The problem is the embarrassment of riches. It's there in MoMA, as it is in Tate Britain and Tate Modern. It is certainly there with the Met, and it's there, to the furthest imaginable extreme, in St Petersburg's Hermitage, where walking through the whole joint at a brisk clip without even looking at the pictures would still take several days.

Nicholas Carr's interesting new book, The Shallows, talks with regret about how the internet age atomises the way we take in music and books: we listen to songs now rather than albums; and, rather than reading books cover-to-cover, we can use Google Books to find the best bits.

However, you could say the opposite is true in terms of how galleries present visual art. You feel that the unit in which paintings should be consumed is the galleryful, or the exhibitionful. Even if you are determined to give the pictures time, a nagging sense remains that you should be moving on: your audioguide wants to direct you to the Demoiselles, someone's jostling you from the side, or your pals have done this floor and are going downstairs for coffee and a bun. Yet the more works you take in, the less you see.

Asking galleries to show less wouldn't get us anywhere: it's hard to imagine them boasting of a collection of unrivalled smallness. It isn't exactly a draw. What I wonder is whether we farties could be helped by a labelling system, like the ones I ignore on the sides of cans of cider. Minor works by forgotten Flemish landscape artists would be two units, Bathers nine, and Guernica an imposing 10. The government might even like to suggest weekly consumption guidelines: 21 units for experts and 14 for farties, with special restrictions, of course, on pregnant women and people operating heavy machinery. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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