CHICAGO (Reuters) - His artistic career spanned six decades, but curators of the museum show "Henri Matisse: Radical Invention" have focused on the years from 1913 to 1917 when he created what he termed his "most important pictures."
"It's an amazing moment when Matisse, the master of color, tones down the color and pays attention to form," said Stephanie D'Alessandro, curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.
"Radical Invention" will make only two stops: Now through June 20 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and July 18 to October 11 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
The pared-down exhibition is smaller than blockbusters of the recent past. But its 117 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures plucked from museums and private collections across the globe exhilarated early crowds in Chicago.
The exhibition's centerpiece is the Art Institute's own monumental "Bathers by a River" that Matisse once said was his most important painting and one that he revised repeatedly.
Over the last four years, curators have used X-rays and other techniques to examine the work's under-painting, seeing how it evolved from a naturalistic scene to a Cubist work more reminiscent of Picasso's seminal "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" of 1907, with less influence from Matisse's beloved Cezanne.
"He was a controversial, fully established, artist" in 1913 when he began "Bathers," MoMA curator John Elderfield said.
Matisse had been recognized for the explosive colors he employed as a Fauve artist, which preceded his epiphanies with Cubist abstraction.
"The acclaim the Cubists were getting annoyed him, made him jealous. He was able to set this aside ... he recognized that it was something he had to deal with," Elderfield said.
By no means did Matisse scrap everything in his bow to Cubism. Bright blues and reds burst forth in "Flowers and Ceramic Plate" from 1913, in which the plate floats hauntingly like a blue-green moon above flowers spilling out of a pot.
He employed the back of his brush to incise his canvasses, scraping white, blade-like arcs into "Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg" that gives her a vaguely threatening aspect.
The subject of some canvasses are unrecognizable, if not for titles such as "Shaft of Sunlight, the Woods of Trivaux."
His paintings seemed to expand even as the subject matter narrowed, D'Alessandro said.
"We see Matisse in a period of unbridled experimentation," she said. "It shows Matisse hungrily tasting an avant-garde style."
Like Picasso, Matisse could define beauty with a single drawn line, seen in numerous drawings and prints in the show.
At the same time, he was also reworking paintings like "Portrait of Olga Merson" over and over, adding layer upon layer of paint to create perspective.
Matisse moved back and forth between painting and sculpture -- finding it refreshing -- and his layering of paint mirrored how he added chunks of clay to life-sized casts for bronze bas-relief sculptures of anonymous figures' backs, which also appear in the exhibition.
The reexamination of "Bathers by a River," which Matisse told the museum was one of his five most important pictures when the museum acquired it in 1953, a year before his death, raises the question of whether delving into the artist's process somehow diminishes the end result.
Why not stick to examining the painting itself -- for instance, can someone interpret why a (devil's?) tail emerges from the bottom center of the canvas?
Editing by Philip Barbara