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Matisse’s Erotic Dance; Major Stuffed Bald Eagle Battle

"Young Sailor I" (1906) by Henri Matisse. The oil painting is paired with "Young Sailor II" in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition "Matisse: In Search of True Painting," an exploration of the artist's painting process, on view through March 17. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s magnificent show “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” which opens to the public Dec. 4, includes 50 masterpieces from around the globe.

Exponential revelations abound: By the last gallery, I was nearly breathless trying to keep up with them.

We observe Matisse as he wrestles with his varying moods, influences and approaches. In a pairing of portraits of a “Young Sailor” (1906), the artist depicts his subject with frenetic line in the first canvas and with buoyant colored masses in the second. Extending each other, they provide two startlingly contrasting interpretations of the same person on the same day.

Matisse’s settings are cast in various qualities of light and his figures in various states of being. The idyllic beach series “Le Luxe” (1907-08) offers a crouched, nude woman made seemingly of sand in one painting and of pearlescent, turquoise-tinged air in another.

Dramas expand and unfold. In a group of paintings depicting a vase of ivy and a small Matisse sculpture of a reclining female nude, we witness an erotic dance among objects. In one picture the vase appears startled by the corkscrewing advances of the odalisque. In another, she is coy, acquiescent to the vase’s caress.


It is in the last galleries, with more artist-commissioned photographs than paintings, that viewers can see, as if through flipbooks, the staggering progression of Matisse’s studio practice. Masterpiece after masterpiece is abandoned -- painted over -- as the artist gets closer to realizing his final vision.

Through photographs of “The Large Blue Dress” (1937), a seated female figure gradually transforms from representational portrait into an abstract Byzantine Madonna.

In “The Dream” (1940) sequence, we see a sleeping woman, expansive and adrift, acquire wings. She changes from seated dreamer into angel and from angel into dream itself.

Still, “In Search of True Painting” isn’t perfect. Organized at the Met by Rebecca Rabinow, the show is missing some key loans.

Yet its larger problem is that the focus on process shifts our attention and appreciation away from the mysteriousness and individuality of Matisse’s art to his Herculean labors. Here, Matisse’s search is in danger of overshadowing the truths he actually found.

“Matisse: In Search of True Painting” runs Dec. 4 through Mar. 17 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710;

Rauschenberg’s “Canyon”

After lengthy negotiations involving the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the heirs of gallerist Ileana Sonnabend, MoMA has emerged the victor in battle over Robert Rauschenberg’s iconic mixed-media combine “Canyon” (1959).

Constructed from cardboard, photos, wood, fabric, paint, string and a stuffed bald eagle on canvas, the work was valued at zero by appraisers.

Owing to the bird -- originally stuffed by one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders -- the artwork cannot be legally sold or traded since all bald eagles, dead or alive, are protected by federal laws.

The I.R.S. said “Canyon” was worth $65 million, and, as part of the estate settlement, the family donated it to MoMA.

The status of Rauschenberg has continued to build since his death in 2008, and many consider him an American master.

For me and some others, he’s little more than a Dadaist huckster with no genuine feeling for the poetic and transformative possibilities of collage.

Rauschenberg’s goal was to tear down the distinctions between high art and all things pedestrian. The fact that both MoMA and the Met went toe-to-toe over this rambling, arbitrary mess proves that he succeeded.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Jason Harper on cars.

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