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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Our next story is both a big surprise and no surprise at all. It's no surprise that a major museum is holding another show on the work of the French artist Henri Matisse. The big surprise is that the exhibition is not full of idyllic seascapes, flowers and voluptuous women.

As Edward Lifson reports, this Matisse show presents how one artist responded to a world unraveling.

EDWARD LIFSON: Henri Matisse walks into a bar - well, a caf� really - and this is a true story - he walks into a caf� and the patrons stand up and applaud. Matisse turns to a companion and says, oh, they must think I'm Picasso.

It's funny. It's sad. It's very Matisse, and it helps explain the through-line of the exhibits now at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mr. STEPHANIE D'ALESSANDRO (Co-Curator, Exhibition): There's never been a book, there's never been an exhibition devoted to this period.

LIFSON: Stephanie D'Alessandro co-curated the exhibition.

Ms. D'ALESSANDRO: It became clear to us that he was embarking on something new. He was embarking on something that seemed specifically modern.

LIFSON: Instead of his lyrical paintings of sky, water, curves and color, you see a Matisse who has left the bright sun of Morocco to return to Paris in 1913 on the eve of World War I. He was 44 years old when he set out to reinvent himself. He felt the threats of war and modernism, and his friend Picasso's primitive faces breathing down his neck.

Ms. D'ALESSANDRO: I think he felt troubled that there were younger artists who were getting more attention and his work was still equally valid, but he didn't let it disappoint him. He just let it make him sharper.

LIFSON: He sets aside the exploding color and the easy line, which had already made him famous, and grapples with Cubism's grays, browns and blacks. He gives Yvonne Landsberg a primeval face in the 1914 portrait he constructed with layers of dark color. When it seems done, Matisse turns his paintbrush around and uses the hard end to incise lines around her, right through his thick pigment, lines that seem to move like beating hearts or the wings of a protective angel.

When the Great War breaks out, Matisse desperately wants to enlist. He buys books, he takes a medical exam. But this artist we know for spreading joy was rejected for his weak heart.

D'Alessandro says he wrote a letter to his friend Marcel Sembat, a minister in the government.

Ms. D'ALESSANDRO: And Sembat responds by saying, what you can do is you can continue to paint well. And it must have been a terrible blow to Matisse wanting to fight. But what I think Sembat meant, and what Matisse takes on very clearly, is the idea of continuing on with great French culture, great painting, at a time when I think it was being threatened by the enemy.

LIFSON: From his studio, Matisse hears shells landing. His friends are at the front. He embarks on big, physically challenging works - layering and scraping and scratching the paint.

The French countryside is being ravaged, and he creates a high point of his career - and of the show - the monumental Bathers by a River, with four enigmatic primitive totemic nudes. Matisse takes a pastoral scene, popular since antiquity, and makes it more ancient and more modern, balancing tension and peace, figure and emptiness.

Mr. JOHN ELDERFIELD (Co-Curator, Exhibit): We're looking at it now all these years later, and it's still a picture that is both chilling and beautiful. You know, that great Shakespeare phrase, gorgeous tragedy.

LIFSON: Co-Curator John Elderfield of the New York's Museum of Modern Art, where the show goes next, says that as the German army occupied the town in which Matisse grew up and advanced on Paris, Matisse sold prints to buy food to send to his compatriots. He refused a solo show while his countrymen were fighting.

Mr. ELDERFIELD: I actually think that what we learn from Matisse is if we feel that we are engaged in a war which is a just war, that our culture should be responding to it in an appropriate way.

LIFSON: In late 1917, Matisse left Paris. He moved south to the Mediterranean resort of Nice, where he went on to paint - well, that's the colorful work you think of when you think of Matisse - until you see this exhibition, which shows you how he got there. What comes through, beyond the beauty for which we know the man, is his struggle and his sincerity in the face of tragedy.

For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson in Chicago.

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