Exhibitions: Smaller, but perfectly formed: The great Matisse exhibition has crossed the Atlantic, and shrunk. It could be a case of less being more

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THE MUSEUM of Modern Art's Matisse exhibition has now moved from New York to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The French show is smaller than the original, which attracted 900,000 visitors. Its account of Matisse's career ends in 1917-18, no drawings are included and only a dozen sculptures. It is none the less magnificent, a fitting tribute to one of the greatest of artists. The top floor of the Pompidou is filled with paintings whose cumulative impact is, precisely speaking, sublime. We feel in the presence of a man whose imagination and capacities belong to exalted levels of the human spirit.

Yet Matisse is not aloof from earthly concerns. In many obvious ways he is a bourgeois, domestic artist. Through much of his work there runs a vein of modesty. Nor does he effortlessly occupy a different sphere. On the contrary, many - if not most - of his finest conceptions bear the physical marks of deliberation, hesitation and something akin to a yearning for truth: Matisse's touch, practically invisible in reproduction, is now seen as a complex result of thought. In all his published statements Matisse spoke of his endeavours, not his achievements. So I would rather say that Matisse's elevation of mind comes from utter respect for art and a conviction that, as a modern artist, he was recreating painting ab initio.

Deliberate and staid, Matisse willed his invention into being. He did not, like Picasso, use previous art for his own ends; he sought the basis of all art. When his drawing plumbed the mystery of its capacity for representation, around 1910, his work on paper is both firm and tremulous. Matisse seems struck with awe at what he had discovered. I don't necessarily claim that the large paintings of the time or a couple of years earlier - the two Dances, the Bathers with a Turtle, the Game of Bowls - are the most consummate of Matisse's works, for there are masterpieces of different kinds throughout the show. But no other paintings, including Picasso's, convey such a feeling of a time before the notion of time could be conceived.

Yet it is evident that these pictures were made with previous art in mind, as well as the work of contemporaries. Still, their pungent expanses of colour are astonishingly without precedent. These paintings are little discussed with a view to their meaning. Commentators merely say that Matisse was creating a mythical world. John Elderfield, the organiser of the exhibition, says pertinent things about Matisse and the nature of childhood in Luxe, Calme et Volupte of 1904-5. To go further, I surmise that these murals - of people who are neither children nor adults - relate to the cult of adolescence in European literature and social thought at the turn of the century: adolescence seen as having a strange, innocent wisdom of its own.

A metaphor, then, for all the hopeful, new art of the 20th century, before the hopes were crushed by the First World War. Closer to home, I connect the theme with his love for his daughter Marguerite (born 1894), an affection the more delicate because she was not his wife's daughter. She pierced Matisse's coldness. Marguerite is often seen in this exhibition, and she may be in La Serpentine of 1909, a sculpture of a naked adolescent girl in a classical pose - an attitude associated, at least since the 14th century, with thoughtfulness. Marguerite, like Matisse's other female models, is often seen reading or in some reverie. And so Matisse the artist is detached. His painting becomes the visual contemplation of the silent and personal experiences of other people.

Thus his familial and group portraits are never 'conversation pieces' and the music, in all the paintings inspired by dance, or the piano or violin, is mute. Matisse's detachment from all the senses bar vision is essential to his art. Of his sensuality there can be no doubt. He is the painter of odalisques, fruit and flowers, all the hedonism of nature; of naked or silken luxury. But it's as though all the sensualities of life had been transferred into eyesight alone, purified. His conscious aim, often stated, was to imbue his paintings with the maximum feeling. But this feeling was to be totally optical. And it relied on the purest,least referential aspect of the world that is given to the eye - colour. Though his brushwork will hold the attention of anyone who wants to read deeply into Matisse, this is primarily an exhibition about colour. His work on canvas never has the fine line of his drawings. His brush was a far more physical instrument. Its way of creating space and texture on the surface of the canvas is a marvel of modernism. But his brush also carried colour to the canvas as though the instrument were not physical at all. As one lingers in the Pompidou, this ability seems miraculous rather than marvellous. Certainly it is unique. No other painter, however attentive to Matisse, has ever come near to giving effulgence - radiance of colour - such beautiful precedence over the way the coloured pigment was applied.

This he learned during his period as a Fauve. Much is made of his neo-impressionist contacts in the South of France with, especially, Signac; and doubtless their conversations were intense. But the painting done with Signac in mind - Luxe, Calme et Volupte - is too borrowed. I prefer the more Matissian preparatory sketch. Fauvism - the only movement of which he was a part - now seems an indistinct backdrop for his individual ventures. I had not previously grasped the extent to which he was a self-educated artist, from Fauvism to his last cut- outs. But Matisse did, in truth, make his art on his own.

His detachment includes Olympian loneliness. However respectful he was of Cezanne, he seems aloof from the very examples of Cezanne's art that he studied. Pastoral of 1906, for instance, has a complex relationship with the older artist. But Matisse's vision reviews these relations from afar. You can never tell when Matisse is being competitive, since a lofty introspection was so much in his character. 'I am only interested in myself.' His portraits of others are often self-regarding. Near the Pastoral hangs Marguerite Reading of the same year. The picture quivers with intelligence, but its subject might not have been in the same room. His wife sat 100 times for her 1913 portrait. It is one of Matisse's loveliest and most limpid human paintings. Somehow, however, she is excluded from the result - not because the painting became more abstract as the sittings progressed, but because it became more Matisse's.

Elderfield is the first scholar to try to come to terms with Matisse's chilliness. He does so in many learned ways. They bear tribute to the intelligence and modernity of the genius we find in Matisse. But Elderfield, himself a painter, must always return to the senses rather than the mind, and to one sense in particular. 'He is a painter's painter. His work is purely visual. Herein lies its beauty,' he writes. A beauty, cries Elderfield the intellectual, by which 'we feel blinded'.

He means we can hardly see anything but the painting, since Matisse at his best is so superbly unlike the mundane visual world. The metaphor also implies that Matisse closes our efforts to use intelligent language about the pictures. Some writers may look at speechlessness and blindness as Matissean themes. I realise this sounds a negative direction. But we are beginning to realise Matisse was a stranger and more disturbing artist than previously imagined. Elderfield has assembled one of the great exhibitions of our times. His noble yet fragmentary attempt to account for Matisse in words may be a part of the contemporary condition. But the problem starts with Matisse himself.

His art develops in circles and rhythms. That we cannot see these rhythms completed is a necessary sadness of the Parisian version of the show. But perhaps we do understand more clearly how single-minded Matisse was. He is supposed to have been affected by Cubism, and undoubtedly he took it seriously. But it just pushed him further into self-examination. No picture of Matisse's is overtly influenced by Cubism. Instead, we find a succession of canvases that are both severe and glorious.

They culminate in The Moroccans of 1915-16. Matisse's orientalism and love of the decorative have their place within a totally architectonic structure. This may be the most awe-inspiring painting here. It began as a souvenir of a place he had liked. Then the painting took over. Matisse's labour on the canvas was especially prolonged. He compared it to being in the trenches. It is conceivable that the darkness of the war years has entered the picture. What is certain is that Matisse's 'signs' and repeated scraping and overpainting made for a work that is hard to read as figuration. Yet it is not abstract art: more like building.

The Moroccans is like a great modern cathedral, holy yet public. At the same time Matisse is the master of the private space. In his painting we encounter the conclusion, and the high point, of the genre of the interior. This is the most bourgeois form of art. No matter. The unrevolutionary Matisse reigned supreme over the middle ground of art, a respectable territory. There are times when he could make the interior look like its opposite, the universal. In The Piano Lesson, or The Red Studio we are aware not only of rooms, possessions, mealtimes. The pictures have the pulse of life itself.

And then there are interiors that express boundless joy at the sight of art and the condition of the artist. Not only does Matisse paint his own studio. He paints pictures of his own pictures within it. Nasturtiums with 'Dance' is upright because it was designed for a particular space in the home of Matisse's Russian patron Sergei Shchukin. Matisse, the hard-working man who looks like a bank clerk, obeys his client's wishes. Yet what heavenly egotism is in this painting. The enclosed area of the studio expands to fill the world with light and colour. And here is the underlying message of this whole great exhibition.

Pompidou Centre (010331 to 21 June. Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri: noon-10pm. Sat, Sun: 10am-10pm. Closed 1 May. Tickets bookable, but even ticket-holders should be prepared to queue.