On any given day in moma’s Sculpture Garden, the four individuals standing off to one side attract scant notice. Turned away from the milling crowds, their poses suggest a studied aloofness or even, since each buries her face in the crook of an upraised arm, a need to shut out the world entirely. I am referring, of course, to the Backs, four bronze reliefs of a life-sized female nude seen from behind made by Henri Matisse (1869–1954) between 1908 and about 1931. They are arrayed along the Garden’s north wall, where they have often been seen since the mid-1950s.

The Backs are the great mystery of Matisse’s art. Nobody really knows why he made them. Only two things are known with any certainty: that Matisse made sculpture to solve problems...


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