‘My life is between the walls of my studio’, Matisse once declared. Matisse in the Studio, currently showing at the Royal Academy of Arts, flings the doors of Matisse’s workspace open to the public, showcasing the exciting variety of furniture, textiles, vases, and other objects that so inspired the artist. For him, these materials formed a ‘working library’, and one that he returned to at various points in his career, recycling and repositioning objects to different effect in each painting.
One such object is an Andalusian vase, aqua blue and shimmering in the gallery light. The vessel is the subject of Vase of Flowers, where it takes centre stage among the painting’s stripes, dots, and other patterning, and from which pink flowers with a glittery sheen emerge. Matisse would use the same vase in Safrano Roses at the Window just one year later, in 1925, in a painting that has a similar concern with dusky pink and blue colouring. Here, the blue swatches of paint on the vase chime with the bowl to its right, which originally had a white interior, and also reflect the aquamarine movements of the sea beyond the window. The colour of the dark pink flowers similarly reverberates around the painting, glancing off the window shutters, the sky, and the house outside the room. This echoing of colour perhaps has something to do with what Matisse described as the ‘sympathy’ between communing objects. Speaking to his students at the Académie Matisse in 1908, Matisse noted that a still life should engage with the ‘emotion of the ensemble, the interrelation of the objects, the specific character of each object – modified by its relation to the others’.
Matisse also characterised his objects as actors. ‘A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; a good object can play a role in ten different paintings’, he declared in 1951. The second room in the exhibition explores this idea further, and features several striking objects. One of these is a chocolate pot, which Matisse received from his friend and fellow artist Albert Marquet as a wedding present, probably in 1898. Still Life with a Chocolate Pot depicts the vessel in the midst of burnished brown and red tones, its silver drawing in the surrounding colours, including that of the small lemon by its side. A later, brighter painting sees the same pot filled with flowers, the rust-red surface the pot is resting on reflected in the petals of one of the flowers. The pot also reappears in several ink drawings, and in a wonderful piece entitled Still Life and Heron Studies. In the latter work, tiny ink studies of the chocolate pot and a soup taureen are balanced in fragmentary splashes of red, yellow, and blue watercolour, while slim ink strokes depict the outlines of herons. While the piece may be intended to explore the effects of colour, it also gives a sense of the joy Matisse took in the arrangement and spacing of his objects. He would often play with the positioning of items in his studio ‘until I found myself brought up short by something about the ensemble that delighted me’. How the artist may have gone about this work is made clearer in his Still Life with Shell. Here, the cut coloured shapes of a chocolate pot, jug, cup and saucer, shell, and four apples have been pinned into place in order to ascertain their optimum position. This work informs Still Life with Seashell on Black Marble, where the objects have been solidly painted into place, balancing serenely on their black marble background. Matisse’s spidery seashell is particularly brilliant.
Some objects gripped Matisse’s imagination more fiercely than others. Upon encountering a Venetian baroque chair in the early 1940s, Matisse wrote to Aragon that ‘I have at last found the object for which I’ve been longing for a whole year. It’s a Venetian baroque chair, silver gilt with tinted varnish, like a piece of enamel. You’ve probably seen something like it. When I found it in an antique shop, a few weeks ago, I was bowled over. It’s splendid. I’m obsessed with it’. The chair, with its back and seat shaped like cockle shells, would appear in several paintings and drawings, including Venetian Chair with Fruit, where its elaborate reptilian arms and textured legs are set off by the plain design of the floor tiling. The chair is transformed most joyously in two coloured pencil sketches from 1943, which depict vases of flowers balanced on the scalloped seat. There is a remarkable sense of ease and fluidity in the pencil lines, and in the brighter second sketch, the reptilian arms almost seem to grin at the viewer.
Matisse also drew inspiration from the Central and West African works that he collected. As Helen Burnham notes in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, ‘After about 1906, when he started a diverse collection of statues and masks from Africa, he radically changed the composition and handling of figures in his art in ways that echoed the formal and conceptual logic of African art as he understood it’. Rather than directly incorporate the objects into his paintings, Matisse adopted various stylistic elements, so that African sculpture was ‘more in his imagination than in his vision’, as Gertrude Stein put it. Standing Nude, his rendering of a 1906 photograph of a nude woman, therefore features dark outlines suggestive of wood carving, and he also experimented with large woodcuts. The exhibition does not shy away from issues of appropriation, making it clear that Matisse would not have come into contact with these articles had it not been for the French colonisation of parts of Africa; he also, like his contemporaries, was prone to homogenising ‘the non-Western traditions he admired’. Certain sketches, such as African Mask Studies, with its scribbled notations including ‘Gambie’ and ‘Haut Niger’, do suggest an interest in the origin of his sculptures, however, and Matisse was certainly an avid student of the objects he owned. He was particularly attracted to the ‘apparent inscrutability’ of masks such as the Muyombo mask on display, declaring that ‘Expression for me does not reside in passions bursting from a human face’.
Textile was crucial to much of Matisse’s painting, and a photograph in the next section of the exhibition shows his studio swathed in densely patterned fabrics. Reclining Odalisque is an especially sensuous study of colour and shape, featuring luscious reds intersecting with cool blues. As in the earlier vase paintings, colour jumps between objects, so that here the emerald colouring of an anklet, side table, pillow, and clothing serves as the link between them. Odalisque with Gray Culottes is similarly impressive, with its sweep of yellow fabric, blue and red stripes, grey crisscrosses, and pistachio green pillow. North African hanging textiles called haitis are also on display, as they would have been in Matisse’s studio, so that the viewer has the sense of almost walking into one of his paintings. The last room also considers the ways in which Matisse was excited by fabric in his work. A 19th-early 20th century Egyptian tent curtain is suspended in the room, suggestive of Matisse’s rippling, seaweed-like cut-outs. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table is a particularly spectacular painting, whose multidirectional lines emulate the Kuba cloths suspended next to it. In all, it is a joyous experience to see Matisse’s original objects transfigured and transformed under his paintbrush, and to feel the ‘sympathy’ at work between art and object.
By Suzannah V. Evans
Matisse in the Studio at Royal Academy of Arts, 5 August – 12 November 2017.