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Matisse in the Studio
Image Credit: © David Parry

Matisse in the Studio

12 August 2017 Will Rathbone

The Royal Academy’s newest exhibition is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the work of Henri Matisse. It presents objects from the artist’s personal collection and uses them to give context to his overall practice and selected works. Matisse collected objects from regions as diverse as the Middle East, Asia and Central and West Africa, and their varying influences give a fascinating insight into the French master’s work.

Matisse’s various studio spaces were, by all accounts, stuffed full of objects from around the globe. Textiles from the Middle East, vases from Andalusia, enormous wall hangings from China and wooden carvings and masks from across Africa are just some of the items found in the artist’s studio, and he took enormous pleasure and inspiration from amassing antiquities whenever they caught his eye.


Henri Matisse, Still Life with Shell, 1940 Private collection. Photo © Private collection. © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017
 
Matisse in the Studio has five ‘themed’ rooms focusing on objects, nudes, faces, backgrounds and signs. A first introductory room, where a simple glass vase is shown in two contrasting still-lifes (Safrano Roses at the Window and Vase of Flowers) sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. Paintings that, at first glance, would appear to be unrelated studies (it goes without saying the level of quality of each work in the exhibition is exceedingly high, this is Matisse we’re talking about) in fact share the vase as a common denominator. In Safrano the vase is translucent, a brighter quality of light shrouds the scene, whereas Vase has a darker tone to it.
 
One often wonders about the subjects of portraits: who were they? What relationship did they have to the artist? But that same thought is rarely applied to still-lifes, despite the fact that we all have certain objects in our homes that carry huge significance. It is a consideration rarely applied to art appreciation, and it is this angle that gives the exhibition its character.


Henri Matisse, The Italian Woman, 1916. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. By exchange, 1982. Photo © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017
 
Further examples of this are plentiful throughout. A gorgeous nineteenth century Venetian chair (along with a transcript of a letter Matisse wrote to Surrealist poet Luis Aragon confessing his love for his new find) is displayed amongst a number of paintings featuring the chair. A neat piece of curation sees Venetian Chair with Fruit portray the chair at the exact same angle visible if you turn your head to the left to view it for yourself.
 
The various African masks – Gelede, Mboom, Muyombo and Giwoyo to name a few – are incredible exhibits in their own right. Seeing the influence they had on Matisse’s portraiture – as well as various sculptures and carvings – is a treat. One stunning portrait, The Italian Woman, holds the gaze with her striking facial structure and ambiguous expression, and the wonderful series of Jeanette sculptures are grotesque and charming in equal measure. Matisse wasn’t the only European artist to be heavily influenced by these figures, and seeing the inspiration demonstrated so clearly is as good an endorsement for multiculturalism and diversity as you’ll find anywhere.


Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century. Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection. Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi
 
The “Studio as Theatre” room features a series of Odalisque (a female slave found in the harems of North Africa and the Middle East) paintings with backgrounds that capture the eye as much as the central subject. They are displayed alongside enormous ‘haitis’ – Moroccan wall hangings – with colourful patterns and complex textures. Odalisque on a Turkish Chair sees the surrounding decoration given equal weight, while The Moorish Screen – set as it is in Matisse’s home in Nice – sees the haitis form part of a background, or set, in the painting. Matisse’s use of his objects to create ‘sets’ in his studio continues an earlier metaphor he uses comparing objects to actors: “A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures”.
 
Matisse in the Studio is a slow-burner. For any art student or enthusiast it’s an invaluable insight into the working practice of a true great. The appeal may not be as wide as some of the blockbuster exhibitions currently showing in London, but instead this show operates as an understated study of the importance of objects, travel and wide cultural influences to artistic practice.
 
Matisse in the Studio runs at the Royal Academy until November 12. Tickets are £15.50.
 

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