Matisse in the Studio
"Works representing the nude from other cultural traditions were also important to Matisse, including Bamana figural sculptures from Mali and a statue of the goddess Nang Thorani from Thailand, as well as contemporary photography."
For an artist who once said, “It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else”, the current exhibition of Henri Matisse’s work at the Royal Academy of Arts is proof enough that his instincts never failed him.
Entitled ‘Matisse in the Studio’, it is the first exhibition of its kind to consider just how his personal collection of treasured objects influenced his work, as Louise Cunningham discovers.
Matisse’s eclectic collection ranges from a Roman torso, African masks and Chinese porcelain to intricate North African textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries. He selected these objects primarily for their aesthetic appeal and although not generally rare or the finest examples of the traditions to which they belong, they were of profound significance to Matisse’s creative process. Indeed, to reveal the working processes by which these pieces were transformed in his canon of work, 35 objects are displayed alongside 65 of Matisse’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and cut-outs.
Most of the objects on loan from the Musée Matisse, Nice, and others from private collections, are being publicly exhibited outside France for the first time. The exhibition explores how Matisse continuously returned to his collection throughout his working life and how the objects were reconsidered, depending on the pictorial environment into which they were placed. For instance, in 1951 he famously said: “I have worked all my life before the same objects... The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.” Matisse’s objects therefore were a vital creative stimulus, so much so that he travelled with them, even to temporary residences, and letters to family members often included requests for objects to be moved from Paris to Nice.
Essentially, the exhibition is arranged around five thematic sections:
1. The Object as an Actor shows how Matisse re-examined elements of his collection in different works over various periods throughout his career. A simple Pewter Jug, an Andalusian glass vase, and a chocolate pot given to Matisse as a wedding present reappear under varying guises in several works created over an extended period of time, including Safrano Roses at the Window (1925) and Still Life with Shell (1940).
2. The Nude primarily focuses on Matisse’s collection of African sculpture and the ways in which these works led him to radical innovations in portraying the human figure. A number of Matisse’s sculptures are included, such as Two Women, modelled 1907-8, cast 1908. Works representing the nude from other cultural traditions were also important to Matisse, including Bamana figural sculptures from Mali and a statue of the goddess Nang Thorani from Thailand, as well as contemporary photography.
3. The Face explores how he conveyed the character of his sitters without resorting to physical likeness. Many of Matisse’s portraits borrow motifs and ideas from traditions emphasising the simplification of human features, particularly from the African masks that he owned. Paintings by Matisse including The Italian Woman (1916) and Marguerite (1906-7) are hung alongside objects such as an African Pende mask, a small bronze bust of the Buddha from Thailand, and a French medieval head of a saint.
4. The Studio as Theatre is centred around the Nice interiors from the 1920s, in which Matisse increasingly relied on studio props from the Islamic world, such as North African furniture, wall hangings and Middle Eastern metalwork, accentuating the importance of pattern and design in his continuing search for an alternative to the western tradition of imitation. Highlights by Matisse within this gallery include The Moorish Screen (1921).
5. The final section, The Language of Signs, features Matisse’s late works and the inventive language of simplified signs in his cut-outs. Objects from his collection, including a Chinese calligraphy panel and African kuba textiles, are exhibited alongside the artist’s cut-outs exemplified by Panel with Mask (1947).
The exhibition offers a unique and intimate insight into Matisse’s studio life and artistic practice, exploring just how the collage of patterns and rhythms, which he found in the world of objects, played such a pivotal role in the development of his masterful vision of colour and form. Extraordinary and fascinating in equal measure, this is an artistic triumph – both stylistically and educationally – worth journeying to see.
Matisse in the Studio is organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in partnership with the Musée Matisse, Nice. The exhibition runs until 12 November 2017.
Top Image – Henri Matisse, The Italian Woman, 1916 Photo © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/ Art Resource, NY
Below – Henri Matisse, Safrano Roses at the Window, 1925 Photo © Private collection
Bottom – Henri Matisse, Still Life with Shell, 1940 Photo © Private collection
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