Matisse's studio: "an interior world of his own making"
By Nicholas Watkins
Published on 8 August 2017
With our Matisse in the Studio exhibition now open, Nicholas Watkins reveals the artist's working practice – orchestrating objects and models in his French ateliers to explore colour, line and space.
The Royal Academy’s first two exhibitions in 2017, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 and America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s presented diametrically opposed views of the same ungrateful period: at one extreme the enforced optimism of collectivised labour, joyful in the construction of Stalin’s utopia; at the other the blank, aggressive emptiness of Grant Wood’s rural Americans left isolated, jobless and in despair by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the collapse of international capitalism. Both are unnervingly apposite today. The RA’s exhibition Matisse in the Studio promises something entirely different: a defiantly escapist art dealing with dreams of sensual wellbeing and harmony encapsulated in the title of Matisse’s first great imaginary composition, Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, Calm and Delight, 1904) – no workers, no dispossessed, no technology, just nudes, bright colours and a beautiful seaside setting.
Matisse was a very great artist, a much more challenging artist than his critics have made out. Looking back over the modern period there is every reason to think that people have been motivated more by aspirations to happiness, personal fulfilment and pleasure than by political directives, five-year plans or invocations to national greatness. And Matisse had the intelligence – and dogged independence – to take as his starting point deeply embedded cultural visions of human happiness that others had dropped as outmoded: the landscape of the classical Golden Age, a legendary era of human happiness, with nudes by the seaside, at one with nature and with each other; Gauguin’s sensuous Garden of Eden set in the South Seas; and, more controversially, the Oriental harem, with beautiful female nudes shaped by a body language of desire. His studio-homes in themselves became places of retreat, self-constructed interiors of earthly delights, installation art avant la lettre. And this is what this exhibition sets out to investigate through Matisse’s own collection of objects.
Matisse was an obsessive collector of objects. Not necessarily expensive, exquisitely beautiful objects that exuded status and demanded reverence, but everyday objects, souvenirs from his travels, gifts from family and friends, or objects which just caught his eye in a junk shop. They came together in his studio-homes like immigrants in a cosmopolis, striking up immediate relationships, preserving memories of their cultural origins and functions, or remaining aloof, awkward and unassimilable. As character actors they had distinct, often quite exaggerated shapes and personalities. A green glass Andalusian vase picked up on a formative trip to Spain encapsulated memories of the translucent light of the South. A jagged wooden divination figure from the Ivory Coast, by contrast, stood out as a harsh, unforgiving, sentinel presence that had to be taken on its own terms.
The previous Matisse exhibition at the Royal Academy, Matisse: His Art and his Textiles, staged in the Sackler Wing in 2005, brilliantly demonstrated how his collection of fabrics framed his vision, and Matisse in the Studio takes the process a stage further. Key objects from Matisse’s own collection, long since dispersed, have been tracked down and placed alongside the drawings, paintings, sculptures and paper cut-outs in which they feature. He could no more work without his changing cast of object-actors than he could paint a nude without a model.
During his longstanding affairs with favourite objects they came to play different roles. A silver chocolate pot, a generous wedding present from his friend and fellow artist Albert Marquet, features in a still life, Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot (1902), as a bulbous bottomed character with a phallic handle. The same chocolate pot ended up as a brown paper cut-out silhouette traded off against a shell in a dialogue of objects around a jug in Still Life with a Shell (1940).
It was from 1906 that Matisse, then recently crowned Le Roi des Fauves (King of the Wild Beasts), leader of the first avant-garde movement of the 20th century, turned to an unlikely combination of cultural "objects", African sculpture and photographs of female nudes. At the Paris Salon des Indépendants in March that year he had staked his reputation as leader of the avant-garde on a second great imaginary painting, appropriately titled Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life, 1905; not in the exhibition). A virtual harem of Oriental odalisques are let out to luxuriate in the warmth of a seaside setting painted in broad swathes of hot oranges and yellows articulated by the sweeping arabesques of the tree trunks. Bright, almost garish colours had been seen before but never on such a scale. Even Matisse’s former supporters were shocked. The Joy of Life is the key work in Matisse’s evolution. In it are seen for the first time many of the poses and figure groups he was to explore over the next few years in drawings, sculptures and paintings: the reclining nude, the standing nude, the crouching nude, the twin standing nudes and the ring of dancers treading out a dance on the beach by the sea in the sheer pleasure of just being.
This Gauguin-inspired scene was repatriated from Oceania to the south of France. Gauguin the seer – the self-proclaimed savage who had inspired with his vision of a "primitive" decorative art a group of young artists, the Nabis, including Bonnard and Vuillard – had died in 1903, destitute in his self-imposed exile in the South Seas. When Gauguin’s Tahitian wood carvings and ceramics first became known in France between 1905 and 1907 they struck a new generation as truly "barbaric", quite outside the Western canon. They made Matisse’s figures in The Joy of Life look tame, too 19th century, too much like Ingres’s odalisques in particular. Deeply impressed by Gauguin’s carvings, Matisse wanted something more dramatic and forceful for his own work, something that would command attention – like his colour – and carry meaning in its very presence. And it was here that African sculpture and photographs of posed nudes played their parts.
The titillating photographs of nudes, cunningly merchandised as "models for artists" or ethno-anthropological documentation to escape the censor, provided Matisse with poses sufficiently distant from any real erotic experience for him to be able to use them to his own formal ends. He first turned to them in 1906, just weeks after acquiring his first African sculpture, a seated figure from Vili in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unaware of their functions and the cultures from which they originated, Matisse lumped African sculpture from across the continent – and even Oceania – under the general category of art nègre or art primitif. He saw their shapes as the product of an artist unbound by convention and "proportioned according to the passions which inspired him". African sculpture demonstrated just how far he could go in the distortion of the human figure without losing touch with reality.
Sculpture for Matisse was an exploratory activity which he turned to when blocked in his painting. As he explained, it "was done for the purpose of organisation, to put order into my feelings, and find a style to suit me". In Reclining Nude I (1907), the Ingres-inspired odalisque is dragged from its seaside setting in The Joy of Life and restructured in a brutal and immediate "African" style in which each element is exaggerated and has to be read separately. It was important to Matisse that his vision of reclining odalisques had been lent authenticity by his trip to the oasis of Biskra in Algeria in 1906, known then for sexual tourism. Henceforth, Reclining Nude I was to act as both a souvenir of his journey and as a codified "sign" of sublimated eroticism that could be fed back into his painting like an object.
African sculpture liberated Matisse from European representational conventions, the realism of the photograph and the overwhelming attraction of a young female nude model. The painting Standing Nude (1906–07) transforms a pinup photo from a recent issue of Mes Modèles – with the ludicrous title Subject evoking the idea of surprise or modesty – into an Africanised version of Rodin’s Walking Man (1907) equipped with a female head stuck on awkwardly at an angle. Furthermore, Matisse would not have pushed the head in Jeannette III (1911) to the same degree of abstraction without the precedent of African masks in his collection. He might have claimed to have been penetrating beyond surface appearances to a deep reality residing in every human being but he was in fact producing a new form of art. The objectification of volume via African sculpture also opened up the possibility of integrating a human figure into an interior through the repetition of shapes, colours and patterns. The future of his art lay with his cast of object-actors.
Matisse’s move down to the South of France, the Mediterranean and Nice, after visiting in December 1917, brought immediate release from the despair, death and destruction of the First World War in the North. His generation of modern artists had gone beyond Impressionism without having really engaged with it. Now, like his friend Pierre Bonnard, he embraced Impressionism and opened his arms like an acolyte to light. Mediterranean light meant rejuvenation, warmth and hope. Entranced by the light, its theatricality, the way it percolated through the shutters, its ability to trigger associations and bring back memories, he embarked on a series of dialogues with light: playing interior light against exterior light; juxtaposing the transient light of the North and the permanent light of the South, one recalling Impressionism, the other the timelessness of a renewed form of Mediterranean classicism. He became fascinated by the ways in which his own objects and fabrics generated light and opened up a series of dialogues with the light source. The green glass Andalusian vase of flowers brings the flushed pink of the sky and the blue of the sea into the interior in Safrano Roses at the Window (1925). Its raised handles act as a "sign" for a female nude either with arms akimbo or raised in what Matisse called a Hindu pose.
There was a limit, though, to the number of times Matisse could stare out of transient hotel bedroom windows without a feeling of rootless anxiety setting in. As the RA exhibition demonstrates, the move to his own rented apartment in the Place Charles-Félix in Nice in 1921 signalled a psychological retreat into a hermetic interior world of his own making. Matisse breathed new life into the clichéd Orientalist theme of human happiness and constructed a harem set in his studio-apartment for his object-actors and female models typecast in the roles of odalisques. Fabrics were draped over wires, rugs arranged on the floor and the odalisques so posed as to interact with the objects and patterns in the evocation of a heady, highly perfumed atmosphere of a dream, un rêve de bonheur, inspired by Islamic art and lent reality by his pre-war trips to the south of Spain, Moorish Spain, and Morocco. Matisse stressed that he painted odalisques in order to paint nudes as he had actually "seen them" in Morocco. He had made a special trip to Munich to see the vast exhibition of Islamic art in October 1910.
Matisse’s relationship with his female models, as he himself acknowledged, was not an easy one to take on board: "The emotional interest they inspire in me is not particularly apparent in the representation of their bodies, but rather by the lines or the special values distributed over the whole canvas… But not everyone perceives this. It is perhaps sublimated voluptuousness." Matisse was no celibate. He worked discomfortingly close to his female models, draping them according to his fancy, breathing the aroma of their bodies and feeling the interplay between their forms and the setting. Persian miniatures showed him how to avoid the documentary realism of 19th-century Orientalism and unlock the subject across the whole surface through repetitions of colour, shape and pattern to suggest a wider, plastic space. The work became a decorative object in its own right which brought pleasure, a feeling of happiness into the room, as he said, "like a bunch of flowers".
But this does not explain the drama, the potentiality for failure in the paintings. Harmony, as defined by Matisse, was the product of a balance of forces only achievable after a lengthy, often very painful process. To English ears the decorative objective comes across as far too anodyne. It requires an effort, the learning of new language, to see the interiors with odalisques on Matisse’s terms. How could it be otherwise? The language did not come easily to Matisse himself.
There is a definite sense of progression in the Nice interiors – and conversely of things just not working out. Matisse’s daughter and a model, dressed fashionably in Twenties "sporty" white and toying with a tennis racket, look stilted and out of context framed by the arches of the screen in the The Moorish Screen (1921). The screen, we are told, is in fact a haiti, a pierced and appliqué cotton fabric from North Africa, also referred to as a moucharabieh after the fretwork screens made of either wood or stucco.
Matisse’s Oriental installations demanded odalisques as pliant as the patterns against which they are played. In the process of resetting the relationships between objects, fabrics and models in his studio installation he changed the agenda in his painting. A circular brass and copper Ottoman brasero topped with a crescent moon both introduces the colour gold and the curvaceous form of the femme objet into Odalisque with Grey Culottes (1926–27) and also acts as the pivot in the psychological balancing act between the muted presence of the reclining odalisque stretched out along the horizontal and the strident, intensely coloured patterns arranged along the vertical axis. In Reclining Odalisque (1926), the resounding brass brasero plays the sultan to a bare-breasted model tossed back in a pose of compliant desire.
By the end of the 1920s Matisse had tired of painting nudes in an interior world of his own making. It had become too hermetic, even claustrophobic. Fired up by trips to the US and Tahiti in 1930, he sought to liberate line from colour and attain a new freedom, an expanded conception of space: "escaping from the space to be found behind the motif of the picture, to feel in spirit above myself, above motif, studio, even home; a cosmic space in which one no longer feels the walls, any more than do the fish in the sea." As the final section in the exhibition reveals, Matisse looked again to his object-actors for inspiration.
A black lacquered Chinese calligraphy panel with gilded script, a gift from his wife Amélie for his 60th birthday in 1929, acted as an unlikely talisman, a schoolroom blackboard for lessons Matisse never forgot: line had an expressive, constructional potential outside representation; line shaped colour and created space; line synthesised form and carried emotion; the intervals between line and colour, figure and ground, were as important as the elements themselves; in summary, drawing, calligraphy, had equal status with painting as a work of art in its own right. The constructional and expressive simplicity of Alga on Green Background (1947, opposite) – the intervals between the alga poetically interacting with their shapes to suggest new forms – is unthinkable outside the lessons learned from the calligraphy panel.
Matisse’s drawing began to separate from his painting and achieve equal status as an expressive medium in its own right. Through drawing he penetrated to the essence of an object, then represented it as a "sign". He proceeded with variations on the "sign", like the myriad shapes of fig leaves he drew in his garden which were always, he said, "unmistakably fig leaves". Matisse took on the guise of a Chinese poet-calligrapher in retreat, pantheistically identifying with the ebb and flow of nature and somehow duplicating nature’s mode of operation in drawing with the brush variations on the growth and form of plane trees (see The Bush, 1951). Line framed the leaves within the limitless whiteness of deep space.
Matisse’s development of the paper cut-out process brought line and colour together in the creation of a truly novel art form. Colour assumed an objectivity, a concrete reality all of its own. "Cutting directly into vivid colour," Matisse wrote in his text to his artist book Jazz (1947), his first major cut-out project, "reminds me of the direct carving of sculptors." These images, in vivid and violent tones, resulted from crystallisations of memories of the circus, popular tales, or travel. It was his commitment of faith, his credo, that a work of art should be grounded in reality. Now that colour embodied that reality, it freed his imagination to work outside the constraints of space and time. In the magnificent paper cut-out The Panel with Mask (1947), a New Ireland Uli figure literally crowns the panels below containing pared-down signs of his memories and objects.
Matisse’s memories, his object-actors, his visions of human happiness, and his lifelong ambitions to create a total work of art, all came together in his last years as his physical health declined. Though confined to bed or a wheelchair for most of the day after surgery for intestinal cancer in 1941, and unable to travel, he constructed his own internal paradise, with his paper cut-out compositions for the Vence Chapel and other decorative projects literally evolving on the walls around him. Two paper cut-out maquettes for a chasuble for the chapel conclude the exhibition.
The sheer scale and ambition of his late grand decorative compositions went far beyond the taste and financial capabilities of contemporary patronage. Like Monet with his great Nymphéas (Water Lilies) cycle in the Orangerie in Paris, which was finally opened to the public in 1927, Matisse’s work appeared out of sync with his times. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Picasso – with his mural-sized canvas Guernica (1937), an anguished protest against the bombing of the Basque capital in the Spanish Civil War – appeared the more relevant artist. Matisse had gone in the opposite direction.
What we are now offered with this exhibition in 2017 is a message of hope, a balm for troubled times, a vision of luxury, calm and delight articulated through a cultural globalisation of objects assimilated on Matisse’s own very European, very French terms.
Matisse in the Studio is at the RA until 12 November.
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in partnership with the Musée Matisse, Nice.
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