Henri Matisse’s large painting ‘The Red Studio’ (1911) is so familiar as an icon of modern art that you may wonder what else needs to be said or even noted about it. Quite a lot, a jewelry box testifies to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition surrounds the eponymous view of the artist’s studio with most of his eleven previous works sprinkling, in a freehand copy, the uniform ground of the painting’s powerful Venetian red. (Some of the original pieces are on loan from institutions in Europe and North America.) In addition, there are related later paintings, drawings, and prints, along with a plethora of documentary material. The ensemble, eloquently composed by the curators Ann Temkin, from MOMAand Dorthe Aagesen, of the National Gallery of Denmark, immerses a viewer in the wonders of an artistic revolution that reverberates to this day.
Delicious? Oh yeah. Aesthetic bliss – radically, to some extent still tends to startle when you stop to think about it – saturates the means, purpose and soul of a style so far ahead of its time that it took decades before its full influence broke through. It did so resolutely in paintings by Mark Rothko and other American Abstract Expressionists in subsequent years MOMAMid-century ‘The Red Studio’, which had been forgotten until then. The works visually cited in the piece — seven paintings, three sculptures, and a decorated ceramic plate — coexist with furniture and still lifes. Contours are usually summarily indicated by thin yellow lines. Part of a light blue window sticks out. But nothing disturbs the essential harmony of the composition, the details stand out all at once, with a combined bang.
There is no possibility to enter the corner space portrayed, not even by way of imagination. Only certain subtle contrasts of warm and cool tones, pushing and pulling at the viewer’s gaze, indicate something like pictorial depth. Not for Matisse the preservation of visually progressive and receding forms, as in the contemporaneous cubism of his towering frenemy Picasso. (Who will win their lifelong battle? The question is unanswerable. They’re like boxing champions who can’t tag each other because they’re in separate rings.) Even the vaguely Cézanne-esque “Bathers” (1907), which depicts a nude couple in a grassy landscape – one of the paintings in “The Red Studio” whose original is on hand for the show – reads Democratic. Rapid blows jostle forward in a single, albeit crumpled, optical plane. See if it isn’t, as your gaze moves smoothly over black contours between green, blue water and sky, and orangish flesh.
In 1907, when Picasso painted his rebellious touchstone “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the Spaniard commented sharply on Matisse’s breakthrough canvas from the same year, “Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra)”: “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design.” In reality, Matisse did both at once, integrating the two original functions of painting: illustration and decoration.”Blue Nude” is absent from “The Red Studio” and in the current show, but its spirit persists in the three sculptures on display, which in the round extend the painterly touch in Matisse’s flat pictorial figuration.To me they almost equal the twentieth-century feats of arms in three dimensions of Brancusi and Giacometti.
The creation of “The Red Studio” came through a decorative commission from the Muscovy textile magnate Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, a leading collector of European innovations, from Impressionist to Post-Impressionist to some whose paint was barely dry. His possessions, seized by the Bolsheviks in 1918, are now the glories of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Pushkin’s State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. They include an absolute stunner of Matisse’s, “The Conversation” (1908-12), which I encountered in the Hermitage in 1989. A wry air of homely comedy reflects the work’s dominant, intensely blue and ravishing floral window. The artist, who looks gentle and is in pyjamas, confronts his seated wife, the formidable Amélie, whom I can’t help but imagine telling him to get his own breakfast. (Matisse is hardly ever outspokenly witty, but a sort of ghostly humor, reminiscent of sheer brutality, flows out of his hand through just about everything.) That photo isn’t on the current show either, but it’s tattooed in my memory.
Shchukin’s lavish patronage of Matisse, beginning in 1906, frees the artist and his family from years of poverty. It allowed for a move to a comfortable house in Issy-les-Moulineaux, six kilometers outside Paris, and the construction there, in 1909, of the spacious studio that became the location and often the subject of almost all of Matisse’s works until he moved to Nice left. , in 1917. In January 1911, the collector requested a trio of paintings of the same size, each about six by seven feet, and left the subject to Matisse. Shchukin acquired the first, the relatively quiet “Pink Studio,” but when he received a watercolor copy of what Matisse called “Red Panel,” he politely declined the design.
Shchukin explained that he preferred pictures with people in them, ignoring the presence of figures that abounded in the visual citations of earlier works, such as the robustly attractive “Young Sailor II” (1906), the original of which is in on loan for the Metropolitan Museum’s show, and the violently daring “Nude with White Scarf” (1909), supplied by the National Gallery of Denmark. Or did even the playfully indulgent Russian, though too tactful to say so, object to the image’s molten energy? Matisse remained particularly controversial in art circles at the time, even as Picasso’s supernatural drawing disarmed many.
Still referred to as the ‘Red Panel’, the work appeared at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1912 and at the Armory Show in New York and Chicago the following year, but it was not sold at all by Matisse. (In a Time interview with the artist in France, in March 1913, the critic Clara T. MacChesney erupted in condescending defiance to Matisse’s gracious remarks, who tried his best to make it clear that he was a “normal” family man rather than the unkempt holy terror she had foreseen.) The painting then remained in the artist’s possession and out of public view until it was bought in 1927 as a chic bibelot for a posh members-only club in London. After a period of private ownership, it was enthusiastically bought by MOMAin 1949 – just in time for its charismatic relevance to artists in New York and eventually around the world.
In my opinion, there are three distinct instructive failures among the works in the current exhibition. “Le Luxe II” (1907-08) shows three monumental nudes by the sea, oddly rendered in distemper (rabbit skin glue) rather than sensual oils, to a dry static effect. But it was clearly worth a try for Matisse and takes his place in “The Red Studio”. Nostalgia may have motivated him to record a little clunker, “Corsica, the Old Mill,” painted in 1898, when he was twenty-eight years old, fresh out of art school and newly married. The conventional motif shows an indecisive mix of Post-Impressionist and early Fauvist techniques – a ticking time bomb, as it turns out.
It took me a while to cool down on the initially impressive “Large Red Interior” (1948), which closes the show as a bookend for “The Red Studio”. At the time extravagantly praised by the formalist critic Clement Greenberg, it is certainly masterful with virtuoso renderings of earlier images and plenty of flowers in vases. But I find that the work has been tainted by a quality – taste – that Matisse had at times risked for most of his career but reliably avoided. It feels unintentionally-passionate, strictly professional. Shortly after Matisse completed that work, Matisse, always self-conscious, put down his brushes, picked up a pair of scissors and began the sensational improvisations in colored paper that engrossed him until his death in 1954. way to an inner imperative that produced, with typical nonchalance, immortal outer consequences.