Review: Matisse in the Studio, Royal Academy ‘Glorious Collision of Colour and Ideas’

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It’s understandable why anyone would be pretty jaded and cynical about yet another Matisse show. After all, London has not been lacking in them over the years. However, all that is blown away as soon as you step inside this small show up in the Sackler Wing at the RA for you are almost instantly swept up by the riotous vibrancy of the colours – oranges, yellows, maroons and greens collide together almost wherever you look – and the cacophony of layered patterns and visual effects. This is a buoyant, exciting show.

Matisse in the Studio represents the first attempt to directly link Matisse’s personal collection of objects, kick-knacks and bric-a-brac to his artworks, noting them both as direct subject matter in his final works as well as inspiration for them.

To demonstrate this, the RA has collated together over thirty objects that Matisse owned in his time, mostly on loan from Musée Matisse in Nice, though some are from private collections and are on display outside France for the first time. They include Ming porcelain vases (as well as a fake!), tapestries and fabrics he picked up in Morocco, African masks, sculptures from Mali and Thailand, as well as vases, photos of naked women, chairs and even a stainless steel chocolate pot that he received as a wedding present.

As objects in themselves, they seem ordinary, perhaps nothing that would particularly grab you. Yet the RA displays these curiosities directly alongside the final works from the great man that they inspired or, indeed, are even subject matter for. And so surrounding these objects, we have the most fantastic array of paintings, sculptures, drawings and cut-outs from the great man himself.

It’s a glorious collection and one that anyone would enjoy aside from the objects surrounding them. Yet by placing them alongside these objects the RA encourages us to examine and explore creative inspiration, and to even question Matisse’s use of cultural appropriation.

The latter comes to the fore particularly in the galleries focusing on The Nude and The Face (the exhibition is arranged thematically). In these rooms, we see how Matisse was fascinated by African masks and sculptures which emphasised the simplification of human features, with faces defined by strong but simplistic eyes, jaws and noses, and bodies emphasised with strong, angular lines.

Indeed, as I stood in front of Matisse’s wonderful The Italian Woman, 1916, a portrait of a woman with features so similar to that of the African mask showed in the vitrine alongside, I heard more than a few murmurs observing the similarity with the figures in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (which perhaps betrays how prevalent the issue of appropriation / inspiration was). Certainly, Picasso shared a similar fascination with African art, though his painting was completed almost ten years before Matisse’s.

Yet, nearby, is a wonderful nude: Standing Nude, 1906-7. It shows all of Matisse’s hallmarks in its monumentality, yet you can see him too grappling with African art in its strong black outlines, its mask-like facial features, its simply defined outline and its forceful enigmatic expression. And this painting predates Picasso’s masterpiece – “the painting that created modern art” – by a few months, at least.

The influence of art from outside Europe on Matisse’s work is also evident in the galleries titled, The Studio as Theatre and The Language of Signs. In the latter, the lines of Chinese calligraphy and the patterns from African kuba textiles can be seen in his cut outs and paintings, most notably the wonderful Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947, which is a feast of oranges, greens and yellows, the background cut through with zig zags similar to that of a nearby textile.

Whereas in The Studio as Theatre, it is Islamic art and objects that are the centre of attention. Rich, intricate tapestries and North African furniture can be seen in his paintings of reclining female nudes. Only these objects and patterns are not placed demurely in the background, but as demanding of attention and focus as the women themselves thereby challenging Western norms and conventions which had, historically, always placed female nudes as the prime object of desire in art, never to be distracted from.

Matisse and colour will always be intrinsically linked – and rightly so. But this is a great little show that demonstrates the extent to which, like his great friend-rival Picasso, Matisse had an insatiably curious mind, always drawn to new, exciting ideas, and willing to bend and use these inspirations to push his own art forward.

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to November 12, 2017
Admission £14 (without Gift Aid donation). Concessions available.

Image Credits:
1 Henri Matisse, Red Interior. Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947
2 a) Vase, Andalusia, Spain, early 20th century. Blown glass, 28.5 x 21 cm. Former collection of Henri Matisse. Musee Matisse, Nice. b) Henri Matisse, Safrano Roses at the Window, 1925. Oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm. Private collection
3 a) Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century. Wood, fiber and pigment, 49 x 19.3 cm. Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection b) Henri Matisse, The Italian Woman, 1916. Oil on canvas, 116.7 x 89.5 cm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
4 a) Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century Cotton plainweave cut and appliqued to bast fiber cloth, 217 x 212 cm. Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection, on loan to Musee Matisse, Nice. b) Henri Matisse, The Moorish Screen, 1921, Oil on canvas, 91 x 74 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950

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