Strange things lurk in artists’ studios, amidst the creative clutter. The Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka kept a life-size mannekin of his former lover Alma Mahler with him for company. Several big names have stored guns in their studios, for no particular reason; certainly not to shoot themselves with (suicides are rare among artists). The slightly mad German Pop artist Sigmar Polke kept a lump of uranium handy, which he used as a quick way of developing photographs. Not good.
How refreshing to turn to the benign and well-ordered world of Henri Matisse.
Transferring to the Royal Academy after a highly praised run at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, this medium-sized exhibition features 65 of Matisse’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints and cut-outs, alongside 35 of the studio objects that inspired them.
Matisse is a very apt subject for this sort of treatment, because like his great rival Picasso he was an inveterate collector, not only of fine art and antiques but also of curios, knick-knacks and what might frankly be described as junk. He called these accumulated objects his ‘actors’, and did indeed arrange them into little dramas in his studio.
Here, for example, you can admire the silver chocolatière given to him as a wedding present by his artist friend Albert Marquet, which found its way into several of his early Chardinesque still lives. Here too is the green Andalusian vase that stands prominently in ‘Safrano Roses at the Window’ (above). There’s also the Venetian rococo chair Matisse acquired in 1942, the arabesque curves of which feature in a number of paintings over the next decade. The contrast between this sinuous chair and Van Gogh’s plain, rush-seated version speaks volumes.
Matisse was also a huge fan of African art, particularly tribal masks. As the exhibition demonstrates very well, there are clear echoes of them in his portraits, such as the one of his daughter Madeleine (1907), once owned by Picasso. (Only having seen this painting in reproduction before, I was keen to examine it closely, because of the old story that in idle moments Picasso would throw darts at it. I’m happy to report that this appears not to be the case, although perhaps he used those ones with suckers on}.
It’s suggested here that Matisse’s late cut-outs may have been partly inspired by his collection of Chinese calligraphic panels, Moorish screens and Congoese textiles, though by this stage his take-off points were so diverse that it’s difficult to nail down a particular visual source.
Is there any point to all this juxtaposition, apart from the fun to be had from playing ‘hunt the vase’? You certainly gain an insight into an important aspect of Matisse’s creative practice, although by no means all the wellsprings of his art are dealt with by this approach. The inspiration for his early landscapes, for example, or his brief flirtation with abstraction during 1913-17, clearly lay beyond bric-a-brac. Wisely, the organisers don’t overreach themselves by trying to cover everything.
The show is being held in the Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing, completed by Norman Foster in 1991. I’ve long thought this to be one of the best small exhibition spaces in London. As you approach it in the glass lift you can admire the original garden front of Burlington House, exposed by Foster’s clever linking of the Georgian and Victorian buildings on the site. The exhibition space itself – just three rooms, fairly small – is satisfyingly spare. It may be obvious, but I think it’s worth underlining the point that the environment in which you see an exhibition can make a huge difference to your enjoyment of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in all the years I’ve been going to the Sackler, I’ve never seen a duff show.
Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts 5 August-12 November 2017