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 different role in ten different pictures.
-Henry Matisse, 1951
As well as the annual Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy of Arts has been exploring some of the work produced by one of the leading artists of the twentieth century. On 5th August, the Sackler Wing was opened to the public with an exhibition titled Matisse in the Studio, which, rather than being a general showcasing of the artist’s most famous work, concentrates on the relationship between Henri Matisse and his studio.
Throughout his life, Matisse obsessively collected objects that caught his eye in junk shops and places he visited on his travels. These items accumulated on shelves, on walls and in cabinets around Matisse’s studio, creating a self-constructed place of retreat from the rest of the world. These same articles were constant features in Matisse’s artwork and inspiration for future projects. With carefully selected paintings and sculptures, the Academy endeavours to impart the incentives behind Matisse’s art.
Henri Matisse was born in France on 31st December 1869. Unlike many artists of his age, Matisse was a late starter, having embarked on a legal career until 1891 when he abandoned his professional aspirations in favour of enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts. As a result, it was not until the 1920s that Matisse became internationally known, however, he still managed to achieve the status as one of the most illustrious painters of the twentieth century, alongside his friend, and fellow painter, Picasso (1881-1973).
Unlike Picasso, who embraced the Cubist and Surrealist movements, Matisse developed his own style, which initially resembled art that could be categorised into the Neo-Impressionism movement of which Georges Seurat (1859-1891) was a founding member. Neo-Impressionists were drawn to the sensitivity of line and the beauty of colour, often encompassing a full palette.
Matisse’s work is also associated with the Fauvist style, which was predominantly in practice during the first decade of the 20th century. This, similarly, had a strong focus on colour, as well as wild brush strokes, and simplification or abstraction.
Matisse deviated from any traditional methods and movements, preferring to experiment with different principles and processes to create unique outcomes. He also took great interest in sculpture, which not only did he produce, he painted into his compositions.
Matisse in the Studio is divided into sections that group together works involving a particular genre or process. The paintings in the gallery span the years from his initial experimental phases during the First World War all the way up until the years preceding his death in 1954.
Essential objects from Matisse’s eclectic collection have been sought out by the curators to feature alongside the paintings in which they play a significant role. Rather than painting still-lifes of the actual items in question, Matisse likened them to actors who take on other personas. Instead of drawing a chocolate-pot, for example, the one gifted to him as a wedding present, Matisse used it as a vase to hold flowers. This same object featured in many paintings but never representing the purpose for which it was originally intended.
Another article in his collection that Matisse was completely enamoured with was a Venetian Chair that he stumbled upon whilst travelling in Europe. It is of a baroque nature with a silver gilt and tinted varnish. Matisse was particularly drawn to the scallop shell-like body work, which provided plenty of lines and angles to experiment with.
It was not only these found objects that made their way into Matisse’s paintings, he produced his own items too. Matisse was a versatile artist who often turned to sculpture whenever he reached a mind block in his painting. Sculpting help Matisse “to put order into my feelings” – a form of organisation rather than a means to an end. Due to his extensive travelling, Matisse fell in love with African sculpture.
Unlike traditional European statues that stay true to form, African art used simplified shapes to resemble the human body rather than portraying a lifelike representation. Between 1906 and 1908, Matisse accumulated over twenty masks and statues from Central and West African countries, and by studying them, developed his own in a similar style. The disregard of accurate physical forms was a significant turning point in Matisse’s artistic career. He began to challenge the attitudes of the Western world’s notion of beauty.
The strong, linear lines of African art worked well with the style Matisse was already becoming known for. The exhibition displays some of the paintings of the female nude that Matisse experimented with, however, quite a number of these are based upon sculptures he had made, rather than a live model. In the instances that he did have someone sit for him, the final painting resembled the African figures more than the physical person in front of him. Matisse believed that by stripping someone down to the bare lines created a truer character and avoided any risk of superficiality.
African design also found itself entering Matisse’s portrait paintings. Again, rather than producing a lifelike picture, Matisse simplified the features as much as possible. In order to evoke a sense of his subject’s true identity, Matisse believed that accurate features would distract from this purpose.
An example hanging in the RA is a portrait of an Italian woman called Laurette, who Matisse allegedly painted fifty times in less than a year. With no photograph to compare it to, it can only be assumed that the flatness of the face and sharpness of the nose and eyebrows was not a precise representation of the model. This goes to show how fixed Matisse was on the concept of African art.
African masks, rather than sculpture, were the inspiration for the faces Matisse painted. He was particularly intrigued by their stylistic designs and lack of realistic human features. A few of his collection has been located by the exhibition curators and are on display for everyone to see. These date from the late 19th to early 20th century.
Interestingly, the majority of Matisse’s paintings of the human figure were not solely based on his sitter. Matisse painted in his studio surrounded by his accumulation of foreign artefacts, which he then used as part of the setting for his paintings. The photograph at the top of this page shows Matisse in his studio with a model. There are a number of other objects surrounding the woman, patterns in the background and many different materials. Once all this has been painted, the model becomes merely a part of the artwork, rather than the main focus. The particular scene in this photograph was for Matisse’s Odalisque on a Turkish Chair (1928), which can be found towards the end of the exhibition.
During the final decade of Matisse’s life, his ability to produce art was severely debilitated after a near-fatal operation in 1941 for duodenal cancer. During this period, he was mostly bedbound, however, this did not prevent him from continuing with his work, but his method of execution needed to change.
Rather than painting directly on to canvas, Matisse turned to gouaches découpées, which involved cutting out shapes from painted or coloured papers. Many of his studio workers assisted with the cutting and pinned the pieces in place following Matisse’s precise instructions. Some examples of this latter work clearly retain the evidence of the pins.
The paper cut out allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it – the one modifying the other – I draw straight into the colour.
-Henri Matisse, 1953
From African art to collage, Matisse’s work had always been about simplifying. Even his use of colour was made plainer with the lack of shadow and tone. This does not mean to say that Matisse’s work lacks colour – they are most certainly vibrant – but he leans more towards blocks of colour rather than a natural pigmentation. Apparently, Matisse’s doctor, whether in jest or seriousness, advised the artist to wear dark glasses to counteract the intensity of the paint.
Matisse is the type of artist that spectators either love or hate. His work is often child-like and unimpressive, however, as an artist, he introduced new ideas to the world. His Fauvist style established the notion of simplifying the human figure in order to focus on character rather than appearance. He also challenged the rule that the human figure should be the focus of an artwork. Instead, he gave surrounding objects and decorations identical treatment.
Although he relied on his art as a means of livelihood, Matisse appeared to be quite reclusive, preferring to hide away in his studio than spend time in the outside world. Rather than working for other people, Matisse was creating art for himself. With his collection of interesting objects, he generated a safe and comfortable retreat where he could focus on painting rather than the negative experiences in his life. Instead of pouring his emotion into his work, he let the paint bring himself some peace and happiness. If anything, it can be said that Matisse’s paintings have an air of positivity about them, regardless of whether the viewer finds favour with them.
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter … like a comforting influence, a mental balm – something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.
-Henry Matisse, 1908
Matisse in the Studio is running until 12th November 2017 and is open to the public between 10 am and 6 pm on Saturdays to Thursday, however, extends to 10 pm on a Friday. Friends of the Royal Academy are, naturally, free to enter, although, are advised to book a timed ticket. Everyone else is required to pay a fee of £15.50 (includes donation). It does not take long to walk around the exhibition, but if you choose to follow the audio guide, be prepared to be there for at least an hour.
We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or an extremist undertaking: Matisse’s art is eminently reasonable.
-Guillaume Apollinaire in an article published in La Falange (1907)
A final note –
The eagle eyed amongst visitors to the gallery will notice the numbers in the bottom right-hand corner next to Matisse’s signature. This is (quite obviously, in my opinion) the date in which the painting was completed and NOT, as my friend Martin thought, the artist’s self-analysis score!