Emerging from the ashes of the vibrant Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is a much more intimate affair as they take a look at Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) in his workspace. Through a collection of items, Matisse in the Studio seeks to display the inspiration and the environment in which Matisse was working. Whereas usually it is his paintings that are the centre of attention here they lie side by side by with pieces of Matisse’s exotic everyday, the pieces that frequently became a part of his work. Combining textiles, furniture, vases, and trinkets this extraordinary insight into the studio and creative spaces of this iconic artist make for intriguing viewing almost as if stepping into the paintings themselves.
As you step into the first part of the exhibition the overwhelming sense of home and personality to the space is evident. Dominated by a photograph of Matisse taken at his Villa in Venice in 1944 we are reminded that despite the collection of objects this is an exhibition about the mind and personality of the one man. Above his piece Gourds (1915) is the quote “a composition of objects that do not touch – but nonetheless participate in the same intimacy”. It is this notion of intimacy that they have really tried to explore in the smaller Sackler Gallery and the curation has sought to make this a key element of the exhibition. The experimental piece Lilacs (1914) is displayed alongside Small Crouching Nude with Arms (1908) which in a simplistic form made it into the painting, different yet completely recognisable.
One of the most iconic pieces in the exhibition is that of the Venetian Chair with its distinct shell aesthetic that looks almost as if it had been taken directly from the depths of the sea. This mythical seat became the centre piece for numerous drawings and artworks including the painting Rocaille Chair (1946). His attention to detail in the swirling forms of the chair and the movement of angle shows n energetic connection with the object and what it had the capabilities of representing for Matisse. The exhibition notes explain that for Matisse the “Object is an Actor” as Matisse himself once stated. For Matisse an object was not merely static, to be seen in one form, but rather capable of performing many roles, in many guises to mean different things.
Some of these objects highlight the influences outside of Western culture on Matisse’s work. In particular his studio in Nice where he moved from Paris in 1917, and would spend the rest of his career, was home to exotic artifacts from Africa and the Middle East. Colourful vivid textiles and the intricate patterns on silver and wood feature heavily in his work and are displayed prominently alongside some of his most expressive pieces. One particular focus within the exhibition is on Odalisque in a Turkish Chair (1928) a painting that features a female reclining back among swathes of dynamic patterns on her clothes, the wall and the carpet beneath her. The objects of a chair, vase, and chessboard add further to this explosion of colour and the influence of the objects Matisse surrounded himself by become even more apparent. African sculptures such as the Jomooniw figures from the Bamana region of Mali held a fascination for Matisse who would frequently use them to teach. The elongation of the body shapes and ambiguity of gender can be traced into his works as well as the fascination with African tribal masks. In his portraiture the stylistic designs of these masks and the simplification of the physical features can be seen clearly as they stand next to each other. His portrait of the Italian Woman (1916) has all the hallmark traits of the Nineteenth Century Mboom Mask from the Congo, and it is a fascinating part of this exhibition that allows the viewer to see both and trace the influence for yourself.
Jonathan Jones in his criticism of the exhibition for The Guardian has referred to the items included in the exhibition as “bric-a-brac”. His biggest concern is that every small trinket owned by the great artist is somehow elevated to a higher state becoming a relic embedded with a significance that was not necessarily there and the curators “get close to killing the god they love”. Alistair Sooke at the Telegraph took a very different view in his review “the knick-nacks that become great art”. It is interesting to note two completely contrasting opinions of an exhibition, surprisingly rare to see, meriting an optimistic two stars and an exemplary five respectively. While Jones seems concerned about the objects detracting from the art and in some way demeaning it Sooke sees these objects as part of a narrative in the creation of the art and symbolic of the process.
While both argue convincing points that will no doubt continue to be a focal point for debate for millennia to come the links to literary criticism’s need for the death of an author and the countering historicist movements are there to see, – I should reference here that my background is more in literature and history than art, but there are theoretical ideas common to both disciplines. The public’s search for an author and the rise in literary tourism being able to place a writer in their surroundings has never been more popular. Tours can take you around houses, parks, lakes, and even pubs (I cannot recommend the Literary Pub Crawl in Dublin highly enough) said to have inspired the great literary works we have come to love.
Yet, as critics point out, these are works of fiction and question whether we do really feel closer to a work or an author by visiting these places and seeing the writing desks and the views they would have looked upon? That remains with the individual but that same need and exploration is also true for the artist, not exclusively for the author, and the visual nature of an artist’s work lends well to this sort of exploration. Rather than being an attempt to capture the genius behind the work as if the objects rather than the artist himself hold this particular key it simply invites us to delve behind the canvas, trace techniques, and tantalise our imaginations into the world of the artist and his work in the same way that looking out onto the Yorkshire Moors and seeing the writing desk of Emily Bronte can inspire us to imagine the world beyond the words.
Matisse in the Studio is showing until 5th November at the Royal Academy. For more information and tickets see here.
Jonathan Jones, “Matisse in the Studio Review: Genius Crowded out by Bric-a-Brac”, The Guardian 31st July 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jul/31/matisse-in-the-studio-review-genius-crowded-out-by-bric-a-brac
 Alistair Sooke, “The knick-nacks that became great art – Matisse in the Studio RA review”, The Telegraph 31st July 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/knick-knacks-became-great-art-matisse-studio-ra-review/