Just when the incoherent presentation of the permanent collection or the less than exhilarating installation in the garden prompts thoughts that the Museum of Modern Art is in league with the devil, the museum uncorks something wonderful. Witness the recent brilliant survey of Paul Cézanne’s drawings and watercolors or the revealing overview of the self-taught artist Joseph E. Yoakum. Now, there’s the dazzling “Matisse: The Red Studio,” a meticulous study of one of the most celebrated and influential works in the museum’s collection—indeed, in the history of modernism: Henri Matisse’s 1911 view of his studio, at once a tally of his achievements to date and a harbinger of things to come.1 Organized by Ann Temkin, moma’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, and Dorthe Aagesen, the chief curator at the National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, the show assembles paintings, sculptures, drawings, and documentary material to illuminate the painting’s evolution, its place within Matisse’s oeuvre, the specifics of its imagery, and the history of its exhibition and ownership before it was acquired by moma, along with the fascinating results of recent technical examination. Surprisingly, given the fame and importance of The Red Studio, it has never before received such concentrated attention.
We begin with the painting itself, familiar and yet endlessly fresh, with its account of the paintings, sculptures, furniture, and domestic objects to be found in the generous skylit studio that Matisse had recently had built near his home in Issy-les-Moulineaux. We savor the expanse of resonant, not quite Venetian red, check off the representations of works we know well, and puzzle over less familiar ones. We note the complex interplay of drawing and planes of color, as well as the even more complex (and tedious to describe) relationship of like and unlike elements, and much else. It’s always exciting to spend time with The Red Studio, but now the elegant, ample moma installation surrounds us with the actual paintings, sculptures, and the ceramic plate we know so well from their “portraits” in the picture, each presented individually but in close enough proximity that we can compare the real thing with its representation as we contemplate it for its individual merits. (Three of the depicted canvases belong to the National Gallery of Denmark.) It’s an art historian’s dream come true—the first time all these works have been together since 1927, when The Red Studio was sold to a private collector.
Matisse explored the studio theme throughout his working life, starting in 1895, when he was twenty-five, with a view of his teacher Gustave Moreau’s atelier showing his fellow students seated at their easels, dwarfed by a nude model stretching the full height of the canvas and a large sculpture. That standing nude and the sculpture dominate the painting, and their coexistence announces Matisse’s persistent fascination with the relationship of direct experience and the mediated image—an idea that preoccupied him over many years and sparked some of his most compelling investigations of the studio motif. It informs Studio Under the Eaves (1901–02, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, U.K.), an attic room sparsely provided with a small table, a wooden chest, and an easel set before a window, all rendered in richly varied non-colors that somehow evoke a spill of light. The easel becomes anthropomorphic, reaching forward to hold the canvas at an angle, as if taking the place of the standing nude in the painting of Moreau’s atelier. That type of substitution proves characteristic of many of Matisse’s later explorations of the theme, including The Red Studio. In most of these works, paintings and sculptures of the figure are itemized, but no living model is included. Did working from a human body already translated into a work of art allow for more experimentation? Hard to say, since there’s nothing inhibited about Matisse’s images made from observation. What is unquestionable is that the readily recognizable paintings and sculptures in the studio canvases tell us that Matisse was not simply responding to the visual stimuli of his surroundings, but also taking inventory, surveying what he had achieved to date, perhaps concentrating on the works that satisfied most.
At moma, the presence of the actual works catalogued in The Red Studio allows us to track Matisse’s path from 1898 to 1911, while the proximity of the real thing to the fictive image sharpens our perception of both. The earliest canvas, Corsica, the Old Mill (1898, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne), is a small landscape, painted during the early months of Matisse’s marriage during his first stay in the south, in Ajaccio, Corsica. Schematically conjured up in The Red Studio, placed casually on the floor, leaning against a stack of pictures, the little painting is easy to overlook in the large composition, but it turns out to be a knockout. Near-Impressionist spotting and dotting and strong chromatic contrasts testify to Matisse’s excitement at intense light and heightened color. As rendered in The Red Studio, the broken hues of Corsica, the Old Mill become broad planes of blue sky, yellow ground, and purple architecture, made identifiable by the emphatic trees that punctuate the painting. Such simplification is characteristic of all the depicted canvases in The Red Studio, at once a response to the compositional demands of the intricately organized large picture and evidence of Matisse’s increasingly economical way of alluding to form.
Economy characterizes The Young Sailor (II) (1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In actuality, the bold image of the seated boy, in green trousers and a Prussian blue cap and jersey, is a sinuous silhouette, almost as pared-down as its representation in The Red Studio. The offhand nudes and sketchy landscape of the depicted Bathers (1907, National Gallery of Denmark), shown leaning against the chest of drawers, are rendered with similar intensity and clarity. It’s a surprise to discover that, in the case of the latter, the actual painting is much more sketchy and loosely brushed than its replica. But we soon realize that in the depicted versions of both The Young Sailor (II) and Bathers, Matisse places as much emphasis on the color of background and figures as he does on shape. We are seduced by the range of assertive pinks that unite the represented paintings, varied notes of marzipan, salmon, rose, and magenta that move us around The Red Studio, reinforcing the syncopated grid created by the rectangles, outlined and solid, of the studio furniture and the art on the walls. Primed by this orchestration of color, we focus on the hot pink ground and spotted blue flowers surrounding a reclining nude on the left side of The Red Studio and look for its actual version. But it’s not there. We find related drawings from 1911 and photographs showing the work in the Issy-les-Moulineaux studio, but we learn that though Matisse kept the painting for the rest of his life, he never considered it resolved and specified that it be destroyed after his death.
Perhaps the best-known painting replicated in The Red Studio is Le Luxe (II) (1907–08, National Gallery of Denmark), with its tall standing nude, its crouching figure drying the standing woman’s foot, and its third nude rushing in with a bouquet, the three women set against a vast, schematic landscape. At once an image of a modern Arcadia and an homage to Paul Cézanne’s bathers, Le Luxe (II) belongs to the lineage of such works as moma’s well-known ring of dancers, a study for the final version that Matisse painted in 1909–10 for his Russian patron Sergei Shchukin—compositions distinguished by the way in which the bodily mass and position in space of expressive figures are distilled into flat, eloquent, clean-edged shapes. We become increasingly aware that all the forms in the wall-hung paintings in The Red Studio—Nude with a White Scarf (1909, National Gallery of Denmark), Cyclamen (1911, private collection), The Young Sailor (II), and Le Luxe (II)—are engaged in a call and response, while their delicious pinks and greens add grace notes. It’s worth noting, if we’re wondering why Matisse included what he did in his “autobiographical” red painting, that he thought well enough of all these paintings to have loaned them, along with The Red Studio itself, to the “Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition” organized by Roger Fry for London’s Grafton Galleries in 1912. (The following year, the organizers of the 1913 “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” known as the “Armory Show,” who consulted Fry, included The Red Studio, The Young Sailor (II), and Le Luxe (II) among the generous selection of Matisse’s work in the legendary exhibition.)
The moma installation also presents us with the original ceramic plate with the blue drawing of a curled-up female nude, so visible in the foreground of The Red Studio, the result of a collaboration between Matisse and the ceramist André Matthey in 1907. In the painting, the spiraling drawing rhymes with the nasturtiums trailing from a nearby vase to embrace a small ochre-colored sculpture of a nude with raised arms, the terracotta Upright Nude with Arched Back (1906–07, private collection), made in Collioure. Cast in bronze only in 1958, four years after the artist’s death, under the supervision of Matisse’s sculptor son Jean, the original was thought to have been lost. But the little sculpture now on view at moma, arms broken off at the elbow, is the work shown in the painting, part of a group of small terracottas found in a recent inventory of Jean Matisse’s own works and tools. Bronze casts of The Red Studio’s two other sculptures, Decorative Figure (1908, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto), the female nude balletically poised against a block, and the head Jeanette (IV) (1911, cast 1912, Fondation Beyler, Reihen/Basel)—in plaster in The Red Studio—complete the collection. We become aware of how much more delicate Decorative Figure appears to be in the painting than in reality, as if prefiguring its more slender, more upright variant, La Serpentine, made a year later. We note, by contrast, that the white plaster Jeanette (IV) shown on canvas seems more robust and assertive than the actual dark bronze. And we enjoy, again, the exchange between the painted forms of the women in Le Luxe (II), shown hanging above Decorative Figure and the plaster Jeanette (IV), and the suave volumes of the fictive sculptures. The S-curves of the depicted Young Sailor (II) join the conversation, as does a swollen vase placed on the floor.
The heady pleasure of seeing The Red Studio brought to life is enriched by a gallery devoted to the particulars of the studio building in Issy-les-Moulineaux and the history of the painting before its acquisition by moma in 1949. We learn that construction of the building, made possible by the patronage of Matisse’s Russian collectors, Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, was entrusted to a firm that made prefabricated structures, mainly for the military, and was customized according to the artist’s specifications with a skylight, a north-facing windowed wall, a storage area, and other useful modifications. Archival material and photographs help us envision the building, with its walls lined with narrow slats and a wooden floor, so that we will recognize even fleeting references to the workspace in Matisse’s paintings. We learn that he intended The Red Studio for Shchukin, who had requested another large picture to accompany Harmony in Red (The Red Room) (1908, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)—a dining table with a woman arranging fruit, beside an open window, the whole devoured by a red textile patterned with florid blue arabesques. Shchukin had recently acquired The Pink Studio (1911, State Pushkin Museum, Moscow), a relatively naturalistic view of the new building, with a warm rose floor and pale pink, vertically striated walls, which presents many of the works recorded in The Red Studio and more, including a sliver of La Danse (I), a large plaster cast of a classical sculpture in the Louvre, and a flowered screen draped with a dark blue cloth with pink floral swirls. As he would in The Red Studio, Matisse populated The Pink Studio with his work of the past five years, emphasizing multiple depictions of the human figure already transformed into paintings, drawings, and sculpture, as if showing Shchukin what his patronage had made possible.
Its kinship with The Pink Studio notwithstanding, The Red Studio seems to have been too daring even for the adventurous Shchukin, who rejected it, claiming he had come to prefer Matisse’s figure paintings. Despite being seen at the Grafton Galleries and the Armory Show, The Red Studio remained unsold until 1927, when it was purchased, improbably enough, by the wealthy young British aristocrat David Tennant, the founder of the Gargoyle Club, a fashionable social club/nightclub/vanguard watering hole designed to bring the rich, aristocratic, and politically powerful together with impoverished artists and writers. Tantalizing photographs document The Red Studio’s sojourn as decor in the ballroom of the Gargoyle Club, a period during which it was apparently never exhibited anywhere else. In 1928, the nightclub also acquired Studio, Quai Saint-Michel (1916–17), now in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., a view of the Paris apartment the Matisses occupied during World War I. At moma, Studio, Quai Saint-Michel and several other later key works demonstrate the persistence of both the studio motif and the surrogate figure. Witness Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance” (I) (1912, Metropolitan Museum of Art), a fragment of the Issy-les-Moulineaux studio, with the painted dancers providing human presence. Large Red Interior (1948, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris) reprises The Red Studio in many ways, with its declaratively flat ground plane of cadmium red, outlined furniture, bouquets of flowers, and, on the wall, a large black-and-white drawing of an interior and the well-known painting of a pineapple on a spindly-legged table.
An informative and absorbing video reveals the results of the technical examination of The Red Studio undertaken in preparation for exhibition. That uncompromising plane of not quite Venetian red proves to have been a late decision, carefully applied over a completely dry, less radical version of the painting that seems to have resembled The Pink Studio, with its pale, striated walls. (It’s not unprecedented. Harmony in Red, the large domestic interior that Shchukin owned, began as a blue painting.) This compelling information confirms what close study of The Red Studio has always suggested: that the outlines of the furniture in The Red Studio are revelations, not impositions. Alerted to the layering by the video, we now see glimpses of other, preexisting colors within the reserved drawing and realize that the figures in the depiction of Le Luxe (I) have been overpainted in red as well. Our awareness of the evolution of The Red Studio enriched, we return with fresh eyes to the first gallery and revel in the painting, amid the constellation of works that it includes. And when we leave this once-in-a-lifetime gathering, there’s the consolation of an exemplary, copiously illustrated catalogue with wide-ranging essays by the curators and other experts, including the museum’s conservation staff. Many of the color reproductions are too hot, but the book is so full of terrific information about every conceivable aspect of the painting, plus reprints of three interviews with Matisse from 1912 and 1913, that it doesn’t matter.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 50
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