London exhibitions: Matisse in the Studio

Matisse in the Studio
Royal Academy of Fine Arts
Until November 2017

A number of permanent and temporary exhibitions feature the studios of artists, providing insights into the way they work, the way they perceive the world and the environments in which they work. Among the more notable of these studios are Brett Whitley’s in Sydney, Cezanne’s in Aid-en-Province and Brancusi’s at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts in London recreates his studio, bringing together the artist's collection of personal objects, which were both subject matter and inspiration for his work. The exhibition features 35 of these objects, which are displayed alongside 65 of Matisse’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and cut-outs.

Matisse’s eclectic collection ranged from a Roman torso, African masks and Chinese porcelain to intricate North African textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries. He collected these objects primarily for their aesthetic appeal and, although not generally rare or the finest examples of the traditions to which they belonged, they were of profound significance to Matisse’s creative process.

The exhibition explores how Matisse continuously returned to his collection throughout his working life and how the objects were reconsidered, depending on the pictorial environment into which they were placed. In 1951 he said, “I have worked all my life before the same objects ... The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in 10 different plays; an object can play a role in 10 different pictures.”

The exhibition is arranged around five thematic sections – The Object is an Actor, The Nude, The Face, The Studio as Theatre and The Language of Signs.

The first of these, The Object is an Actor shows how Matisse used various objects from his collection to create a variety of still life works. There is a coffee pot, a jug, a vase, a North African painted table and an elaborately decorated chair incorporating shell shapes and marine forms which the artist was obsessed with. They are depicted as objects in the studio or on his work bench. In one drawing, not only do we see some of the objects but also a drawing of the piece of paper as well as the artist's own hand drawing the objects.

One can see the artist experimenting and wrestling with the objects, trying to make sense of them, which he then resolves in a major painting like Yellow Odalisque of 1937.

The Nude primarily focuses on Matisse’s collection of African sculptures and the ways in which these works led him to new ways of presenting the human figure, in much the same way that Picasso had been influenced by similar African sculpture. Works representing the nude from other cultural traditions were also important to Matisse, including ethnographic photographs, figurative sculptures from Mali, a Thai statuette as well as contemporary photographs.

The Face explores how he conveyed the character of his sitters without resorting to physical likeness, with the artist using motifs, which emphasised the simplification of human features, derived particularly from the African masks that he owned. In many cases, some of the sculptures the artist created turn up as objects in his paintings. His three “Jeanette” sculptures show how the artist moved from a realistic depiction of the face to a more cubist abstract approach.

The Studio as Theatre centres on the Nice interiors featuring reclining figures during the 1920s, in which Matisse increasingly relied on studio props from the Islamic world, such as North African furniture, wall hangings and Middle Eastern metalwork to create theatrical sets. With these works, he accentuated the patterns and designs of textiles to emphasise colour in his continuing search for an alternative to the western tradition of imitation, which is apparent in his The Moorish Screen (1921).

The final section, The Language of Signs, features Matisse’s late works and the inventive language of simplified signs in his cut-outs. Objects from his collection, including a Chinese calligraphy panel and African textiles, are exhibited alongside the artist’s cut-outs. These range from the simple figure eight shape of Propeller to the more complex Panel with Mask (1947).

The exhibition offers an intimate insight into Matisse’s studio life and artistic practice, exploring how the collage of patterns and rhythms, which he found in the world of objects, played a pivotal role in the development of his use and understanding of colour and form.