What a lovely idea, matching artists’ possessions with their starring roles in paintings and sculpture! That’s what you’ll find at Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts in the Sackler Wing until 12 November 2017.
The three rectangular spaces of the Sackler Wing are divided into six areas covering different periods of Henri Matisse’s life and work. Art works by Matisse – paintings and sculptures and maquettes for his design work – are displayed in close proximity to furniture and domestic objects that feature in them or inspired his approach. You can find out more, and see some photographs of the exhibits, here.
Not only does the exhibition give us “a rare glimpse into the artist’s personal collection, as well as the paintings, sculptures and drawings it inspired” but it also provides a great overview of Matisse and his style as it developed over his lifetime. Especially useful for someone like me to whom Matisse was just a name.
A unifying feature of the exhibition is colour. The wild colour from his earlier works suggested even to me that he was probably one of the “Fauves”, or wild things, of the early twentieth century – that knowledge comes from a novel I read way back when, not from art history where linking Matisse and fauvism is a slam dunk. The colour continues right to the bright contrasting tones of his later cut-outs, a way of creating art when he could no longer paint like he used to. And, in the middle of all of this, sculpture, which I did not know he did and which, truth be told, introduces a solid ballast of black.
The two earliest rooms contain mostly domestic items: chairs, tables, ewers and chocolate pots or chocolatiers. The latter with their bulbous silver bodies and wooden handles seem a comfortably bourgeois object for an artist to use. Seeing two examples of chocolatiers next to paintings containing them delighted me. The way Matisse used them and distorted their shapes slightly and played with the light, was interesting.
There was a Venetian chair with both its back and seat made in the shape of a clam-like shell and arms shaped like fish, or maybe dolphin, heads. It made me smile and then so did seeing the chair represented in the painting.
Odalisque in Yellow Robe from 1937 shows a woman with brown curls and wearing a green skirt and pale green blouse under a long yellow and purple or brown striped robe. She is seated next to an octagonal table decorated in yellow flowers on a blue background and a grey jug filled with flowers and with a curved pattern on its bulbous body. The real life objects sit next to the painting. The table, made by an Algerian craftsman, is more turquoise than in the painting. The ewer from Northern France is made from pewter. Its top section is a straight column but its lower section seems to be made of half tubes of metal their concave side on the outside, which is conveyed by simple curved lines on the painting. They are exquisite pieces.
As you move through the rest of the exhibition, you see examples of more exotic articles: African masks, Islamic art on furniture and drapery. The curators say “seen together, they reveal how Matisse’s masterful vision of rich and masterful energy first stemmed from the collage of patterns and rhythms which he found in the world of objects.” However, even they, in their wall panels qualify that, suggesting that Matisse had a vision and that these articles and the examples of decorative arts from around the world helped him to develop the vision and make it more concrete.
In the sculpture section, The Serpentine, modelled in 1909 and cast in 1948, is shown next to a picture of a plump white-skinned nude as an influence. The Serpentine does stand like the woman in the picture but Matisse has extended the length of the legs, body and pedestal, making the sculpture thin, the torso almost square in cross section. I’d be interested in knowing why he did that. Also, I noticed that many of the sculptures had similar dates, including those of his wife and daughter but no explanation as to why so many modelled early in the century and not cast until its middle. I wonder why.
The relationship between Matisse’s art and items that inspired or influenced it is also demonstrated in an oil on canvass painting, Standing Nude 1906/7. Next to the painting is a much smaller photograph of a young woman in the same pose, although her hair, curls or her hair up looks like artifice in the context of the picture. The painting shows the influence of the African masks and sculptures that Matisse was collecting and studying. The body and the face are much more angular than the in the photograph although strangely in the face it doesn’t seem as different, it just looks like a good way to capture the planes of the human face.
There are a couple of examples of African masks, like the Muyombi Mask from DR Congo. They are impressive objects using beads and shells to suggest beards. They reminded me of the piece by Gilbert and George RA in the Summer Exhibition in the galleries below.
There are several representations of his wife and of his daughter, Marguerite. He strove to create portraits that “suggest the deep gravity that persists in every human being.” Two portraits of Marguerite interested me. In 1906, he created a portrait that is quite bland really – a few brushstrokes make her almost a cartoon. In 1916, again with a black ribbon around her throat, he painted her with more colour, although still quite subdued, and the planes and shadows of her face create a sense of a great deal of character and determination.
In contrast to the 1906 portrait of Marguerite, where a few brushstrokes made the portrait more abstract, there was a painting from 1948 – “Large Mask” – it was about 6 or 7 brush marks of aquatint and it conveyed real character – a little coquetry and a quizzical look.
I did enjoy seeing the Islamic art. There was a screen and a piece of a material called a “haiti” and more furniture – a brazier and its tray in copper, brass and wood and an octagonal chair. The haiti shows an pattern of two arches filled with geometric patterns in soft greens and reds. The screen was brighter but still in the geometric style. They feature in many of his paintings of the period. In some ways it is hard to understand that what Matisse did, learning and drawing inspiration from these pieces was so amazing, because this sort of style is relatively accessible to us. However, he studied their features and took them into his art rather than simply representing them as exotic orientalism so I guess that what he did was different at the time he did it.
The final section demonstrates his “cut out period”. He cut out shapes and stuck them on the walls while he decided the exact composition to make of them. There is a photograph of a place he was staying, a quite ordinary room, where he did just that: the walls covered with sinuous shapes. He must have been a complete nightmare as a guest!
His work became quite abstract, perhaps influenced by Islamic art’s avoidance of depicting people. However, it is an abstraction that is intended to have meaning rather than leaving the meaning to the viewer, I think. There are algae, masks and people in the shapes.
So, that’s the exhibition.
The RA has made a particular point about keeping control of the number of visitors so that even Friends have to get a timed ticket and can’t just wander in as normal. I’m not entirely sure the exhibition space is that much harder to navigate than in any other exhibition. Maybe all exhibitions would benefit from that level of control. However, I’m wondering if I should say that too loudly – I like the freedom just to wander into an exhibition when I like and this experience might encourage them to change the rules for all exhibitions.
Anyway, while you are waiting for your timeslot, pop into the Second Nature: The Art of Charles Tunnicliffe RA in the Tenant Gallery, a small room right by the first floor access to the lift to the Sackler Galleries. This is free with your exhibition ticket. Charles Tunnicliffe was a wildlife illustrator and you’ll see examples of his etchings and engravings. They are truly beautiful – and one for those who are looking for “proper art”. Find out more here.