Henri Matisse’s large painting “L’Atelier rouge” (1911) is such a familiar icon of modern art that one wonders what there is left to say about it, even to notice. A lot, as evidenced by a case for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition surrounds the eponymous rendering of the artist’s studio with most of his eleven previous works which, in freehand copy, dot the uniform background of the painting in a powerful Venetian red. (Some of the original pieces are on loan from institutions in Europe and North America.) In addition, there are related later paintings, drawings and prints, as well as extensive documentary material. The whole, eloquently edited by curators Ann Temkin, of MOMAand Dorthe Aagesen, from the National Gallery of Denmark, immerse the viewer in the wonders of an artistic revolution that still resonates today.
Magnificent? Oh yeah. Aesthetic bliss saturates – radically, to a degree still likely to surprise when you stop to think about it – the means, the ends and the very soul of a style that was so ahead of its time that its full influence put decades to manifest. He did this decisively in the paintings of Mark Rothko and other American Abstract Expressionists in the years that followed. MOMAthe mid-century acquisition of “The Red Studio”, which had, until then, languished in obscurity. The works cited visually in the work – seven paintings, three sculptures and a decorated ceramic plate – cohabit with elements of furniture and still life. Outlines tend to be sketchily indicated by thin yellow lines. Part of a pale blue window stands out. But nothing disturbs the essential harmony of the composition, the details strike the eye at once, with a concerted crash.
There is no possibility of entering the corner space depicted, even by imagination. Only certain subtle contrasts of warm and cold hues, pushing and pulling the viewer’s gaze, suggest anything like painterly depth. Not for Matisse the retention of visually forward and backward forms, as in the contemporary Cubism of his towering enemy Picasso. (Who earns their agon for life? The question is moot. They are like boxing champions who cannot identify themselves because they are in separate rings.) in a grassy landscape – one of the paintings of “The Red Studio” whose original is on hand for the show – reads democratically. Rapid strokes jostle in a single, albeit crumpled, optical plane. See if not, as your gaze glides smoothly over black outlines among greenery, blue water and sky, and orange flesh.
In 1907, when Picasso painted his insurrectionary touchstone “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the Spaniard commented acerbically on Matisse’s revolutionary painting of the same year, “Nu bleu (Souvenir de Biskra)”: “If he wants make a wife, let him make her a wife. If he wants to draw a picture, let him draw a picture. In truth, Matisse did both at the same time, integrating the two primary functions of painting: illustration and decoration. “Blue Nude” is absent from “The Red Studio” and from this exhibition, but its spirit persists in the three sculptures presented, which extend, in the round, the pictorial touch of Matisse’s flat pictorial figuration. They almost equal, for me, the 20th century exploits in three dimensions of Brancusi and Giacometti.
The creation of “The Red Studio” came from a decorative commission from Moscow textile magnate Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, a preeminent collector of European innovations, from Impressionist to Post-Impressionist to some on which the paint was barely dry. . His possessions, seized by the Bolsheviks in 1918, are today the glories of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. They include an absolute stunner by Matisse, “The Conversation” (1908-12), which I encountered at the Hermitage in 1989. An ironic air of domestic comedy bends the commanding, intense blue and ravishing view from the floral window of the work. The artist, looking meek and upright in pajamas, confronts his seated wife, the fearsome Amélie, who I can’t help but imagine telling her to have her own breakfast. (Matisse is almost never witty, but a sort of spectral humor, evoking sheer audacity, runs through just about everything with his hand.) This image is also not in the current show, but she is tattooed in my memory.
Shchukin’s lavish patronage of Matisse, which began in 1906, relieved the artist and his family of years of penury. It enabled a move to a comfortable house in Issy-les-Moulineaux, six kilometers from Paris, and the construction there, in 1909, of the spacious studio which became the site and often the subject of almost all of the works of Matisse until he decamped to Nice. , in 1917. In January 1911, the collector requested a trio of paintings of the same size, each about six by seven feet, leaving their subject matter to Matisse. Shchukin acquired the first, the relatively quiet ‘Pink Studio’, but, after receiving a watercolor copy of what Matisse titled ‘Red Panel’, he politely declined the design.
Shchukin explained that he preferred images with people, ignoring the presence of many figures in the visual quotation of previous works, such as the very attractive “Young Sailor II” (1906), the original of which is loaned for the show from the Metropolitan Museum, and the violently audacious “Nude with White Scarf” (1909), provided by the National Gallery of Denmark. Or did even the indulgent and carefree Russian, though too tactful to say, balk at the molten energy of the image? Matisse remained singularly controversial in artistic circles at this time, even as Picasso’s supernatural drawing disarmed many.
Always called “Red Panel”, the work appeared in 1912 at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, in London, and the following year at the Armory Show, in New York and Chicago, but neither it nor anything another by Matisse has been sold. (In a Time interview with the artist in France, March 1913, critic Clara T. MacChesney bristles with condescending resistance to Matisse’s gracious comments, who strive to convey that he is a “normal” family man rather than the shaggy holy terror she had anticipated.) The painting then remained in the artist’s possession and out of public view until it was purchased, in 1927, as a posh trinket for a club Classy members-only social in London. After a period of private ownership, it was enthusiastically purchased by MOMAin 1949, just in time for its charismatic relevance to artists in New York and ultimately around the world.
In my opinion, there are three differently instructive failures among the works in this exhibition. “Le Luxe II” (1907-08) depicts three monumental nudes by the sea, strangely rendered in tempera (rabbit skin glue) rather than sensual oil, to a dryly static effect. But it was clearly worth a try for Matisse and takes his place in “The Red Studio”. Nostalgia may have motivated him to incorporate a small tacot, “La Corse, le vieux moulin”, painted in 1898, when he was twenty-eight, fresh out of art school and newly married. . Its conventional motif displays an unresolved mix of Post-Impressionist and nascent Fauvist techniques – a ticking time bomb, as it would turn out.
It took me a while to calm down on the impressive ‘Large Red Interior’ (1948), which closes the show as a bookend for ‘The Red Studio’. Wildly praised at the time by formalist critic Clement Greenberg, it is masterful, admittedly, with virtuosic depictions of previous images and numerous flowers in vases. But I find the work to be flawed by a quality – good taste – that Matisse sometimes risked but reliably avoided for most of his career. He feels involuntary— without passion, strictly professional. Shortly after completing this work, Matisse, still self-aware, put down his brushes, picked up a pair of scissors and began the sensational improvisations in cut-out colored paper that absorbed him until his death in 1954. Again, he found his way to an inner imperative that, with typical nonchalance, precipitated immortal outer consequences. ♦