The knick-knacks that be­came great art — Matisse in the Stu­dio

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CUL­TURE - By ALAS­TAIR SOOKE

One day in 1942, a few months af­ter his re­cov­ery fol­low­ing a near-fa­tal op­er­a­tion for stom­ach can­cer, Henri Matisse fell in love.

By then in his sev­en­ties, he was pass­ing an an­tique shop in Nice, when he ex­pe­ri­enced what his coun­try­men call a “coup de foudre”, or thun­der­bolt — love at first sight.

The ob­ject of his af­fec­tions, though, wasn’t a woman. It was a chair.

“I was bowled over. It’s splen­did” he wrote to his friend, the Sur­re­al­ist poet Louis Aragon. “I’m ob­sessed with it.”

Here it is, in the first sec­tion of Matisse in the Stu­dio, a fas­ci­nat­ing new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Royal Academy of Arts. Frankly, it’s mon­strous: a 19th-cen­tury im­i­ta­tion of a piece of Vene­tian Ro­coco flum­mery, with a seat and back shaped like cockle shells, arms carved to re­sem­ble men­ac­ing fanged sea crea­tures, and rough-hewn legs that look like they have lan­guished for an eter­nity on the ocean floor.

If ever we re­quired con­fir­ma­tion that love moves in mys­te­ri­ous ways, this is proof. Aragon called it a “gigolo”. But, in a se­ries of draw­ings and paint­ings dis­played along­side, we see how Matisse, wiz­ard-like, turned it into some­thing strangely beau­ti­ful.

The cul­mi­na­tion of his “ob­ses­sion” was Ro­caille Chair (1946), an im­por­tant late oil paint­ing. Gone are the flounces and tex­tures of the orig­i­nal. In their place are rapid, lam­bent brush­work, and a dra­matic crop that em­pha­sises the chair’s volup­tuous­ness, mak­ing its curves bulge against the pic­ture’s edges. Its danc­ing vis­ual rhythm im­bues an inan­i­mate ob­ject with the charisma of a liv­ing per­son. The trans­for­ma­tion is as­ton­ish­ing.

There are many spell­bind­ing mo­ments like this in Matisse in the Stu­dio, which dis­plays around 35 ob­jects once owned by the artist along­side 65 paint­ings, sculp­tures, draw­ings, prints, and cut-outs.

Through­out his life, Matisse had an ex­traor­di­nar­ily sen­si­tive, even sen­su­ous re­la­tion­ship with the world of things. The ob­jects he col­lected — African masks and fig­urines, Chi­nese porce­lain, a glass vase from An­dalu­sia, pewter jugs and sil­ver cof­fee pots — weren’t nec­es­sar­ily pre­cious, in a mon­e­tary sense.

Rather, Matisse val­ued them for their fetish-like hold over him, which in­spired him to work. When­ever he moved stu­dio, he packed his mot­ley col­lec­tion of ob­jects, which he called his “work­ing li­brary”.

In a black-and-white pic­ture re­pro­duced at the start of the ex­hi­bi­tion, they are grouped to­gether, like chil­dren in a school pho­to­graph. Matisse wrote on the re­verse of the orig­i­nal, which was taken in 1946, “Ob­jects which have been of use to me nearly all my life.”

Five years later, he ex­panded on their im­por­tance: “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.”

In a sense, this new show is a se­quel to an­other scin­til­lat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, staged 12 years ago at the RA, which ex­plored the im­por­tance of tex­tiles in Matisse’s work.

The risk is that it could end up look­ing like a mess, an in­co­her­ent jum­ble sale of bric-a-brac re­sem­bling one of those flea mar­kets that are so com­mon in small French towns.

Thank­fully, cu­ra­tor Ann Du­mas, who was also re­spon­si­ble for Matisse: His Art and His Tex­tiles, mar­shals her ma­te­rial with deft skill. The first sec­tion sets out her ar­gu­ment with clar­ity, by jux­ta­pos­ing in­di­vid­ual ob­jects with works of art that they in­spired di­rectly. This is where we find the Vene­tian chair, as well as the vase from An­dalu­sia. At once, we sense what drew Matisse to the lat­ter, an ap­peal­ing blown-glass arte­fact with a win­ning, wonky charm. Thanks to its lop-sid­ed­ness, it has an un­mis­tak­ably an­thro­po­mor­phic qual­ity, arms rest­ing on plump hips.

Nearby, a pair of sil­ver cof­fee pots re­veals the ex­tent to which Matisse could trans­form un­re­mark­able ob­jects. In the mar­vel­lous Still Life with Seashell on Black Mar­ble (1940), above, he turned one of them into a fiery be­ing, with a pri­apic han­dle, seem­ingly aflame for the the lus­cious pink shell, re­clin­ing like a naked fe­male model, to its right.

Later sec­tions, struc­tured ac­cord­ing to theme, move be­yond in­di­vid­ual case stud­ies. The next gallery, for in­stance, fo­cuses on Matisse’s in­fat­u­a­tion with African sculp­ture, which he started col­lect­ing around 1906, when there was barely any mar­ket for it.

To­day, we might ac­cuse Matisse of colo­nial­ism: he dis­re­garded the orig­i­nal con­text of the pieces that he bought. Rather, he was in­ter­ested in raid­ing them for vis­ual ideas: African art pro­foundly in­formed his rad­i­cal re­mod­elling of the fe­male nude.

Through­out, though, the show’s most sat­is­fy­ing mo­ments are those which fur­nish us with di­rect links. For in­stance, Matisse owned a Ro­man mar­ble fe­male torso, which in­spired his blue-and-white Forms, one of the plates in his il­lus­trated book Jazz (1947).

Both works, an­cient and modern, are sexy; an in­ge­niously po­si­tioned mir­ror re­veals how closely Matisse fol­lowed the lux­u­ri­ous curve of the torso’s back­side. Yet, while the Ro­man piece is pit­ted and frag­men­tary, Matisse’s im­age is a vi­sion of sleek sim­plic­ity.

In the fi­nal gallery, we find a lac­quered wood Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy panel, given to Matisse by his wife, Amélie, for his 60th birthday, dis­played above a se­lec­tion of his pa­per cut-outs — much like it was in his stu­dio in Nice. The panel wasn’t in­cluded in Tate Modern’s 2014 ex­hi­bi­tion of Matisse’s cut-outs, and see­ing it here comes as a rev­e­la­tion: I had never re­flected, prop­erly, on the now blind­ingly ob­vi­ous for­mal cor­re­spon­dence be­tween his un­du­lat­ing cut-out mo­tifs and the ser­pen­tine flow of Chi­nese char­ac­ters. Ex­tra­or­di­nary.

Matisse in the Stu­dio is no block­buster: not all the art­works are mas­ter­pieces, by any means. That said, I adore Red In­te­rior: Still Life on a Blue Ta­ble (1947), in the fi­nal room. Some­one, some­where, should de­vote an en­tire ex­hi­bi­tion to the un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated se­ries of late in­te­ri­ors to which this joy­ously un­in­hib­ited paint­ing be­longs. Its deliri­ous black zig-zags were in­spired by the “in­stinc­tive ge­om­e­try”, as Matisse put it, of Kuba cloths in his own col­lec­tion — sev­eral ex­am­ples of which hang above it at the RA.

Ul­ti­mately, this show isn’t im­por­tant be­cause it cre­ates the il­lu­sion of prox­im­ity to Matisse the man, by pre­sent­ing us with the knick-knacks with which he sur­rounded him­self. Its strength lies in its in­ter­ro­ga­tion of the cre­ative process. The thing about artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion is that it is in­fin­itely sub­tle and com­plex — about as easy to grasp as smoke. Matisse in the Stu­dio comes as close as any ex­hi­bi­tion could to bot­tling the essence of the artist’s cre­ativ­ity.

Un­til Nov 12; in­for­ma­tion: 020 7300 8000; roy­ala­cademy.org.uk

(1946); Still Life with Seashell on Black Mar­ble (1940).

©SUC­CES­SION H. MATISSE / DACS 2017

From left: Ro­caille Chair

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