‘Small, but perfectly formed’ is a good description of virtually any exhibition held in the Sackler Galleries. Matisse in the Studio is the perfect example of just how the right number of pictures and objects in four rooms make a cohesive and containable show by telling stories. After the Introduction, the exhibition divides into five main themes: The Object is an Actor; The Nude; The Face; The Studio as Theatre; The Language of Signs. In the first section, he stated ‘A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.’ And so they do. A green Andalusian blown glass vase appears in a number of works. Two silver chocolatières reappear in an even larger number of drawings and paintings, featuring as a vase for a bouquet of flowers. A rocaille chair; a decorative Venetian Rococo seat of swirling, reptilian shapes, cockle shell-like back and seat and carved rock-like legs, became a great favourite of his, using it as a base on which to place fruit and flowers. In an almost childlike way, he talks about it as being splendid. ‘I am bowled over by it. I am obsessed with it.’ None of his objects was particularly valuable, yet they meant the world to him. He started buying African sculpture in 1908 from a dealer in Paris, and thus began a lifelong fascination with art from non-Western cultures, along with Picasso, to whom Matisse showed a mask from the Dan region of Africa, purchased from Emile Heymann’s shop of non-Western artifacts in Paris. He believed that African art showed him ‘a freedom of expression and revealed a truer, more essential character beneath the superficial existence of beings and things.’ Picasso was a great friend, but also a rival, and they both shared an obsession with the simplicity of African art.
Matisse used both sculpture and photography as influences for his nudes, including Bamana figures from Mali and statues from Thailand, along with African masks that he owned. By simplifying his sitters, he believed he was able to portray a more truthful version. Examples of this approach is seen in the heads of Jeannette, which shifted over the years from the representational to the abstract, the last one, with bulbous forehead and large eye sockets, similar to a Mbom mask from the Congo which he acquired after he had finished the series and demonstrates the complex relationship he had with his objects. Fashionable at the time were depictions of ‘odalisques’; concubines in a harem, with an emphasis on the exotic fabrics, wall-hangings, clothing and furniture from the world of Islam. He focused on the pattern and the object, and, in the case of Odalisque on a Turkish Chair, he diminishes the role of the female model. He seemed to be very attached to his collection of objects, in spite of detesting collectors and collections in early life, when he could only afford fragments of ‘faience’ and tapestry.When he finally accepted the fact that he was ‘a bit of a collector’ himself and an extension of his work, he collaborated with Hélène Adant, a cousin of his studio assistant, to make an inventory and document his objects. On the back of one photograph taken by her, he wrote ‘Objects that have been of use to me all my life’. This was in 1946, eight years before he died. When he travelled to temporary studios, he asked his family that certain objects be moved from Paris to Nice, or wherever he was working.
In later life, after he had an operation for stomach cancer, his movement was impaired, but his creativity was marked by a simplification in his approach to his work, paring down influences from Chinese objects and African textiles. These became known as his ‘cut-outs’; a gloriously rich and defining body of work, where he juxtaposed abstract shapes on flat colour backgrounds. ‘I have attained a form filtered to the essential . . . and of the object which I used to present in the complexity of its space, I have preserved the sign, which suffices.’ Many artists, and art students, have tried to distill what makes a Matisse so quintessentially alluring and seductive, but no-one has yet come up with the formula. Take any one of those startling oils, like Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table, or Purple Robe with Anenomes, or Yellow Odalisque, or any number of life-enriching paintings, and one realises that he was, and still is, in a class of his own. In a word, “unique”.
Royal Academy Sackler Galleries
Until 12 November 2017