Henri Matisse. The red studio. 1911. Oil on canvas, 71 1/4″ x 7′ 2 1/4″ (181 x 219.1 cm). Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photo: © 2022 Estate of H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
by Henri Matisse the Red Workshop is one of the most magnificent stars of all modernism. Completed in 1911, it depicts the sanctuary of his studio in the suburbs of Paris. It’s a miracle in red, a coral-colored planet, its flat, near-monochrome treatment has become a mainstay of contemporary art. In this walled garden, we see decorative ceramics, drawing tools, a leafy nasturtium, an empty wine glass, vases and a grandfather clock without hands because, of course, time ceases to exist when the artists are in creative flow. Red Workshop reminds us that a studio is part laboratory, part storm shelter, part personal cathedral, part nursery of stars where bright things are formed by unknown forces and internal pressures.
The studio is filled with paintings stacked in rows and hung haphazardly. Art lovers will spot a handful of masterpieces on the walls. If this painting were turned into a small museum, it would be one of the best of early modernism. That’s what MoMA has attempted to achieve in a delightful, compact exhibition that features not only Matisse’s revelation in red, but also six paintings depicted in Red Workshop, three sculptures and a magnificent ceramic plate. You look around at this reunion of art history and a world long gone becomes young again. It goes off inside you like a depth charge.
“Matisse: The Red Studio” does a lot in a small space and reminds us that blockbusters can come in small packages – in this case, two major art galleries. (But don’t miss the short conservation video for this painting. It’s a lesson in conservation care and discovery.) In this concise show, we can reflect longer, linger, make connections, see how a work could develop. another without feeling overwhelmed, overwhelmed by the number and exhausted at the end. More institutions should consider this scale, the scale at which the work was done. We see how, in an incredibly condensed lapse of time, an artist can cross universes and land in unexpected places. We see an artist not only inventing and reinventing himself, but also reinventing the history of art. In these small spaces, you can almost hear those mighty engines roar.
First the nudes, once considered ugly. You can see why. Nothing like it had ever existed before. Matisse modeled the form to follow the imagination of an artist, imbued with the radicalism of African sculpture and its elongated bodies. It is on fire with the way the recently deceased Cézanne transformed figures into curvy ribs with arms and legs. It is the aesthetic cyclotron that Matisse spins in these few works. Here’s what the real-time change looks like.
Here it is in the very small terracotta of 1906-1907 Nude Standing Arched Back (the job I would most like to own if our cat didn’t surely destroy it). She is reminiscent of something voluptuous Neolithic, a fundamental female form, but she is also about to fly apart and into space. The same historical continuum is in Young Sailor II, a 1906 portrait of a boy in a chair in a peach-colored room. At first it looks like a folk painting. Take a closer look: the pictorial sophistication is off the charts. We see a figure turning towards us and away from us at the same time, relaxed but ready to pounce, seen from below and above simultaneously. He touches his thigh, puts his elbow on the invisible back of the chair and looks at us casually. We belong to him—and to Matisse.
There’s no evidence to support this, but I like the flared, blatant Nude with a white scarf (1909) is taken almost directly from the second nude to the left of Pablo Picasso’s painting The Ladies of Avignon, finished two years ago. Picasso’s arched leg and knee are there, as is the arm raised above the head to fully expose the breasts and twisted torso. The biggest difference is that Picasso’s wife seems caught between lying down and standing up, while Matisse leans her back and makes her living flesh, not an angular monster.
Yet you see an artist turning away from the “real” world of space, structure, color, narrative, surface and composition – an artist in search of new beauty, ready for anything risk. ‘Matisse: The Red Studio’ shows us an artist imagining works he had already created and breathing a second life into them, a metaphor for how all artists’ work grows from what they have done or seen before. Matisse was 42 when he finished the Red Workshop, approaching one of the many peaks of its optical capabilities. But Sergei Shchukin, the Russian collector who commissioned the painting from two others, didn’t see it that way, dismissing its strange spatial architecture out of hand. The MoMA exhibits a plaintive letter written by Matisse in which he states: “Painting is surprising at first sight. It is obviously new. ” In vain. Shchukin quickly refuses it again, continuing to write about the weather in Moscow.
He just couldn’t to see this. The point of view of Red Workshop was not the “Japonisme” of Impressionism, or the visual changes of Cézanne, or the 360 degree vision of Cubism – it was utterly foreign, the product of years of brutal experimentation. I’m not sure we recognize how revolutionary and “obviously new” this painting is even today.
Matisse was the avant-garde master of Fauvism, the derogatory name (of wild animals, meaning “wild beasts”) given by critics disturbed by the abstract forms, the destabilized spaces and the juicy painting of the movement. This all started to change when the older Frenchman visited Picasso’s studio. There he saw the wrecking ball fired over the bow of the western painting known as the The Ladies of Avignon. Matisse knew that with this painting, the aesthetic earth had shifted on its axis and he had to react immediately.
Their rivalry was one of the most productive and heartbreaking concessions in art history. Picasso was a total madman whose Oedipal wars with older artists never ended, and he could produce so much so quickly that he did most of the takes, while Matisse kept pace, following his own path and redefining what painting could be. This beautiful duel set off many atomic bombs of art: From Matisse alone, Portrait of Miss Yvonne Landsberg, View of Notre Dame, Bathers with a turtle, Dance (I), not to mention the four huge, almost Mesopotamian bronze-backed sculptures. At first, Paris was under the spell. Soon, however, the parties were taken and Matisse was found wanting.
In 1913, art students burned the work of Matisse in effigy, whose The Luxury II. Gertrude and Leo Stein, patrons masking the tastes of the Parisian scene, bought fewer Matisses and dubbed Picasso, who accused Cubism of wanting “to ensure that nothing was ever decorative again”. He meant Matisse. In Apollinaire’s sympathetic words, Matisse was “one of today’s most maligned painters”. Critics attacked him as old, tame, retired. After Matisse generously introduced Chtchoukine to Picasso, the Russian became an avid collector of the Spaniard. Soon after, Shchukin rejected two of Matisse’s greatest paintings, Dance (II) and Music — before changing his mind, this time.
In 1917, Matisse definitively left the Parisian fray for the south of France. Here’s the setting for his next incredible paint campaign. A work that always makes me cry seems to be the cornerstone of his stay in Paris: Interior with a violin, 1918. We see a bedroom with an open wooden shutter. It blows in beautiful light, a view of the Mediterranean and a glimpse of a palm leaf. To the left of the window is an armchair. Forget Picasso’s fractured guitars – here’s a violin in an open case. We feel Matisse breathing new air, about to take the instrument away and play it, far from the Parisian rat race, alone again, about to perform a new type of visual music that will arrive with its odalisques.
Let’s look now the Red workshop. Here is a heartbreakingly simple origami, establishing new geometric orders that insist that the highly abstract world within its painting is a real world, imaginary or not. Originally, this painting was not the blazing sunspot it is now. The floor was pink, the walls blue and the furniture ochre. There were narrow slats which could indicate wooden panels. Matisse abandoned this approach in search of a new dimensionality unlike anything painted at the time. It created the unifying field of color which, as painter Carroll Dunham put it, “removed a lot of static variables and established a space, a surface and a frame in which to go crazy.” The resulting workshop is both illusionistic and tangible, rational and insane, almost like a cave painting.
Quite flat ground recedes here, advances there. On the left is a tantalizing glimpse of blue outside a window. There are corners but no shadows, and the objects are as stable as Cézanne’s apples on tilted tables, but vibrate a little. Matisse’s lines are faint, almost non-existent, etched into the blank areas with smudge tools. You become ultra-aware of each mark and move to the surface. You can almost piece together how this work came about, what sits above what. He reveals all his pictorial traces. It also puts you in the mind of the artist. It’s weird but amazing and it feels really smart to be able to see this genius work like a real pro.
Matisse is no better than Picasso or vice versa. But Matisse is the opposite of Picasso. His compositions do not fit within the boundaries of painting, as those of Picasso always do. Elbows bleed on the edges of a Matisse. Sinuous lines disappear and then reappear on the canvas, as if the surface were folded like a curtain but forever inexorably flat. The “obviously new” reality that the Paris of that time rejected is contained in the space and the place that The Red Workshop. Here is a room, a home away from home, where beginnings happen, where ground falls, walls dissolve, time passes and we see new ways of seeing, feeling and knowing the world.