‘Absolutely enthralling’: why Matisse’s Red Studio still packs a punch

The artist’s studio is their world. It’s among their most private places, and in Henri Matisse’s case, it’s as intimate a portrait as viewers can get of an artist who very rarely portrayed himself.

“The studio is the heart of the artist’s life,” says Ann Temkin, the Museum of Modern Art’s Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis chief curator of painting and sculpture. “It’s not just any interior. It’s the core of what they’ve made their world. When an artist chooses to make a work that’s about the studio, it’s almost by definition a work about art in a much broader way.”

That’s never truer than with Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911), a touchstone of MoMA’s collection since 1949. The ​​six-foot-tall and seven-foot-wide painting is, in a sense, itself a show that Matisse has put on in his workspace in the Parisian suburb Issy-les-Moulineaux, scattered with paintings, sculptures, decorative objects and furniture. Those all happen to be swaddled or smothered in a brick-like Venetian red that covers more than two-thirds of the canvas, a gesture that was almost revolutionary at a time when monochrome had not yet established itself in modern art.

That audacious spirit continues to speak to viewers today. “When you’re looking at a painting of a studio that also happens to be a really radical work in terms of its stylistic approach, people feel in their bones that here is an artist telling you, ‘Here’s who I am. This is my life. And by presenting it in what was at that time an almost indescribably experimental fashion, I’m demonstrating to you what creative courage is.’”

A new exhibition at MoMA reunites the landmark painting with its surviving 10 depicted artworks for the first time in more than a century. Matisse: The Red Studio includes never-before-seen archival photographs and letters alongside paintings and drawings that illuminate the picture’s origins and fascinating history, from its rejection by the Russian patron who commissioned it to its travels abroad (including a stint at a London nightclub) and eventual acquisition by MoMA.

This will be the first reconvening of the extant six paintings, three sculptures, and one ceramic since they were together under Matisse’s roof at the time The Red Studio was made. Dating from the previous 13 years, they range from groundbreaking paintings, such as Le Luxe II (1907–08), to lesser-known works, such as Corsica, The Old Mill (1898), to objects only recently rediscovered. The inspiration for MoMA’s arrangement of these came from Matisse’s many paintings of goldfish bowls from that period: “There’s no directionality, no beginning and end,” Temkin says. “Museumgoers can swim around the paintings and sculptures in this goldfish bowl.”

These works leave a predominant impression of an abundance of bodies – in poses languorous, reclining, and stretched, crouching, twisted, and curled. Indeed, Sergei Shchukin, the Moscow textile magnate who was then Matisse’s most important patron, preferred the figures in Matisse’s paintings, as he politely noted in a letter on view rejecting the finished Red Studio.

That marks the start of a surprising trajectory from relatively little-known painting to one of Matisse’s most celebrated, with one exhibition room devoted to the work’s biography and historical journey. “In this digital age in which the image can be reproduced endlessly, people have begun to forget that the painting is an object that has a life,” Temkin points out. “It’s not like works are born famous. It may be a few years, many decades, or centuries before it lands on the wall where viewers look at it. Those histories can be absolutely enthralling and unlikely.”

After Shchukin’s rejection, the work debuted on the international stage, where it was met with mostly derision. Matisse kept it in his possession and out of public view for 12 years until it found an unlikely home at the chic London hot spot the Gargoyle Club in the late 1920s and 30s. Only when it landed in New York in the mid 1940s did it finally find an enthusiastic reception in the art world.

“So many of the landmark works of modern art were despised or ignored for a long time,” explains Temkin. “A picture’s life takes form because of the places it goes and the people who get to see it. We want viewers to realize how contingent all of that is. Art history isn’t some clean line that happens in some predetermined direction. It’s all of these twists and turns and accidents and surprises. You could call it the history of taste or collecting. I have a feeling that even Matisse did not really fully understand The Red Studio for a long time.”

After the second world war, artists began making paintings that were flat, monochrome, and abstract and came to see Matisse’s picture as a model – one that didn’t show the typical foreground and background and eschewed conventional narrative or scenery. “The painting got reborn through the eyes of an artist like Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly,” Temkin says. “When people were looking at The Red Studio in 1911 or 1920 or even 1930, it looked like a red rectangle with these little spots of color in it, and they just couldn’t decipher it. But then artists went on to make even more radical things than that, with no references to any objects. Matisse’s painting somehow became understandable as the ancestor to that new abstract art.”

The exhibition also includes a conservation video with recent discoveries about the story of the mysterious painting’s creation. On close study, MoMA’s conservators discerned shades of blue, pink, and ochre peeking through the coat of red paint, in addition to trace drips of those colors at the painting’s edges. It turns out the original painting was closer in palette to the more naturalistic The Pink Studio, which Matisse had made for Shchukin earlier that year. The red, it appears, was applied in a fit of inspiration a month or more after the previous layers dried – Matisse apparently slathered on the red with such speed and vigor that paintbrush hairs were ripped out and caught in the paint.

In Matisse’s final years, he appeared to return to The Red Studio once again, in a sense. “The freedom and the liberation that he found with his late cutouts can be traced to the spirit of The Red Studio,” Temkin says. Matisse pinned these cutouts directly on to his walls, and the floating colored shapes and forms in effect replaced The Red Studio’s particular paintings. After all, that artwork “is almost just a space of the imagination. You don’t feel that you’re looking at a concrete room that actually exists – you don’t see the floor or the walls, a door, ceilings. That sense of boundlessness is exactly what he was doing with his cutouts in his studio at the end of his life.”

That blurring of art and life was a constant and fundamental piece of Matisse’s work. “This painting is extremely literal in portraying his workplace and its contents, but at the same time the picture is almost an imaginary universe,” Temkin says. “Matisse’s art is almost a philosophical art – what is art and what is so-called real life? That ambiguity is something he played with his entire life.”

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