Henri Matisse’s large painting “The Red Studio” (1911) is so familiar an icon of modern art that you may wonder what remains to be said—or even noticed—about it. Quite a lot, as a jewel box of a show at the Museum of Modern Art proves. The exhibition surrounds the eponymous rendering of the artist’s studio with most of the eleven earlier works of his de him that, in freehand copy, pepper the painting’s uniform ground of potent 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, along with abundant documentary materials. The ensemble, eloquently mounted by the curators Ann Temkin, of MOMAand Dorthe Aagesen, of the National Gallery of Denmark, immerses a viewer in the marvels of an artistic revolution that resonates to this day.
Gorgeous? Oh yeah. Aesthetic bliss saturates—radically, to a degree still apt to startle when you pause to reflect on it—the means, ends, and very soul of a style that was so far ahead of its time that its full influence took decades to kick in. It did so decisively in paintings by Mark Rothko and other American Abstract Expressionists in the years after MOMA‘s mid-century acquisition of “The Red Studio,” which had, until then, languished in obscurity. The works that are visually quoted in the piece—seven paintings, three sculptures, and a decorated ceramic plate—cohabit with furniture and still-life elements. Contours tend to be summarily indicated by thin yellow lines. Part of a pale-blue window obtrudes. But nothing disrupts the composition’s essential harmony, the details striking the eye all at once, with a concerted bang.
There’s no possibility of entering the portrayed corner space, even by way of imagination. Only certain subtle contrasts of warm and cool hues, pushing and pulling at a viewer’s gaze, hint at anything like pictorial depth. Not for Matisse the retention of visually advancing and receding forms, as in the contemporary Cubism of his towering frenemy Picasso. (Who wins their lifelong ago? The question is moot. They are like boxing champions who can’t tag each other because they’re in separate rings.) Even the vaguely Cézanne-esque “Bathers” (1907), picturing a nude couple in a grassy landscape—one of the paintings in “The Red Studio” whose original is on hand for the show—reads democratically. Swift strokes jostled forward in a single, albeit rumpled, optical plane. See if this isn’t so, as your gaze segues smoothly across 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 breakthrough canvas from the same year, “Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra)”: “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design.” In truth, Matisse did both at once, integrating painting’s two primordial functions—illustration and decoration. “Blue Nude” is absent from “The Red Studio” and from the present show, but its spirit persists in the three sculptures on display, which extend, in the round, the painterly touch in Matisse’s flat pictorial figuration. They nearly equal, for me, the twentieth-century feats in three dimensions of Brancusi and Giacometti.
The inception of “The Red Studio” came by way of a decorative commission from the Muscovite textile tycoon Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, a preëminent collector of European innovations, from Impressionist to Post-Impressionist to some on which the paint was barely dry. His holdings of him, which were imposed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, are now glories of the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, in Moscow. They include an absolute stunner of Matisse’s, “The Conversation” (1908-12), which I encountered at the Hermitage in 1989. A wry air of domestic comedy influences the work’s dominant, intense blue and ravishing floral window view. The artist, looking mild-mannered and standing in pajamas, confronts his seated wife of him, the formidable Amélie, whom I can’t help but imagine telling him to get his own breakfast from her. (Matisse is almost never pointedly witty, but a sort of spectral humor, redolent of sheer audacity, flows through just about everything from his hand to him.) That picture is also not in the present show, but it is tattooed on my memory.
Shchukin’s lavish patronage of Matisse, which began in 1906, relieved the artist and his family from years of penury. It enabled a move to a comfortable home in Issy-les-Moulineaux, four miles outside Paris, and the construction there, in 1909, of the spacious studio that became the site and ofttimes subject of nearly all of Matisse’s works until he decamped to Nice , in 1917. In January, 1911, the collector requested a trio of same-sized paintings, each about six by seven feet, leaving their subject matter up to Matisse. Shchukin acquired the first, relatively sedate “Pink Studio,” but, on receiving a watercolor copy of what Matisse entitled “Red Panel,” he politely declined the design.
Shchukin explained that he preferred pictures with people in them, ignoring the presence of figures aplenty in the visual citation of previous works, such as the robustly appealing “Young Sailor II” (1906), the original of which is on loan for the show from the Metropolitan Museum, and the violently bold “Nude with White Scarf” (1909), provided by the National Gallery of Denmark. Or did even the gamely indulgent Russian, though too tactful to say so, balk at the image’s molten energy? Matisse remained singularly controversial in art circles at that time, even as Picasso’s preternatural draftsmanship disarmed many.
Still called “Red Panel,” the work appeared in 1912 in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, in London, and the next year in the Armory Show, in New York and Chicago, yet neither it nor anything else by Matisse sold. (In to Times interview with the artist in France, in March, 1913, the critic Clara T. MacChesney bristled with condescending resistance in face of gracious comments from Matisse, who was at pains to convey that he was a “normal” family man rather than the unkempt holy terror whom she had anticipated.) The painting then remained in the artist’s possession and out of public sight until it was bought, in 1927, as a chic bibelot for a swanky members-only social club in London. After a spell of private ownership, it was purchased, enthusiastically, by MOMAin 1949—right on 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 the present show. “Le Luxe II” (1907-08) depicts three monumental seaside nudes, oddly rendered in distemper (rabbit-skin glue) rather than in sensuous oils, to a dryly static effect. But it was plainly worth the try for Matisse and takes its place in “The Red Studio.” Nostalgia may have motivated him to incorporate a diminutive clunker, “Corsica, the Old Mill,” painted in 1898, when he was twenty-eight years old, fresh out of art school and newly married. Its conventional motif displays an irresolute miscellany of Post-Impressionist and incipiently Fauvist techniques—a ticking time bomb, as it would turn out.
It took me a while to cool on the initially impressive “Large Red Interior” (1948), which closes the show as a bookend to “The Red Studio.” Extravagantly praised at the time by the formalist critic Clement Greenberg, it is masterly, to be sure, with virtuosic representations of previous pictures and lots of flowers in vases. But I find the work vitiated by a quality—tastefulness—that Matisse had sometimes risked but reliably sidestepped throughout most of his career. it feels unmeaning—passionless, strictly professional. Soon after completing that work, Matisse, ever self-aware, put down his brushes, picked up a pair of scissors, and commenced the sensational improvisations in cut colored paper that absorbed him until his death, in 1954. Yet again, he found his way to an inward imperative that, with typical nonchalance, precipitated deathless outward consequences. ♦