Matisse’s masterpiece ‘The Red Studio’ gets a life of its own

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The Museum of Modern Art’s latest excursion into the history of modernist art through its stunning collection is ‘Matisse: The Red Studio’, a small but spectacular exhibition that dissects one of the greatest early paintings of the ‘artist.

This exhibition brings together, for the first time since they left the artist’s studio in the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, all the surviving works that Henri Matisse represented in “L’atelier rouge”, a a painting whose seductive radicalism has seduced admirers since its creation. entered the museum’s collection in 1949.

Bringing together six paintings, three sculptures and a ceramic plate in “The Red Studio” proved to be a marvel of detective work by its teams of curators, led by Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Paintings and Sculpture from MoMA, and Dorthe Aagesen, who holds virtually the same title at SMK, The National Gallery of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Its loans come from museums and private collections near and far — including three from the SMK — some that have never been exhibited before. Notable among these was a small but mighty terracotta figure that few knew existed, although the MoMA has the bronze cast.

The exhibition is a careful examination of the inner and outer life of a single painting presented in a remarkably spacious setting where each life has its own large gallery. In the first, “The Red Studio” appears with the works it depicts, which summarize the early development of the artist. In the second gallery, numerous documents, photo-murals and wall texts trace the journey of painting from Matisse’s studio to MoMA – including an extended stop at a glamorous London nightclub. But there is plenty of art here that shows how themes of the interior and studio, the color red, and the use of monochrome carried over into Matisse’s later work, culminating in the “Grand Interior red” from 1948, the last painting he completed before releasing color from the canvas. in his paper Cut-Outs.

“The Red Studio” was completed in December 1911. Describing it to the Russian textile merchant Sergei Chtchoukine, who commissioned it and whose patronage enabled Matisse to build the studio, the artist wrote: “Painting is surprising at first sight. It is obviously new. (Many found it too new, especially its shocking color. It was among the works most reviled by critics and visitors at the second Post-Impressionist exhibition in London in 1912 and the historic Armory Show of 1913- , seen in New York, Chicago and Boston.)

Whether Shchukin, whose large collection of early 20th-century modern art included 37 Matisses and who would be confiscated by the state after the Russian Revolution, agreed or disagreed is lost to history. Either way, he refused to buy it. Instead, this singularly sublime painting remained in the West. At Le Moderne, it offered a kind of polar opposite to Picasso’s singularly wild painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” from 1907, which had entered the collection a decade earlier, in 1939.

This meant that the painting was essentially free, in a cultural sense, to delight, influence and inspire the present and to be part of history. It foreshadows one of the pillars of post-war modernity – monochrome or unicolor painting – and arrived in New York just as several painters were cleaning up their Abstract Expressionist habits. You can feel it in Barnett Newman’s fiery red “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” (“Man, Heroic and Sublime”) of 1950-51, and in some of Mark Rothko’s airy blocks of dark, smoky color.

The obvious novelty of “The Red Studio” lies in the extent of its dominant color: most of its surface is covered in Venetian red, a deep, sumptuous if slightly rusty tone, pushing the whole towards abstraction. And yet painting is full of facts. It’s a sort of manifesto from a corner of Matisse’s newly built studio.

And it’s also a statement of the artist’s values. The things that matter most to Matisse – from paintings and sculptures to an open box of blue pastels – are depicted here in their true colors. But most of the bulky elements of the painting – two tables, two chairs, a chest of drawers and a grandfather clock whose dial lacks hands, as if time had stood still in the artist’s studio – appear almost like ghosts: they exist only in the form of ocher contours in the mass of red, here brightened and there even small gleams of pink and blue, happy remnants of an earlier version of the painting.

For Matisse, the studio was the place where the real world receded, where magic could be done and art governed. Once he absorbed what Fauvism had to teach him about natural light and pure color, Matisse didn’t get much out of it. He was essentially an artist of interiors and especially of the studio: the spaces where he lived and worked, where he painted portraits, worked from a live model, sometimes including views through the windows, sometimes simply representing the rooms themselves. same.

In the first gallery, “The Red Studio” is surrounded by the works it represents, which encircle it somewhat like a flotilla of boats around the mothership. It is a unique experience to stand in the middle of the gallery and look back from actual works to their representations, as the great reality distiller further distills his own images.

In the small and luscious “Corsica, The Old Mill” of 1898, the influence of Pointillism and its genius for color are evident in the extravagant mottled ombre of pinks, purples and grays on a stone wall. In “The Red Studio”, where this painting is laid on the floor, the shadow comes down to a brushed purple shape.

Matisse’s penchant for bright colors blends into large, flat shapes like the dark blue and green on pink of the original version of “Young Sailor II” (1906). The palette of the magnificent “Le luxe (II)” (1907) is much more subtle, but taken up in “The Red Studio” its colors are electric. And his three pale nudes turn Venetian red.

This season, New York has had more than its share of grueling major exhibitions, among them MoMA’s Cézanne and Joseph Yoakum exhibits and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Survey of Surrealism. Seeing them was a challenge from which I emerged exhausted, holding back a fuzzy experience and wondering “Who is this for? » Specialists who are at least 5 feet 10 inches tall and run marathons? In contrast, “Matisse: The Red Studio” offers you far fewer works of art but allows for deeper concentration. You leave feeling restored, as if you had received a gift.

Matisse: The Red Studio

Open May 1 through September 10, The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, (212) 708-9400; moma.org. Currently in member previews.

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