How arabesque and everyday objects led to a redrawing of modern art
A Royal Academy of Arts show highlights Matisse’s influences
Decorative artist, sculptor, pioneer of the paper cut-out. Henri Matisse reformed the ideas of modern art. Colour became an expression and his reduction of the human form shocked and challenged representations that had come before in the art world.
A show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London is now offering a unique glimpse inside the mind of the French artist with an exhibition brimming with Matisse’s treasured objects – and the important role they played in his work.
Matisse, who produced art from 1904 until he died in 1954, drew his eclectic collection from the far corners of the world and these objects played a pivotal role in the development of his masterful vision of colour and form.
Rarely of material value, they were nonetheless precious. They formed his repertoire but also provided him with influences from beyond the limits of western art.
They also show that the work which has come to define the French artist may never have come to fruition had it not been for the influence of his time spent in the Arab world.
Arranged around five themed sections, Matisse in the Studio is the first exhibition to consider how Matisse’s personal collection of treasured objects were both subject matter and inspiration for his work.
The artist’s eclectic collection ranged from a Roman torso, African masks and Chinese porcelain to intricate North African textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The exhibition also underlines the huge impact that the time Matisse (1869-1954) spent in North Africa had on his subsequent career.
The influence of Arabic art on Matisse is well-documented. The artist had an enduring fascination with the region as well as the arabesque form of artistic decoration – designs based on the intertwined, flowing lines of early Islamic art – which hugely influenced how he came to think about perspective and space in his painting.
It is thought he began his love affair with Islamic art when he visited Algiers in 1906. In search of something fresh and authentic, Matisse was met with an explosion of colour and texture in Algeria’s capital which subsequently heavily influenced his works.
In 1910 he spent two months in Spain studying Moorish art after viewing a large collection of Islamic work, and it was during visits to Tangiers, Morocco, between 1912 and 1913 that he first began experimenting with using black as part of his colour palette.
Art historians say this period of absorbing new influences was a crucial turning point in Matisse’s career which led to his finest work – a new fearless approach to using intense, unmodulated colour.
Most of the objects featured in Matisse in the Studio are on loan from the Musée Matisse, Nice, and several others are from private collections, which are being publicly exhibited outside France for the first time.
In 1951, the artist once famously said: “I have worked all my life before the same objects... The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in 10 different plays; an object can play a role in 10 different pictures.”
Matisse in the Studio is on at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until November 12.
For more information visit www.royalacademy.org.uk
Five themed sections
The Object is an Actor
Shows how Matisse reconceived elements of his collection in different works over various periods throughout his career. A simple pewter jug, 1917 (private collection), an Andalusian glass vase (Musée Matisse, Nice), and a chocolate pot given to Matisse as a wedding present (private collection) reappear under varying guises in several works created over an extended period of time, including Safrano Roses at the Window, 1925 (private collection) and Still Life with Shell, 1940 (private collection).
This explores how the artist conveyed the character of his sitters without resorting to physical likeness. Many of Matisse’s portraits borrow motifs and ideas from traditions emphasising the simplification of human features, particularly from the African masks that he owned. Paintings by Matisse including The Italian Woman, 1916 (The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York) and Marguerite, 1906-7 (Musée Picasso, Paris) will be hung alongside objects such as an African Pende mask (private collection), a small bronze bust of the Buddha from Thailand, and a French medieval head of a saint (both from Musée Matisse, Nice).
This primarily focuses on Matisse’s collection of African sculptures and the ways in which these works led him to radical innovations in portraying the human figure. A number of Matisse’s sculptures will be included, such as Two Women, modelled 1907-8, cast 1908 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC). Works representing the nude from other cultural traditions were also important to Matisse, including Bamana figural sculptures from Mali (private collection) and a statue of the goddess Nang Thorani from Thailand (Musée Matisse, Nice), as well as contemporary photography.
The Studio as Theatre
This centres around the Nice interiors from the 1920s, in which Matisse increasingly relied on studio props from the Islamic world, such as North African furniture, wall hangings and Middle Eastern metalwork, accentuating the importance of pattern and design in his continuing search for an alternative to the western tradition of imitation. Highlights by Matisse within this gallery include The Moorish Screen, 1921 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia).
The Language of Signs
This features Matisse’s late works and the inventive language of simplified signs in his cut-outs. Objects from his collection, including a Chinese calligraphy panel and African kuba textiles, are exhibited alongside the artist’s cut-outs exemplified by Panel with Mask, 1947 (Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen), illustrating how, in his own words, “the briefest possible indication of the character of a thing. A sign”.