Matisse in the Studio, at the Royal Academy

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Matisse purchased this Venetian baroque chair in 1942, and subsequently drew and painted it frequently. He wrote to a friend “when I found in an antique shop a few weeks ago, I was bowled over. It’s splendid. I am obsessed with it”.
This exhibition has come to the RA from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is thus highly typical of the modern exhibitions which institutions crave to support their day to day operational costs. It is shared exhibition, meaning that the research and curatorial effort is spread and costs reduced. It focuses on Matisse, a guaranteed crowd pleaser. And is has sought and found a new way of approaching its subject, in this case through his studio. This is not a criticism, it is simply a reflection of the realities of operating a major public art institution in tne C21 when public money is scarce, the demand for crowd pleasing and revenue generating exhibitions relentless and the risk of repetition omniprescent. Actually, given these constraints I believe the major art institions in London do a remarkable job for their public. Not every exhibition can be equally successful, but the successes are more numerous than the failures. This exhibition is one of the successes.

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Rocaille Chair, 1946

The focus of the exhibition is the role of the studio in the life and work of Matisse, for whom the studio was not simply a place to paint, but more important a place to collect and to reflect. Through his life he assembled a collection of key objects high he clearly cherished and which appeared multiple times in his work. These objects ranged from ordinary domestic pots and furniture to African statues and masks, and Islamic furniture and wall hangings. The exhibition teaches first of all about how the artist sees, examining, and recording the same object in different lights, different combinations to produce a remarkable variety of work, all based around the same few objects. And it teaches us second about how Matisse, and others of his generation, acquired like magpies African and Islamic art to help them reinvent their art. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in the way Matisse used African statues to I d a new way of approaching the female nude as a subject. The result was a radical departure from the classic tradition of the female nude as then defined by the art establishment.

By taking the approach of presenting the studio object and the resulting works together, we have the opportunity to understand what he saw, and to appreciate the process of seeing and recording what is seen n a way that is not possible if you only see the object or the painting. And because the exhibition is quite small, it is possible to spend the time to look yourself. There is not the risk that you face with the large blockbuster exhibitions of exhausting your interpretative capacity who’re you are half way through. The downside of the success of the exhibition is of course that it is very busy; so choose your time.

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