A vase by any other name

An exhibition lets us see objects from Matisse’s studio alongside the paintings he used them in

Art

“The object is an actor”: This 1900s Andalusian glass vase appears in several of Matisse’s paintings (© François Fernadez, Nice)

Henri Matisse came to prominence in the first years of the 20th century as the leader of the Fauves — “the wild beasts” — a group of colour-happy young artists whose expressive brushwork and strident palette caused consternation. Matisse himself though was an unlikely beast: he was conservative, bourgeois and a lawyer whose idol, while in art school, was Chardin, the great 18th-century master of domestic stillness. After Fauvism’s brief explosion it was to the interior that Matisse himself turned; room scenes, still-lifes and studio mises-en-scène became the dominant motifs of his art.

Matisse set special store by his various studios, whether in Paris or, from 1917, in Nice. As the critic Robert Hughes noted: “His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for 60 continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction.” He stocked these live-work spaces with a mish-mash of objects that had caught his eye. For many years he was not a rich man and the things he bought were rarely expensive although they did reflect the range of his cultural interests, among them African masks, Spanish glass, European silver, Islamic textiles, Chinese calligraphy and Oceanic sculpture.

Such objects were not simply decorative but came to play a key role in his painting, appearing and reappearing in numerous works over the decades. Matisse in the Studio, at the Royal Academy from August 5, reassembles some 40 objects from his collection and shows them alongside the pictures in which they appeared, including a group of never before exhibited sketches. The result is to put the viewer at Matisse’s shoulder, to see exactly the things he looked at and was inspired by.

Throughout his career Matisse sought to discover “the essential character of things” and he acknowledged the importance of his bric-a-brac in this process: “I have worked all my life before the same objects,” he said in 1951, “The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.”

The roles they played varied from the supporting to the leading. A bulbous green Andalusian glass vase that he bought on a trip to Spain in 1910-11, appears in a painting of 1924, Safrano Roses at the Window, as a contrasting receptacle for a bunch of pink roses which themselves reflect the pink of the houses opposite and the sky above the Mediterranean beyond. The vase appears in at least two other paintings of the same period, always a bit-part player. The same is true of a 19th-century silver chocolate pot he received as a wedding gift in 1898. An Algerian painted table picked up in 1906, on the other hand, fights to be the centre of attention with the woman seated beside it in Yellow Odalisque of 1937.

The all-over patterning and colour that is such a distinctive feature of Matisse’s interior scenes was not merely an attempt to give every bit of each painting the same interest but a more literal representation of the way he lived, surrounded by African fabrics that he hung on walls, draped on wires and tossed over furniture. The visual cacophony he sought to harmonise was a case of art imitating life and these works, he said, became part of the decorative scheme themselves, inducing a feeling of happiness “like a bunch of flowers”.

The Surrealist poet Louis Aragon called Matisse’s collection his “palette of objects” but what the exhibition shows is that it was more than that: the objects often drove his art, especially those that came from outside the Western tradition. It was, for example, his African statues, which he started collecting in 1906 for their formal qualities rather than their primitivism, that led him away from the classicism of his early paintings (especially of the nude) to less representational and more exaggerated forms. He even took a stock artist’s photograph of a naked model walking and turned her pale flesh into the yellow-black of African wood with a stylised, over-sized head resembling one of his Congolese Mboom masks topping her off.

There is a sense too that by living among and painting the same things over several decades he moored himself in a world that was securely fixed. His pictures, unlike those of his rival Picasso, almost never show an artist grappling with modernism and alienation — the great artistic preoccupations of the mid-20th century. For Matisse the concerns of the world stopped at the door, despite the fact that during the war his wife Amélie left him, he was diagnosed with duodenal cancer, and his daughter Marguerite was tortured by the Gestapo before escaping from a train bound for Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The naked odalisques lounging amidst riotous fabrics that had sustained him with their “sublimated voluptuousness” during the 1920s and 1930s began to lose their appeal. Instead, he sought “to feel in spirit above myself, above motif, studio, even home” and he achieved this through his cut-outs (“painting with scissors”), the one form of artistic expression he could manage after cancer surgery left him debilitated. Even these though had their roots in his collection: it was a lacquer panel of Chinese calligraphy given to him by Amélie on his 60th birthday that first showed him how line could live independently of meaning and shape both colour and space. It inspired the cut-outs’ organic forms (they also, for good measure, borrowed from an Egyptian tent curtain he owned).

The back and forth between his collection and his art was ever-present — a 14th-century head of an apostle resembling Matisse’s matelot self-portrait of 1906 in turn echoes his African sculpture. The correspondences — different iterations of the same spirit — amount to a conversation he held with himself as he worked his way towards an art “of balance, purity, and serenity”.