Friday, 18 August 2017

An insight into Matisse's inspirations

Spot the milk jug from Collioure
Honestly: who could paint a red beach, with pink-infused sea, and be taken seriously?

Such was pretty much my reaction as a teenage A level art student when confronted with Matisse, the art-changing ‘wild beast’.

I was such a dreadfully conservative and conventional creature, even as a teen, that I simply could not ‘get’ any modern art. Apart, that was, from Picasso – but that was only really in terms of a sense that any artist who was as good as he was conventionally at 16 needed to evolve or die creatively.

The Other Half and I found our way to Collioure entirely by accident – or rather, it was because of rugby league and not because of art. The art followed.

And as we returned, year on year, utterly beguiled by the place, I had an epiphany: I ‘got’ Matisse.

It was the same experience – a northern European seeing and experiencing the light of the south.

Give or take another couple of years, and I returned from Collioure with fingers simply itching to take up art again myself.

After almost three decades, I started trying to create art once again.

Flowers and vase
There’s not a huge amount of Matisse’s art in British galleries. The Courtauld in London has a couple – including Red Beach from the year of Fauvism, 1905. In real life, the beach is Port d’Avall in Collioure, and we’ve spent a fair few very happy hours on it.

The Tate Modern’s cut outs exhibition in 2014 was a thrice-visited treat.

Last year’s Gardens from Monet to the Matisse at the RA was, in terms of Matissian content (given his presence in the title) disappointing.

October 2016’s exhibition of Matisse drawings at Eames Fine Art Gallery was a gem.

So when a new exhibition promises lots of Matisee – and an insight into just how his artistic mind worked, then it is an opportunity to be leapt at.

Mattise in the Studio opened at the Royal Academy in London earlier this month.

It’s a compact exhibition by the standard of some of the city’s recent wearying blockbusters – and this is no bad thing.

Grand Mask
The central idea is simple. Matisse collected all sorts of items during his life, which he used in his works, from strips of fabric to African masks to Chinese calligraphy to pots and vases.

Here we see some of these items displayed alongside works that they helped inspire or which directly feature them.

Thus the first room begins with Vase of Flowers from 1924

Next to it is the sea green Andalusian glass vase that is central to the composition. And after that, Safrano Roses at the Window from a year later.

Not only do we get to link the object and the paintings, but these two works offer Matisse in a much more pastel mood than is often the case: in the former, the delicacy of a lace curtain is simply delightful, but for all its simplicity, the use of lines and textures in the composition is sophisticated.

In the next room we have the wonderful Yellow Odalisque from 1937 – and alongside it, the small, decorated table from North Africa and the large pewter jug that feature in the work.

Yellow Odalisque
In the work – another illustration of how Matisse could combine colours on a canvas that, you feel, really shouldn’t work together (and there are a number of artists in Collioure these days who try for the same sort of effect but cannot pull it off) – there seems to be a meeting of worlds.

The jug came from the same area of the country that the artist himself hailed from and its very greyness could be taken as symbolising the grey north meeting the vivid south.

It’s easy to forget, in Matisse’s ecstatic use of colour, that he also had a superb sense of line.

And in the third room, we have a series of brush and ink pieces from the 1950s that that illustrate this perfectly – and the influence of the African masks that Matisse had encountered and collected.

The simplicity of line is simply wonderful – it has such purity and elegance.

These are not simply copies of the masks: have served as an inspiration; a jumping-off point for the artist rather than a straightforward appropriation.

Take The Italian Woman from 1916 as an example. At once extremely conventionally and formally posed, yet she appears to be dissolving into a drab background. It could almost be that the conventionality, with her mask-like face, render her less substantial as an individual.

The Italian Woman
Later, we encounter fabrics and more objects from North Africa – and it was fascinating to come at last into the final room, with some of the cut outs.

These included exhibits that had been seen at Tate Modern back in 2014 – not least the designs for the priests chasuble for the Chapel at Vence. Here, against the background of the decorative influences, you see them in a new light and with a new understanding.

It is a room that also includes a panel of Chinese calligraphy, hung as it was in Matisse’s own home in Nice, alongside some of his own work.

If this exhibition doesn’t have quite the uplifting impact of the cut outs, it has a depth that will set visitors thinking, whether they themselves make art or not.

The idea to group objects of inspiration and the works produced together was itself inspired, but even if you don’t really ‘get’ that, then the chance to see some superb works by such a major figure is not to be missed.

And of course, Collioure is here too – it is believed that the milk jug featured on the painting in the poster (and in other works) was from the village.

The objects themselves have plenty of interest – but it is in their role as ‘actors’ in these artworks makes them so much more.

I’ll be back before it closes.

Matisse in the Studio is at the Royal Academy until 12 November.

Find out more at the Royal Academy.

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