Red vibrates softly, almost musically, buzzing with energy and flowing in every direction the eye travels.
by Henri Matisse The Red Workshop (The Red Workshop) (1911) is a unique and contradictory image that has challenged patrons and critics since its creation. The painting shows Matisse’s Issy-les-Moulineaux studio, on the outskirts of Paris, which the artist designed for himself a few years earlier. The image is, well, very red – a tint of rust covers the ceilings and walls of the studio.
EActual paintings by Matisse make appearances in the composition, lining the walls of the space, along with a chair, plant, and other personal effects. The artist himself is nowhere to be found, but while the painting is conspicuously lacking in action, he is bursting with energy.
The red studio caused some consternation when it debuted. Matisse’s devoted patron, Russian collector Sergei Shchukin, commissioned it in 1910 to accompany the artist The red room (1908), which he also owned. But after seeing The red workshop in person, Shchukin decided to pass it on.
The work remained in Matisse’s possession until it was purchased in 1927 by the aristocrat David Tennant, who exhibited it at the Gargoyle Club in London. The Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired it from Tennant in 1949.
Since entering the MoMA collection, The red studioThe influence of has continued to grow. From now on, the work is the centerpiece of an exhibition which attempts to recreate the actual studio within the museum itself. The exhibit features the titular painting alongside many of the actual objects and canvases it depicts.
MoMA’s chief curator, Ann Temkin, described the curatorial process as a “treasure hunt” – one that has notable prizes. The Luxury II (1907–8), Nude with a white scarf (1909), and Nymph and Faun (1911), all represented in the painting, are exhibited, as well as an unpublished terracotta which appears on the table in the studio.
On the occasion of the exhibition, we focused on The red studio and identified three details that might help you see it in a new way.
1) It marks the end of Matisse’s Fauvist period and the beginning of his pursuit of simplicity
Matisse loved red – it was a color he returned to again and again. Here, he uses it in a subtle and unexpected way. Consider that only a few years before The red studioMatisse deployed visceral blood red in his Fauvist masterpiece Dessert: Harmony in Red (1908). While this red, in keeping with Fauvism’s emphasis on intense color, is acchromatic punch in the eye, the brick color of red studio, especially in person, offers the opposite – an almost soothing viewing experience.
“An actual piece of this color would be overwhelming, warm and brash, but this red is none of that,” writes art historian Robert Reiff in the essay “Matisse and ‘The Red Studio'”. Harmony in Red is a disturbing work, The Red Studio “exudes relaxation, grace and sophistication.” Part of this, he notes, is due to the thinning of the paint, which is “brushed and speckled in a way that looks superficially flippant and casual.”
These adjustments, especially the light washes of color applied, are indicative of the new chapter that The red studio begin. Rather than the “wild beast” intensity of the Fauvist period, Matisse seeks here to reduce his compositions to their essential elements, writing his notebook which “the easiest way are the ones that best allow an artist to express themselves. That he succeeded in doing so with a color as polarizing as red testifies to his virtuosity.
2) It’s a perceptual puzzle
An enlightening comparison for The red studio East of Van Gogh The night cafe (1888), a similar rust-colored piece seen from an apparently similar vantage point. But whereas Van Gogh’s painting is a feverish confrontation of forced perspectives with visually clashing floor, ceiling and walls, Matisse’s painting has a fluid quality thanks to the artist’s playful manipulation of space. .
A careful look at The red studio offers clues as to how he did it. Look at the upper left corner of the room – you will see that the artist has eliminated the corner himself, although the large pink nude leaning against the wall implies his presence. The table in front of us also juts out oddly as it gets closer to the edge of the painting, consuming space incongruously with the rest of the floor. Meanwhile, the seat of the high-backed chair on the right appears, incredibly, taller at the point furthest from the viewer.
At first glance, The red studio reads as if Matisse had painted yellow-white lines on the red wash of the background in order to outline the forms that occupy the room. When we look closer, we see that these lines are in fact subtle combinations of yellow and blue tones, mixed with other hues. And they are not enforced above the red, but instead are the bottom of the paint looking through.
Matisse painted to the end of the lines, leaving these shreds of space bare. The apparently spontaneous painting is, in reality, the result of a formidable strategy and a coherent artistic conception. In this way, Matisse’s painting of his studio emphasizes his own philosophy – that the effect of ease can only be achieved with great effort.
3) It is an invitation in the spirit of Matisse
Much more than simply offering a view of its creative space, The red studio gives us access to the mind of Matisse.
“Matisse seems to be waving us in,” Reiff writes. “He does this by forcing perspective and raising the horizon. We are above, looking down.
A final comparison helps us understand what Matisse does. Consider The red workshop parallel to previous work Studio in the attic (1903), produced at a difficult time in the artist’s career. The latter is a dreary, claustrophobic image that propels our view out the studio window, seeming to suggest that the beauty of art comes from the outside world.
In The red workshop, Matisse withdraws into himself. Looking closely at the image, we notice a rectangular clock in the center, which acts as a kind of anchor and creates compositional harmony. Now zoom in a little more: you will see that the clock face has no hands. The space of the studio, the gesture seems to say, exists outside of time. Contrary to Studio in the attic, The red studio glad to be there.
But even the studio space itself, with its invisible corners and hard-to-discern floor, is tenuous. In fact, only the objects of the artist’s creation give it substance.
“The objects in the studio serve to define its space,” concludes Reiff. “They are lined up against the wall which is the same color as the floor. Objects such as the table, chairs, grandfather clock… are defined by a yellow line. They are almost sketches, ghosts of objects, but the paintings shine like delightful pieces of art.
In perhaps the most evocative detail of the work, Matisse makes a request or even a challenge: he has left two pencils on the table just at the edge of the picture plane. He seems to be beckoning us: would you have the audacity to enter the painting and pick it up?
“Matisse: The Red Studio” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until September 10.
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