Arts and Entertainment

A Walk into Henri Matisse’s Red Studio

A review of Matisse: The Red Studio exhibition at the MoMA

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As I walk into the gallery, I stare at the blank white walls enlivened with vibrant artwork. Even when surrounded by the eclectic, colorful works that adorn the walls, the centerpiece commands attention: a bold red painting encircled with 11 other pieces. Spontaneous brushstrokes, expressive colors, and dynamic lines come together to create a collection that is unabashedly unique.

The artist behind these attention-grabbing pieces is Henri Matisse, a renowned 19th-century painter, draftsman, printmaker, and sculptor from Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France. Henri Matisse was born to generations of weavers. Brought up in an environment that allowed him to visually experience variations of textiles from many different origins, Matisse developed unique ideas of color and pattern at a young age. Later, Matisse would go on to study law, but eventually found a deep passion in art.

Henri Matisse’s work would soon grow to notable attention. He was the foremost figure of Fauvism, a style using bold, vibrant colors and brushwork. Matisse is regarded as an important influence in the art world, as his pieces are widely recognized for their atypical notion of space and color in a contra-period of impressionism.

These signature techniques and aesthetics are on display in one of Matisse’s most famous pieces, “​​L’Atelier Rouge” (“The Red Studio”). The painting depicts his workspace using just one color, Venetian red, and it went on to become one of the most influential artworks throughout history as the first monochrome painting to have gained widespread attention. Despite working with one color, Matisse added complexity to the piece with his expression of space, featuring rich, layered brushstrokes and arrangement of the objects in the room.

The Modern Museum of Art (MoMA) reunited the iconic “​​L’Atelier Rouge” with its 11 companions in the exhibition “Matisse: The Red Studio” after 73 years in the making. Having collected these pieces since 1949, the MoMA also obtained the five drawings Matisse used to plan for this work and have assembled an impressive, cohesive collection, even with the absence of “Untitled (Study for Reclining Nude),” which was destroyed decades ago.

The exhibition is split into two main galleries: The Studio (an immersive walk into Matisse’s workspace) and The Story (a timeline of Matisse’s life). The Studio is a captivating, transportive experience, as the curation of the gallery allows viewers to picture themselves standing in his work space.

His ceramic plate “Female Nude” stands in front of the entrance of The Studio, directly involving the viewer in this immersion of connection to the grand piece. The plate conveys a nude model in an eccentric pose: a somewhat crunching position with its back to the top of the plate, and its head and legs pointing towards the bottom of the plate. The piece, though seemingly simple, has an unexpected complexity through the selection of colors and distribution of space. It is assumed that this piece was created within minutes, indicated by the hastily and unevenly painted flower petals.

To the left of the painting are three paintings, the plate, and a terracotta sculpture, all on the utmost left of “​​L’Atelier Rouge.” The painting “Reclining Nude” is especially enchanting. Though the actual painting does not exist anymore, the piece is illustrated in “​​L’Atelier Rouge.” Practice sketches are displayed in the back of the gallery to provide an essential sense of the pose of the piece. But the only indication of the color palette is through the “Red Studio,” which reveals that the colors of this painting are hot pink with blue and yellow for the flowers. This aspect of “​​L’Atelier Rouge” makes it more intriguing, as questions are left unanswered.

However, the exhibition includes that his pieces were never always respected during their lifetimes. From Matisse’s humble beginnings to rejection and criticism to then achieving widespread success, The Story tells the tale of Henri Matisse’s rocky career through ​​”L’Atelier Rouge.” The gallery illustrates his lifetime as well as the lifetime of “​​L’Atelier Rouge” in five steps, which demonstrates the evolution of his art. In contrast to The Studio, The Story displays the life of Matisse. The gallery includes full wall length photographs that create a visually entertaining and biography-like appearance. It exhibits pictures, floor plans, photographs, letters, and newspapers that capture elements of his progression.

The first step, “Building the Studio,” extends artifacts that detail the construction of the studio behind “​​L’Atelier Rouge.” The second step, “Seeing the Studio,” has a wall plan for viewers to visually compare Matisse’s painting to the conventional studio. This step incorporates paintings that Matisse made during his occupancy of the studio. One specifically fascinating painting is the “Blue Window,” which differs from a lot of his works. Although there is emphasis on line and color, the painting is more realistically descriptive with the many shades of blue. The painting conveys Matisse’s bedroom window, containing everyday objects on the interior contrasting with the trees and moon that are portraying the exterior. The piece is visually engaging as the many shades of blue form the more naturalistic solid-like forms.

The third step, “The Painting’s Debut,” spotlights Matisse’s style, depiction of space, and techniques through two paintings he created. The paintings issue his fusion of color and lines to paint the environment. This step also exhibits Vanessa Bell’s “Matisse Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition”, which illustrates the gallery that showcased Matisse’s artworks. This painting differs from the two, by illustrating the environment through a more naturalistic approach. The painting seems out of place, but plays the crucial role of providing a conventional perspective to maintain the theme of the gallery.

The fourth step, “The Gargoyle Club,” exposes the first buyer of “L'Atelier Rouge.” During this stage in Matisse’s life, his style of art has widely evolved, shown through the painting, “Studio, Quai Saint Michel." The painting is much more realistic using more natural colors and portrays objects through shading.

The final step, “New York City,” finally shows how the “L'Atelier Rouge '' rose to fame, incorporating the acquisition by the MoMA. It also shows Matisse’s last pieces: his transition in mediums (to paper cut-outs) and the last finished painting, “Large Red Interior.” The “Large Red Interior” is very similar to the L’Atelier Rouge,” in a way such that both use the collaboration of lines and the solid color, red, to depict the space he is in. Although also very different, the painting presents a theory of symbolism and connection to his once and forever iconic piece, “L’Atelier Rouge.”

The Story delivers the realistic and fitting perspective of the studio, and showcases the evolution in art. The ability for viewers to form their own creativity is exhilarating, as the two differing galleries create a deep emphasis on Matisse’s style in art, as well as hinting at his purpose of creating. Rather than reflect a subject accurately, Matisse created art that conveyed a matter of space and perception. As he once stated, he wanted his art to be “of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.”

The Red Studio exhibition powerfully created an intimate and personal look into Henri Matisse’s vision when he created “L’Atelier Rouge." The production provided a number of dimensions to look at, and beautifully told the story of the lasting significance of Henri Matisse.