Matisse, The Red Studio Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, oil on canvas, 1911 (MoMA)
Matisse, The Red Studio
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- (music playing)
- We're on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art
- and we're looking at Matisse's painting from 1911 called The Red Studio,
- an oddly empty painting, but not surprisingly, a very red painting.
- Given the title.
- And red is normally a color that might be kind of scary or violent,
- but it doesn't feel so here, at all.
- No, and when you see the painting here in person,
- the red is really kind of a deep red, right?
- Almost a dark red.
- The paintings inside it are bright, and these are Matisse's paintings.
- That's true, and then there's no sense of violence or fear at all.
- In fact, it feels very contemplative, and quiet, actually.
- Well, it's his studio, right? And he built this in Issy, in a suburb of Paris, beside his house,
- and this is his private space, and these his, you know, the world that he inhabits.
- I think in some ways it's very much his interior world.
- And he's chosen to make it look quiet, and like an interior, contemplative space,
- where certain things stand out, and other things recede,
- and maybe he's telling us something about what's important to him in this personal artistic space.
- of his own consciousness.
- I think that's right. There isn't any sort of front-and-center that's really dominant in this painting.
- It's a lot of things, in a sense, that we can choose from.
- Right, it's almost like he's giving us a little menu.
- Without a centralized composition.
- Maybe this is what it feels like in Matisse's head,
- these little isolated items that come together in this one space,
- but without a real focal point, our eye moves from the lower left, up and around, to the lower right.
- Actually following the clock, right?
- That's true, but the clock has no hands.
- That's true, you're right, but I do kind of look at the painting in a kind of clockwise motion.
- I start in the lower left and I do, I wrap myself around, looking at these paintings and the other things that actually have color in them in the canvas.
- There's that cutting of nasturtium in the vase on the table in the foreground.
- Right, and it looks like some crayons, maybe? Some Cray-Pas or something like that, in the lower right corner of the table.
- And a plate,
- That he had painted, it looks like, right?
- And it looks like most of what we have here are actual works of art
- Or the things that he uses to make art.
- Like the crayons that you pointed out, and I think that's a vase of brushes perhaps in the background, on the bureau.
- The chair is also kind of stands out.
- Yeah, the chair is always sort of funny for Matisse, because he had made that comment that he got a lot of grief for, ultimately.
- About an armchair, and art being something comfortable like an armchair.
- And there is something I think that is very restive here, it's true.
- You can almost, when you think about Matisse's paintings, you think about a nude, you can almost imagine a nude Odalisque, or a semi-nude Odalisque in that chair.
- And there is an Odalisque, of sorts, if you look directly above the chair, there's that brown figure
- which is wonderfullly pushed over, leaning, which is an acutal sculpture that Matisse had done just a couple of years earlier, called Serpentine.
- And we have three nudes in the upper right.
- We have, it looks like a portrait above the dresser, and a still life above the dresser. That's the Sailor, actually.
- And then we have another image of nudes leaning against the dresser in the back.
- And we have another nude in the chair. The large pink one.
- Now the large pink one, I remember reading, and this is interesting, that this was a painting that Matisse actually destroyed, soon after this painting The Red Studio was made.
- And this is actually in some ways, I think, the best quality reproduction we have of its original colors, unless Matisse was revising it.
- Because he often did that, he often in his paintings included other paintings and actually created derivations of those paintings in the new paintings.
- The artwork stands out, and the furniture is almost like a ghost in this space.
- It's like nature, the nude, art, are the things that emerge.
- And those are one of a kind for Matisse. I don't think he so much separates art and nature, and the female nude, especially.
- I think those are, in a sense, the same thing, they're synonyms. It's all about sensuality, visual sensuality, it's true.
- So this painting is all about that sensuality and then it's also got these modern interpretations that are pushed on top of it, which are actually very analytic, and very strict.
- What kind of interpretations do you mean?
- Well, a moment ago you were talking about the way in which all the furniture looks as if it's almost ghostlike.
- And if you look at it closely (let's get up closer), it's because those white lines are not actually white.
- There's yellow, and pale blue, and dark blue, and green, and in fact, that's not drawn on top of the red. The red is actually drawn up to those lines.
- And those lines are actually the paint that exists below the plane of the red, which is on top.
- It's sometimes referred to as a reserve line, and that's not artistically very difficult to do, but it's some trouble.
- And it was a very specific choice.
- And it also indicates that he really must have thought this whole thing through, before he did it, which sort of belies the feeling of the painting itself, which feels more spontaneous.
- I think that was a real trait for Matisse. I think he worked very hard to make things look very easy.
- So then the question emerges, why all that effort to make the lines look as though -- they look on top, but they're really underneath. Why would he have done such a thing?
- Well, I have my thoughts about this, and actually instead of looking at those reserve lines, first, I want to point out that in the upper right had corner of the painting,
- we're missing a vertical line that would designate the corner of the room. I'm sorry, the upper left hand corner.
- Right, so actually the perspective space doesn't really make sense there, in the upper left.
- No, it's sort of dismantled. In fact, I think this whole painting is, in large part, about the process of dismantling traditional linear perspective.
- I mean, look at the chair in the lower right corner, the chair with the tall back.
- That doesn't make much sense at all.
- No, as it moves away from us, the seat actually gets wider. It's in reverse of traditional perspective.
- And the table here, the table is awkward, you sort of have multiple viewpoints,
- sort of like we're looking down at the table and across at the room at the same time.
- So, to go back to this reserve line issue, one of the issues that I know has been discussed in relationship to this painting,
- is that the reserve line is a way of further dismantling our expectations of linear perspective, or our desire to construct illusionistic space within this canvas.
- And the way it does that, and this is a little bit tricky, is to take what's underneath and put it on top.
- The red, if you look at it as the floor, for a moment, has got to be in back of the table, or these chairs.
- And yet the table and chairs, however, are actually constructed of paint that is behind, in back of -- literally and physically in back of -- that red.
- So the ground is actually making the figures, and the figures are actually constructing the ground.
- By figures you mean the chair and the table, the objects in the painting.
- Exactly. The objects should be in front of the floor. But in fact, they're constructed out of paint that is behind the floor.
- And so there is this kind of funny scrambling of the way the painting is traditionally made or a drawing is traditionally made.
- What's amazing to me when I think about this is how it took so much effort to dismantle this tradition,
- although when you think about it, the tradition is -- by the time we get to Matisse -- 700, 600 years old.
- And so it's not going to take one or two or three years, or a couple of artists, to dismantle a 600-year-old tradition
- of conceiving of art as something that is like a window into a realistic world, and linear perspective aids the creation of that realistic world.
- It's going to take Cezanne, it's going to take Gaugin, it's going to take Van Gogh, it's going to take Matisse, it's going to take Picasso
- And it still doesn't work, because look, when I'm looking at this, even though I see that there's no line in the upper left,
- even though the entire canvas is painted red virtually, even though we have this reverse of the figure-ground relationship,
- even though the linear perspective of the seat of the chair in the lower right is backwards, even though we have all of these things corrupting, I still see this space.
- So why did he do this? Is he playing with us? Is he saying, here's some space, but no it's not there?
- I think he wants us to become aware of the mechanics of what an artist does, and what that process is.
- I think in some ways this is very modernist.
- And what about our expectations?
- I think that's critical here. And now he IS playing with us.
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