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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Man] We're on the 5th floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City looking at Henri Matisse's large canvas, The Red Studio. - [Woman] There is a tradition of artists in their studio shown working. - [Man] That tradition goes back to the 17th Century. But this is interesting because Matisse is not physically represented in this room. Instead, the entire room functions almost like a self-portrait. - [Woman] He may not be here, but his surrogates are here. His works of art -- - [Man] These are not invented paintings. These are actual works of art. In fact the museum has the plate that's in the lower left on display in the center of the gallery. But Matisse is not being faithful to these works. He's changing them, he's transforming them. He's creating themes and variations on his earlier work. - [Woman] It's a difficult painting. It is saturated in red. It's not what we're expecting. And yet, I keep thinking to myself, how much more interesting this painting is than if we were to approach a naturalistic image of an artist studio. This seems much more impersonal and much more philosophical. - [Man] Virtually the entire canvass is covered with this deep red. The only exceptions are his art, the frames for his art, light coming through the curtains that have been closed, the face of the clock, a cutting of nasturtium leaves. Besides that, the only things that are not red are the lines that define the forms. - [Woman] Lines that define the architecture of the space and the furniture of the space. There's no sense of the naturalistic light coming in through a window the way we might see in an earlier painting by Matisse or in an impressionist painting of a domestic interior. - [Man] There's almost no highlight. There's certainly no shadow. Everything has been simplified and is structured by only color and line. This is very particular. Matisse did not paint white on top of red. Instead, he painted red up to the borders of the forms that he was defining. So what we might take at first as white is actually paint underneath the red. - [Woman] And that has a particular name. And that's called a reserve line. - [Man] This has to do with the impact of Matisse looking at the earlier work of Cezanne and the breaking of the traditions of Renaissance painting in the early 20th Century. - [Woman] We think about oil paint as being a kind of layering of paint. But here, it's an intentional leaving absent of paint. Which is something that we also see in the work of Cezanne. - [Man] He seems to be consciously dismantling the architecture of linear perspective. - [Woman] Which is such a crucial part of the tradition of Western painting, creating that illusion of space. And artists since the Renaissance have used a sense of atmosphere and both of those are missing here. He's given us the floor for the most part. But the line that would form the corner up to the ceiling is intentionally missing, reminding us of the flatness of the canvass. - [Man] The canvas itself is indulging in this tension between the pictorial space and the physical two dimensional surface of the canvas. - [Woman] He's playing with it. He flips back and forth like the reserve line seeming on top, but then being the paint that's underneath. Because if we look closely, we do have some orthogonals on that table. On the left corner we get a bit of a sense of space. And even the chair on the right has some orthogonals, although they don't really work spatially. But then against all of those vertical and horizontal lines, we have these lovely curvilinear forms of the nasturtiums and of that chair. Other curvilinear forms include the figures in the paintings themselves; the nude figure on the left with that swirling drapery around her, or the curving backs of the figures in the upper right. So one feels a sense of oppositions here. - [Man] Matisse is not interested in destroying space entirely. But he is interested in dismantling enough of it to make the viewer conscious of the choices that he's making. - [Woman] What really strikes me though, are those drawing tools on the lower left, because they're so close to us. And they're tipped upward, and two of them are out, almost inviting us to paint and draw ourselves. - [Man] This painting is not simply a rendering of the artist's studio. And it's clearly more than a self-portrait defined through an artist's space and artist's work. This is a painting that functions as a discussion of what it means to create a canvass after hundreds of years of Renaissance illusionism in the early 20th Century when artists like Picasso, like Cezanne, have begun to force us to rethink the conventions of the past and to invent an entirely new visual vocabulary. (upbeat piano music)