Matisse in the Studio, Royal Academy, London, review: gorgeous and surprisingly revealing

This gorgeous and surprisingly revealing exhibition allows us to experience the intimate thought processes of Henri Matisse as he worked in the hedonistic cocoon of his studio, surrounded by the many objects that served as his constant personal muses. Amassed from his travels, antique shops and flea markets, the 35 objects in the exhibition are shown alongside 65 significant works of art, the latter embracing the many mediums that Matisse explored throughout his long life (1869-1954) – painting, sculpture, drawing, print and, uniquely, his gouache cut-outs.

While two world wars savagely raged outside and models came and went, Matisse created beautiful studios that became complete environments for his own adventures in art and design, filled with furniture, textiles, African sculpture, chocolate pots and more. An evocative photograph in the first room of the exhibition shows the elderly Matisse in his Villa La Rêve in Vence (1944), a picture of tranquillity surrounded by beloved objects and vases of flowers.

Coffee Pot, France, early 19th Century (François Fernandez, Nice )

The exhibition is curated around the various objects that Matisse used in his art, which he compared to actors. “A good actor can have a part in ten different plays,” he explained: “an object can play a role in ten different pictures.” In this sense, the objects are much more than bit-players, as Matisse transforms them according to their particular context. A green blown-glass Andalusian vase, which appears in several works, can hold Safrano roses, while at the same time playing a dominant role in what Matisse was searching for: “a sympathy between communing objects.”

The star of the second room is a flamboyant 19th-century wooden Venetian chair, which Matisse declared himself to be obsessed by. Its voluptuous form, made up of painted and gilded shells (seat and back), reptilian creatures (arms), and seahorses (legs) also becomes a swirling container for fruit and flowers. In one picture the chair dances with a table, made up of similar arabesques; in another it becomes an anthropomorphic personalised object, its crouching form sporting a small boutonnière of white blossoms.

The central rooms show Matisse grappling with African sculpture – from as early as 1906 – as he creates difficult, abstract tough nudes, together with strikingly abstract faces that mask and reveal “hidden feelings.” Vitrines displaying the actual figures and masks he collected,…

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