MoMA Shows the Backstory of a Matisse Masterpiece So Radical It Confused the Artist Himself

“I like it, but I don’t understand it very well,” Henri Matisse told a reporter visiting his studio in 1911. Matisse was referring to a painting he had recently made of his studio, a room full of paintings and earlier sculptures. , all recreated in miniature.

Initially, the painting was quite realistic, at least by Matisse’s avant-garde standards. But shortly before the reporter interviewed him, he had taken a paintbrush and covered the walls and floor in a monochrome red. He used the same shade for the furniture, which was distinguished only by a thin line around the edges.

The red workshop would soon also baffle the patron for whom Matisse painted it, the Russian industrialist Sergei Shchukin, who would refuse to buy the canvas, letting it become another facet of the workshop it represented. It was only after a passage on the wall of a London nightclub that it finally found its way to where it can be seen today. Highlight of the Museum of Modern Art, The red workshop is now the subject of his own mini-retrospectivesurrounded by several of the eleven works of art featured there.

Painting always has the ability to disconcert, responding to close viewing by showing new layers of ambiguity. This was especially the case for the restorers at MoMA who spent several years examining the canvas with X-rays and ultraviolet light. They discovered the more realistic underlay, which appears to have been quite similar to Matisse’s treatment of his workspace in his earlier pink workshop. What they could not find, and perhaps never know, was the impulse that prompted Matisse to enter an aesthetic realm that he himself could not understand.

If anyone had the ability to understand The red workshopwas Gertrude Stein, the avant-garde author who was also an avid collector of Matisse’s art. As Matisse noted in a letter to Shchukin – after quietly describing The red workshop as “surprising at first sight” – “Mrs. Stein finds it the most musical of my paintings. Perhaps following this lead, Matisse explained that Venetian red “serves as a harmonic link between the green of a branch of nasturtium[,] the warm blacks of a border of a Persian tapestry placed above the chest of drawers, the yellow ocher of a statuette around which the nasturtium has grown enveloping it, the lemon yellow of a rattan chair placed to the right of the painting between a table and a wooden chair, and the blues, pinks, yellows and other greens representing the paintings and other objects placed in my studio.

Given the layered history of the painting, this harmonic connection was evidently discovered in retrospect. The fact that it works is not especially surprising, given that Matisse was one of the greatest colorists of the 20and century. More striking is the fact that he was able to find a chromatic connection to bind over half a dozen canvases painted over thirteen years in several different studios while developing the style for which he would eventually be known.

The oldest of these tables, Corsica, the Old Mill, long predates his foray into Fauvism, coinciding with his first encounter with the Mediterranean – an ocean “so blue you could eat it” – and his recognition that color could be a pictorial subject in its own right. The latest, his Big Nudewas not finished when he undertook The red workshopand indeed would never be finished, ultimately destroyed, in accordance with his wishes, after his death.

As many observers have noted, The red workshop anticipates Matisse’s even more radical spatial arrangements of color in his late carvings, where the studio becomes a container, the visual equivalent of a concert hall. The recent discovery that the red was added after the composition of the painting gives a deeper resonance to the association. The red workshop almost seems like a rehearsal for the later work, albeit reversed, since the artist’s virtuoso performance is visible in the background.

The same time, The red workshop proposes a way of considering all of Matisse’s art as a single work distributed in space and time. Only the artist himself has been able to see it in its entirety, but the acts of reuniting his work – as in this MoMA exhibition – may allow our eyes to see what the master perceived and ultimately could have understood.

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