Matisse’s ‘The Red Studio’ ignites a stunning display at MoMA

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Painting was ecstasy for Henri Matisse. Color worked on his eyes and gut like a self-renewing first crush. But between about 1905 and 1917, he was on the rack. His experiments on canvas broke so radically with norms, and triggered so much derision, that he was tormented by anxieties, undone by insomnia, near paralyzed by doubt.

Yet he was powerless to stop. His relationship with him with painting was akin to that of a besotted lover with a domineering partner: The pleasure is deranging, but the cost to one’s equanimity steep.

Baltimore loves Matisse. That’s one more reason to love Baltimore.

Outwardly, Matisse steadied himself by adopting a sober, bespectacled facade. Rejecting the overt Bohemianism of his rival, Pablo Picasso, he set up a private art school, used his professorial eloquence to win over a handful of foreign collectors (they had to be foreign, since all of France thought him a lunatic), and established his family in a sturdy, elegant house in the suburbs of Paris.

In his art, he transformed himself from a “Fauvist,” or wild beast, into an unlikely classicist, moderating his intense emotions with superb drawing and strong composition. I have succeeded at regaining control. But his success only encouraged more radical color experiments. He was like an all-night debauchee who scrubs up well in a suit the next morning only to abandon all restraint again the next night.

Consider, in this context, Matisse’s 1911 masterpiece, “The Red Studio.” Almost six feet high and more than seven feet wide, it’s the subject of a small, dream-inducing exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“The Red Studio” is what it says it is: a depiction of Matisse’s studio, a large, open space arrayed with six pieces of furniture, a glass, a vase, the cuttings of a nasturtium plant, some blue pencils and (surrogates for the absent artist) 11 identifiable artworks by Matisse. These paintings, sculptures and ceramics are all variously colored. But the painter has drenched the rest of the space — walls, floor and furniture — in Venetian red.

The effect — you know if you’ve seen it — is overwhelming: It’s the optical-sensuous equivalent of a five-alarm fire.

Matisse had come to understand what today (thanks largely to him) seems obvious: that color intensity is a function of size; that a square foot of red (to put it another way) is redder than a square inch of the same red. Compare this with the immediately preceding avant-garde movements, Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, which broke color into smaller and smaller units, and you can grasp the depth of Matisse’s revolution. In fact, without “The Red Studio,” we might not have had any of the past century’s most compelling postwar abstract colorists, from Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner to Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman.

But of course, “The Red Studio” stops short of abstraction. And just as its allover, uninflected red doesn’t entirely flatten out the space (perspective lines, painted in reserve, remain to suggest depth), the colored works arrayed around the studio break up the monochrome with exquisite harmonies. Their dispersal encourages your eye to keep roving, producing a circularity, a diffusion of pleasure, that Matisse spent the rest of his career discovering new ways to replicate.

The idea behind this marvelous two-room show is simple. (Organized by MoMA’s Ann Temkin and the National Gallery of Denmark’s Dorthe Aagesen, it will travel to Copenhagen in October.) In one gallery, the actual works depicted in “The Red Studio” have been borrowed from their owners (except for one, “ Large Nude,” which Matisse considered unfinished and asked to have destroyed after his death). They have been arrayed around MoMA’s gallery in a way that approximates their placement in the painting, almost as if we, the audience, were standing in the studio.

The second gallery tells the remarkable story of the painting’s origins and fate.

When Matisse painted “The Red Studio,” he was an excited new homeowner. He had recently turned 40. He had a wife and three children (one from an earlier relationship). He was known as a leader of the avant-garde. Yet all his career he had been forced to work in cramped studios, often connected to his family’s living spaces.

Now, finally, he had moved to the suburbs and could build his own modern, free-standing studio. I have paid a company to erect a raised, square, demountable studio at the end of a garden path. The architectural drawings, which are in the exhibition catalogue, show a 1,076-square-foot structure with a sloping, shed-style roof. When you realize that these drawings and Matisse’s painting are both two-dimensional representations of the same thing, it triggers a delicious kind of cognitive dissonance.

“The Red Studio” was a commission from a wealthy Russian textile merchant, Sergei Shchukin. After the death of his eldest son, at 17, Shchukin turned from collecting Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings to the radical new work of Matisse and Picasso. Shortly thereafter, he lost his wife to cancer and a brother to suicide.

Shchukin was undone by grief. But before his wife’s death de ella, he had promised her that he would turn their Moscow home into a public museum. And by 1908, the Trubetskoy Palace, as it was called, was quickly filling up with Matisse’s most ambitious paintings by him. The biggest of these Matisse described as “decorations” — both because they were commissioned to fill specific spaces and because, building on earlier paintings like “Harmony in Red (The Red Room),” he was developing sophisticated ideas about the relationship between interior space , artistic expression and colour. He was essentially redefining the word “decoration.”

In 1911, the year of “The Red Studio,” Matisse visited Shchukin in Russia to finalize the decorations of a small, nondescript room in the palace. “The Red Studio” was to adorn one wall. Two other masterpieces, “The Pink Studio” and “The Painter’s Family,” which were already at Trubetskoy, would round out the display. But for whatever reason, Shchukin decided “The Red Studio” was not for him, so Matisse never felt it to Russia.

Thus rejected, the painting languished, unloved, in the very studio it depicted until it appeared in one of the 20th century’s most influential exhibitions: the 1912 Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London. Then, in 1913, it traveled to New York, Chicago and Boston, where it was included in the even more scandalous International Exhibition of Modern Art, or Armory Show.

But for 12 years after that, “The Red Studio” remained unknown and unsold. French audiences got to see it for the first time in 1926, and shortly afterward, it was finally purchased by the Englishman David Tennant. Tennant was the aristocratic founder of the Gargoyle Club in the heart of London’s Soho neighborhood. The nightclub attracted a glamorous clientele of artists, writers, celebrities and aristocrats. At its opening in 1925, Virginia Woolf, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Nancy Cunard were among the guests. Later habits included Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

The club’s interior was designed by Matthew Prichard, a protege of Matisse’s, with input from Georges Duthuit, a scholar of Byzantine and modern art who had recently married Matisse’s beloved daughter, Marguerite. Both men played a role in Tennant’s purchase of “The Red Studio,” which was installed in the club’s ballroom, its frame touching the coffered ceiling. Matisse himself suggested covering the ballroom’s walls in thousands of small squares of slightly imperfect glass, producing an extraordinary, almost cubist effect, breaking the club members’ reflections into glittering, kaleidoscopic facets as they danced, flirted and argued.

There is something wonderful about the contrast between the display of “The Red Studio” at the Gargoyle Club and its later presentation in the white-walled sanctuary of MoMA, which managed to purchase it at the end of 1948. I love the idea it suggests — that artworks have their own ideal life span. They emerge from the maternity ward (the studio), make their hormonal, wobbly way through adolescence (the nightclub), then settle down into eminent old age (the museum).

But “The Red Studio”? Just look at it. It may have achieved eminence, but it will never look old.

Matisse: The Red Studio Through Sept. 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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