Matisse in the Studio: a visit to the Royal Academy of Arts

Matisse, The Sorrows of the King photo: flickr

Remember the Matisse Cut-Outs at the Tate Modern back in 2014? You don’t? Well I certainly do! The linearity, the simplicity of form, the block colours… oh my, I get so excited. My Christmas present this year was becoming a member or “friend” as the RA like to call it, (which I would definitely recommend as I heard about the current Matisse exhibition months in advance). I could hardly contain my excitement when Summer arrived. This exhibition would be my inspiration and mood-board for my next tattoo.

Exhibited in the Sackler gallery of the Royal Academy, Matisse’s paintings hang like the objects within his paintings. They are detached from one another but relate because they are within the same intimate space: “objects within the same intimacy”, as Matisse says.

In short, the exhibition is a summary of how his style evolved and where his influences came from. In the first room it starts with his focus on form and silhouette – stripping down the objects in his paintings to their raw shapes and colour, seen in his paintings of Chocolate Pot and Venetian Chair. The upholstery and ceramics (especially oriental and African art) are a major influence for his style, as seen in the third room of the gallery which focuses on his interest in the human figure and silhouette in both painting and sculpture. There are a series of three busts of the same woman which for me, instantly convey the theme “primitive” in their very abstracted style. Each bust is more abstracted than the one before, therefore the last one being very abstract or closest to our idea of modern art for the 20th century. His interest in ritualistic and tribal masks is purely for aesthetic reasons. If Matisse was alive today, he would have to justify his interest in African art for reasons other than it being aesthetically pleasing. Our society is quick to label artists or fashion designers as ‘cultural appropriating’ if there is an admiration of the style without much knowledge for the culture or history. The curators on the audio guide state that it is unlikely that Matisse knew or cared much for the function of these masks; it was the form of the masks that initially intrigued him.

This particular exhibition is not a “must-see” but if you are going to go, it’s worth spending a few extra pounds on an audio guide. The audio guide is informative and mildly entertaining with the cringe-worthy French narrator reading translated letters by Matisse intentionally struggling to pronounce the ‘h’s and various other words, while the background recording of Debussy’s Deux Arabesques is guaranteed a few eye rolls. Overall the exhibition was limited in terms of the amount of artwork that they had displayed. Admittedly it is difficult for the Royal Academy to live up to the Tate Modern’s Matisse Cut-Outs a few years back with their extensive amount of material and large scale works. If you went to this exhibition without knowing a thing about Matisse, it is likely that you would come away with a very limited idea about his art. In other words, the exhibition doesn’t represent his life fully therefore it is probably targeted at a specific audience who just want to further their knowledge.

As you can probably tell, I struggled to find this exhibition riveting. My gaze drifted from the block coloured paintings of coffee pots to the attendees of the exhibition who had made their best attempts to out-dress each other in the most cultured bohemian-London way. Whether it’s Green Park or Whitechapel, this is considered the go-to dress code for any London exhibition. At galleries today, it is the attendees that make the art.


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