Visual Arts Review: “Matisse: The Red Studio” – A Lesson in Objects

By Melissa Rodman

Getting the viewer to make visual connections between Matisse’s pieces in the title painting is central to MoMA. The Red Workshop.

Matisse: The Red Studio. On view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York through September 10, 2022. Curated by Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis, MoMA, and Dorthe Aagesen, Curator in Head and Director Researcher, SMK, The National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen, with Madeleine Haddon, Curatorial Assistant, and Charlotte Barat, former Curatorial Assistant, MoMA.

“The Red Workshop”, Henri Matisse; Issy-les-Moulineaux, autumn 1911. Oil on canvas. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund.© 2022 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Four quotes printed on the white walls of the hallway of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), leading to the main gallery, announce what is to come: (1) “The set is Venetian red”. (2) “This red, a little warmer than red ochre, is an accurate color in the palette.” (3) “The painting is surprising at first sight. It is obviously new. » (4) « Did I tell you that he represents my workshop? These hard-hitting and propelling excerpts are taken from a letter that artist Henri Matisse wrote to his patron Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin in 1912, hoping to land the sale of “The Red Studio” (oil on canvas, 1911).

This striking painting, which Shchukin refused to purchase, anchors a new MoMA exhibition also called The red workshop. Two enticing rooms tell the story of the painting — the first brings together the works depicted in the painting, which have not been seen together for over a century; the second brings together plans, letters, photographs and newspaper clippings that illustrate the winding path of painting from Matisse’s studio in Issy-les-Moulineaux, on the outskirts of Paris, to several chic places in London and the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York to the midtown Manhattan gallery and finally to the MoMA collection in 1949.

“The Red Studio” catches your eye. Its deep brick red does not so much permeate the picture plane as this color creates, inhabits, is space. Inside this studio-represented-on-canvas, pale, multicolored, almost ghostly silhouettes situate the artist’s furniture (two tables, a chair, stools, a chest of drawers and a grandfather clock). In the image, luminous paintings populate the walls and rest on the floor, giving the compressed room a subtle illusion of three-dimensionality. The eye connects three small sculptures — two sinuous bodies; a bust, which, if you look at it long enough, begins to look like a torso – to the other figures featured in paintings-within-a-painting. A royal blue silhouette of a fetal figure on a dish in the foreground echoes and harmonizes with these ubiquitous human forms.

Henri Matisse. “Young Sailor II.” 1906. Oil on canvas. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © 2022 Estate of H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Getting the viewer to make visual connections between Matisse’s pieces is at the heart of The Red Workshop. With light and discreet curatorial touches, the first room encourages the viewer to wander among the works of art, seemingly torn from Matisse’s canvas and fallen into the present: the terracotta sculpture, the bronzes, even the dish – all exposed generously spaced pedestals to allow for 360-degree views – as well as the handful of paintings in the painting mounted on MoMA’s walls. Together these works acquire a certain depth, enlivened by their proximity to the titular painting. Likewise, the painting comes to life in the presence of the autonomous pieces it represents.

Consider the dish (“Female Nude”, glazed earthenware, 1907). In “The Red Studio” painting, the plaque is a flat, whitish disc with the rapidly brushed, sketchy fetal form in its center, surrounded by small yellow and blue flowers. Up close, however, the original terracotta piece sports hairline cracks; the design of the flower curves like the surface of the plate curves; and the main figure sharpens, gains fingers, toes and a face.

With a manageable number of objects to consider, the viewer gets to know them well. The central placement of ‘The Red Studio’ painting makes it easy to navigate neatly: look at half the room – land at its midpoint to linger in front of ‘The Red Studio’, to identify the first group of works you have just seen. see in circles — before continuing to the rest of the rooms. A large painting from this last group, “Le Luxe (II)” (painting on canvas, 1907-08), stands out. It’s another body study, three nude women with gray outlines. The rolling landscape behind them splits into thick bands, colored in mauve, burnt sienna and teal. Although the contents (hills, sky, body) are curled and flattened, the thin, curvilinear outline somehow counteracts the two-dimensionality.

In the painting “The Red Studio”, Matisse replaced the warm beige complexion of the women “Le Luxe (II)” with the ubiquitous Venetian red. A gallery label notes that “Le Luxe (II)” belongs to the “age-old tradition of European painting of depicting groups of figures relaxing in natural settings” (a curatorial nod that made me jump in mind “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”, 1863) and then adds: “At the beginning of the 20th century, many avant-garde artists depicted racial difference in a deliberate challenge to European ideals of beauty”.

The second room of the exhibition resumes this avant-garde plot. Moving from cramped Parisian neighborhoods, followed by a stay in two convents, Matisse envisioned a bedroom of his own far from Paris, an affordable, utilitarian and bright space where he could embark on new work. Hiring the firm Compagnie des Constructions Démontables et Hygiéniques, he co-designed his 10 by 10 meter (33 by 33 foot) studio, the detailed plans of which are included in the assembly of the exhibition.

Henri Matisse. Bathers. 1907. Oil on canvas, Gift of the Augustinus Foundation and the New Carlsberg Foundation. SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen. © 2022 Estate of H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In October 1912, “The Red Studio” moved for the first time from Matisse’s studio to the Grafton Galleries in London, as part of the “Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition”, organized by Roger Fry, a member of the Bloomsbury literati. There – and at the February 1913 Armory Show in New York, which later traveled to Chicago and Boston – critics and the general public disdained Matisse’s work. “Matisse dances a wild tango on a strange barbaric shore,” said critic Harriet Monroe, from New York, in the Chicago Daily Tribune. “Matisse, in his ‘Red Panel’ [‘Red Panel,’ i.e., what we now call ‘The Red Studio’] and one or two other pictures, throws figures and furniture onto his canvas with precisely the lavish impartiality and reckless draughtsmanship of a child. Needless to say, no one at the Armory Show bought the painting.

But all was not lost. In 1927, “The Red Studio” wooed a buyer, David Tennant, and found a home for just over a decade, hung in the mirror-tiled ballroom of Tennant’s London nightclub, the Gargoyle. Tennant eventually entrusted the painting to the Redfern Gallery, also in London, causing a domino effect of Redfern at New York’s Bignou Gallery at MoMA.

It was – and still is – in this last institution that “The Red Studio” received its due. “Each time I look at it, I derive such pleasure from it that any other reaction comes after the fact,” MoMA administrator James Thrall Soby wrote in a December 1948 letter to the Committee on Museum Collections (a letter which, of course, , is included in The red workshop exposure). “For God’s sake, let’s buy it.”


Melissa Rodman is a writer whose work has also appeared in Public books, Reading forumand The Harvard Crimsonamong others.

Briana R. Cross