The artist’s studio is different things to different people. I’ve been in quite a few of these (often magical) spaces. The first I can remember is Barbara Hepworth’s in Cornwall, and most of what I recollect about that visit is the ashtrays, which were everywhere. Duncan Grant’s studio at Charleston had half-full ashtrays as well, also a decorated fireplace with a lovely metal stove, bottles of whisky, painted screens and over-stuffed chairs.
Younger artists’ studios I recall ranged from the one hung floor to ceiling with the painter/sculptor’s own work, to the one – no prizes for guessing who this was– where moveable screens hid all but the works the painter wanted the visitor to see.
Several of the painters’ studios I’ve viewed contained paintings by other hands, usually by friends or other admired artists; but even more contained objects – furniture, ceramics, sculptures, vases, mirrors, textiles, carpets, coffee-pots, suitcases, even pots and pans – which the artist valued for aesthetic reasons of one sort or another. In the case of some artists, some of these had fairly obviously become fetishes, to be sketched, drawn or painted over and over. One very great artist collected fine examples of all the above, but admitted none of them into the studio except the odd chair or table.
Matisse was clearly of the fetishist persuasion, which is why the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and now the Royal Academy were able to mount the exhibition called “Matisse in the Studio.” Of course there were some items shown in Boston and not in London, and vice versa – but it’s a nicely manageable show of a hundred or so items ranging from the ethnographic (Kuba embroidered textile and a Congolese mask or two) to the ecclesiastical (maquettes for chasubles) to the almost practical (the staggeringly ornate 19th century Venetian chair).
Ultimately the viewer wants to know not what Matisse had in his studio, but why he made space for these objects – which means seeing what use he put them to in his work. While the fact that he collected them might tell us something about an artist’s psyche, in Matisse’s case, at least, the really interesting questions are only answered by pinpointing the objects in his work.
For example, one of the first displays is a blue-green early 20th century blown glass vase from Andalusia. Perhaps this is one of those ambiguous duck-rabbit images, and I am only perceiving the duck – or the rabbit. But I cannot help seeing in this vase a slightly stout woman with her fists resting on her hips. This seems so evident to me, that I cannot imagine that Matisse himself wasn’t reminded of a determined (or complaining) woman, and bought it because the idea amused him. (It is not a thing of outstanding beauty or delicacy or great craftsmanship.)
However, when Matisse used the vase as a prop – or subject – in at least two paintings, it seems to me that he masculinised the object. I’m not saying that in either the Vase of Flowers, 1924 in the Boston show, or Safrano Roses at the Window, 1925 at the RA, the vase has turned into a phallus. But as I think you can see from these illustrations, he’s altered the proportions of the vase. It’s less squat, more elongated and slimmer in both paintings, and the frowning or resolute old woman-aspect has all but vanished. (But you might disagree with me; one person to whom I showed these illustrations already has done.) This speculation (or reflection) leaves me a bit puzzled, as I feel so certain that Matisse saw in the vase what I see in the vase when he bought it. Yet this property, this quality, is not present in either of the paintings. Why not? Though this seems to me a prima facie instance of a really interesting question, I can’t pretend to have an answer. This bothers me more than the relationship of many of the other objects in curator Ann Dumas’ invigorating show, chiefly because most of them have some compositional role or – dare we say it? – decorative purpose in the paintings, drawings, cut-outs and graphics displayed alongside them. I love the idea in the press handout that “Matisse’s objects formed a secret history hiding in plain sight.” I only wish I understood what this means. Even the essays in the splendid book, also entitled “Matisse in the Studio,” haven’t answered the question for me.
If the RA show is just a touch light on paintings, there is another, amazing Matisse show just across Piccadilly. The Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street, has a lot of very covetable prints for sale, but also hanging is L’artiste et le modèle nu, 1923, which foregrounds the artist in his striped pyjamas, sitting at his easel, painting his model, Antoinette Arnoud. On the dressing table is our blue-green vase. What a coup to be showing this painting and Nu aux jambes croisées, 1936, depicting his studio assistant, Lydia Delektorskaya! And according to the handout, “all works will be available for sale.”