Exhibitions

Object lesson

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

Why did Henri Matisse not play chess? It’s a question, perhaps, that few have ever pondered. Yet the great artist provided an answer, which is quoted in the catalogue to Matisse in the Studio, a marvellous new exhibition at the Royal Academy. He did not care, he explained, ‘to play with signs that never change’. It’s a revealing reason in several ways.

For one thing, it underlines how different Matisse was from his younger contemporary Marcel Duchamp: the most celebrated chess-player in art. Duchamp loved logic, so his work tended to turn into a series of theorems. Matisse, in contrast, lived and worked in a beautiful muddle, surrounded by clutter that included textiles, ceramics, an old chocolate pot, African sculptures, a wooden panel carved with Chinese calligraphy, jugs, vases and a bizarre Venetian chair that he’d picked up in an antique shop. As a title, Matisse and his Bric-à-brac would not have worked so well on posters, but it’s the theme of the exhibition — and a rich one.

In 1946, Matisse had a picture taken of an array of these bits and pieces lined up in rows on a tabletop, like pupils in ‘a school photograph’ as Ellen McBreen writes in the catalogue. On the back he wrote: ‘Objects that have been of use to me nearly all my life.’ The exhibition is about the role these odds, ends and bibelots had in the creation of modern masterpieces.

These items played various roles in his pictures, like actors. From one work to another — and even in developing stages of the same work — they may change in scale, colour and surface texture. That chocolate pot was a present to the painter and his wife Amélie on their wedding in 1898 from a fellow artist, Albert Marquet. It featured in a sequence of pictures over the following four decades — sometimes bigger, others smaller; now shiny, now not.

When Henri and Amélie broke up, she evidently got the chocolate pot — and he missed it so much that he got hold ofa substitute. And there, in the same gallery at the RA, is that very painting, a working sketch made of cut paper, and the chocolate pot itself, still gleaming after allthose years.

This piece of kitchenware underlines how, as far as Matisse was concerned, verisimilitude — ‘copying’ the objects in front of him — wasn’t the objective at all. As he told his students, you must ‘render the emotion’ the still life awakens in you. In other words: transform it into a picture with a life of its own.

He struggled hard to do this. ‘Still Life with Seashell on Black Marble’ (1940), a still life that includes three pomegranates, a large seashell, a cup, saucer, jug and the substitute chocolate pot demonstrates just how much thought and effort it required. The picture evolved through numerous states. Finally, he painted each element on paper, cut it out, and put them all on to a large sheet so that he could move them around until he came up with a harmony that satisfied him. Thus did Matisse achieve an effect of effortless, joyful ease.

More and more, as he went on, his aim wasn’t to imitate the surface appearance of a still life or a naked model. It was to create what he called a ‘sign’: that is, a series of lines that somehow transmitted the essence of the item. This is where Matisse’s large and unsystematic collection of non-European art was doubly useful to him.


The individual objects — many of which are included in the RA exhibition — could play a role in pictures, just like the chocolate pot or Venetian chair. Thus a magnificent Egyptian tent curtain and North African cotton screen turn up in picture after picture. But such things could also give him clues as to how to transform what he saw into ‘signs’.

Matisse was attempting to escape from the conventional European way of seeing and representing the world — a vision derived from photography and 19th-century academic art. Chinese calligraphy or African sculpture gave him clues about how to do this — which is why Matisse was the first modernist to take an interest in African art (even before Picasso, as he liked to point out).

Some years ago, I praised Matisse to a prominent member of the New York art world. ‘Oh,’ she responded, ‘these days I think we expect a bit more from art than that’ (probably she was thinking of the conceptual and ‘post-visual’ idioms that are ultimately descended from chess-playing Duchamp). What, I thought — more than energy, beauty, light, colour, grandeur and harmony?

Those wanting more of those after they leave the RA are advised to pop into the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street — just across Piccadilly — where there is an exhibition containing numerous outstanding works on paper and paintings by Matisse (until 16 September).

Why did Henri Matisse not play chess? It’s a question, perhaps, that few have ever pondered. Yet the great artist provided an answer, which is quoted in the catalogue to Matisse in the Studio, a marvellous new exhibition at the Royal Academy. He did not care, he explained, ‘to play with signs that never change’. It’s a revealing reason in several ways.

For one thing, it underlines how different Matisse was from his younger contemporary Marcel Duchamp: the most celebrated chess-player in art. Duchamp loved logic, so his work tended to turn into a series of theorems. Matisse, in contrast, lived and worked in a beautiful muddle, surrounded by clutter that included textiles, ceramics, an old chocolate pot, African sculptures, a wooden panel carved with Chinese calligraphy, jugs, vases and a bizarre Venetian chair that he’d picked up in an antique shop. As a title, Matisse and his Bric-à-brac would not have worked so well on posters, but it’s the theme of the exhibition — and a rich one.

In 1946, Matisse had a picture taken of an array of these bits and pieces lined up in rows on a tabletop, like pupils in ‘a school photograph’ as Ellen McBreen writes in the catalogue. On the back he wrote: ‘Objects that have been of use to me nearly all my life.’ The exhibition is about the role these odds, ends and bibelots had in the creation of modern masterpieces.

These items played various roles in his pictures, like actors. From one work to another — and even in developing stages of the same work — they may change in scale, colour and surface texture. That chocolate pot was a present to the painter and his wife Amélie on their wedding in 1898 from a fellow artist, Albert Marquet. It featured in a sequence of pictures over the following four decades — sometimes bigger, others smaller; now shiny, now not.

When Henri and Amélie broke up, she evidently got the chocolate pot — and he missed it so much that he got hold ofa substitute. And there, in the same gallery at the RA, is that very painting, a working sketch made of cut paper, and the chocolate pot itself, still gleaming after allthose years.

This piece of kitchenware underlines how, as far as Matisse was concerned, verisimilitude — ‘copying’ the objects in front of him — wasn’t the objective at all. As he told his students, you must ‘render the emotion’ the still life awakens in you. In other words: transform it into a picture with a life of its own.

He struggled hard to do this. ‘Still Life with Seashell on Black Marble’ (1940), a still life that includes three pomegranates, a large seashell, a cup, saucer, jug and the substitute chocolate pot demonstrates just how much thought and effort it required. The picture evolved through numerous states. Finally, he painted each element on paper, cut it out, and put them all on to a large sheet so that he could move them around until he came up with a harmony that satisfied him. Thus did Matisse achieve an effect of effortless, joyful ease.

More and more, as he went on, his aim wasn’t to imitate the surface appearance of a still life or a naked model. It was to create what he called a ‘sign’: that is, a series of lines that somehow transmitted the essence of the item. This is where Matisse’s large and unsystematic collection of non-European art was doubly useful to him.

The individual objects — many of which are included in the RA exhibition — could play a role in pictures, just like the chocolate pot or Venetian chair. Thus a magnificent Egyptian tent curtain and North African cotton screen turn up in picture after picture. But such things could also give him clues as to how to transform what he saw into ‘signs’.

Matisse was attempting to escape from the conventional European way of seeing and representing the world — a vision derived from photography and 19th-century academic art. Chinese calligraphy or African sculpture gave him clues about how to do this — which is why Matisse was the first modernist to take an interest in African art (even before Picasso, as he liked to point out).

Some years ago, I praised Matisse to a prominent member of the New York art world. ‘Oh,’ she responded, ‘these days I think we expect a bit more from art than that’ (probably she was thinking of the conceptual and ‘post-visual’ idioms that are ultimately descended from chess-playing Duchamp). What, I thought — more than energy, beauty, light, colour, grandeur and harmony?

Those wanting more of those after they leave the RA are advised to pop into the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street — just across Piccadilly — where there is an exhibition containing numerous outstanding works on paper and paintings by Matisse (until 16 September).

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