Way up in the attic of the Royal Academy of Arts in London at the moment is a studio I wanted to visit, although I wasn’t sure if the artist was going to be at home or not.
First possible mistake: I took the frosted glass stairway up. This was disorientating to my aging eyes and I took a step that wasn’t there much to the amusement of the children who nimbly followed me up. I bet the Queen took the lift when she opened the Sackler Wing in 1991. Sensible girl!
The front door was open, and in we went – Matisse in the Studio. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this exhibition; I knew that it tried to marry up Matisse’s work with the various objects that he acquired and he used as props that appeared, and re-appeared, in his paintings and sculpture throughout his life. Immediately I am confronted with a green vase – with it’s hands on hips. What is it I want? I could see it was slightly contorted in it’s hand-blown (mouth-blown / hand-made) state. It wasn’t my eyes, or Matisse’s, or necessarily the way he depicted it – it really was like that. Green vases, all with hands on hips, looked back at me from the walls. Although more of them, they had lost their aggressiveness, I saw through them, and marvelled at the art instead.
The rooms that followed were arranged by themes: The Object as Actor; The Nude in juxtaposition with African Sculpture; The Face with Masks; The Studio as Theatre; and the last room was Signs where the late cut-outs adorn the walls in a triumph of colour and shape overseen by a Chinese calligraphic panel given to Matisse by his wife. You can see the link.
But, having moved around the rooms I sneak back past the green vase, who’s attention had been diverted by other visitors. The star of this show is undoubtedly the Chocolate Pots in the Object is an Actor room, and to mis-quote Bob Dylan: ” There is no actor anywhere better than the Chocolate Pot!” So much so, Matisse has 2 of them! Perhaps one was an understudy for when the principal was ill. A more likely story, is the first was a wedding present from his first marriage, and as that marriage disintegrated the first Mrs Matisse understandably held onto this Chocolate Pot, and Matisse full of bereavement and loss had to replace it. What beautiful objects they are! The wonderful large bulbous pot-belly of the silver supported on 3 tiny legs that don’t look strong enough for the job. The spout to pour the frothy hot chocolate out (you have to imagine the contents), and a lid to flip up and peer in (if you were allowed – hence imagination required). Best of all though is this great wooden appendage of an arm that sticks out perpendicular to the whole contraption. The pot must be hot I guess, and this is to aid the picking up and pouring. Matisse’s depictions of this are manifold. An early predecessor of the cut-outs on the wall next to the pots shows how it got moved about, and eventually, literally, pinned down in position as shown finally in the painting “Still Life with Seashell on Black Marble” on the wall by it’s side. My attention was more drawn to a small insignificant colour chart on show where dowsed with various colours the coffee pot appeared several times upstaging simple sketches of herons that also appear rather bizarrely. What a delight. It is great to see these snippets that show how the artist is really thinking.
This exhibition that focuses on the sources for Matisse’s work, does ultimately depress me when thinking about my own work. In Matisse’s time, it wasn’t that long ago, mass production was not at the forefront of everything. There was not the straight-lined perfection of some machine, but hand produced objects that had character and love already built into them with their imperfections and wonkiness that captured your heart. When I got home I looked at our teapot. I drew our teapot. It wasn’t the same. “About as useless as a chocolate teapot” as the saying goes, but that would be far better than what we have. Perhaps I need to start searching the second-hand shops and auction rooms (and chocolate shops!) for my own objects to train up as actors and appear in my artistic dramas.