“The object is an actor,” said Henri Matisse in 1951. “A good actor can have a part in 10 different plays; an object can play a role in 10 different pictures.” Matisse was not shy about his affection for his beloved objects, and such a rumination on both their importance and their function in his art is not unique to this single quote. Many of Matisse’s objects enjoyed several cameos in his work during the course of his career, and—luckily for us—nearly 40 of these objects are currently displayed, along with the artwork they inspired or are depicted in, in Matisse in the Studio, a fascinating and exhaustive new exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which will be on view through July 9.
Co-curated by MFA’s own Helen Burnham, Ellen McBreen (associate professor in art history at Wheaton College), and Ann Dumas (curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where the exhibition will open later this summer), Matisse in the Studio is an unprecedented look into Matisse’s unique relationship with his objects and how they jump-started his own artistic curiosity.
On view are over 70 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and cutouts. If this exhibition consisted only of this artwork, it would be quite enough. That Matisse’s own treasures (most of which are being publicly exhibited outside of France for the first time) are in the mix at all makes Matisse in the Studio the most exciting exhibition to hit Boston in some time.
The thrill of this exhibition goes beyond the simple ability to gaze upon Matisse’s objects, which is, in itself, no small gift for art lovers. But it is experiencing these objects alongside the artwork—like a real-life split screen—that is uniquely and unforgettably thrilling. (The exhibition is spectacularly designed by Chelsea Garunay.)
At the start, in a section called “The Object Is an Actor,” is a giant photograph of dozens of Matisse’s objects—some of which can be seen throughout the exhibition—that he sent to a friend in 1946. “Objects which have been of use to me all my life,” he inscribed on the back. He collected these objects around France or during his travels, and he especially gravitated toward things from Africa, the Middle East, and across Asia. In his time, the value of most of these objects was not necessarily a monetary one, though now they are priceless because of their connections to Matisse. Rather, their value came from the way that they made him feel.
Placed directly in front of this enlarged photograph is a simple Andalusian glass vase, and on either side of it are two paintings that feature this very vase. On one side, Vase of Flowers (1924), and on the other, Safrano Roses at the Window (1925). Both works show similar scenes in similar locations (they were painted in the same studio), yet they are markedly different in the ways that he manipulates color and tinkers with the harmony between the objects and in relation to the nearby water, visible through the window.
The next section, “The Nude and African Art,” shows how Matisse had become bored with the conventions of female nudes in art and instead turned to the more abstract and aggressive stylings that he admired from African traditions. It is here, and in the next section, “The Face,” that the influence of exotic figures and masks is explored to fascinating effect.
The epicenter of the exhibition, “Studio as Theatre,” is a dazzling feat of curatorial finesse and spectacular design. In Purple Robe and Anemones (1937), a pewter jug stuffed with flowers sits atop a small painted table. Behind it, a purple-robed woman reclines. It is a frenzied, boldly colored masterpiece in which the shapes and colors of the objects inform the treatment of both the woman and the walls behind her. The table, the jug, and the flowers very nearly stifle the woman, even almost blurring out her midsection. The model begins to seem secondary, a hint—perhaps—that it was his beloved objects that were given preference.
The final section, “Essential Forms,” is a taste of Matisse’s later work. An operation brought on by stomach cancer made it difficult for him to move around, and so he took to cutouts and drawings. I am partial to his cutouts, a brilliant example of which is Mimosa (1949-50), on loan from the Ikeda Museum of 20th Century Art in Japan.
But I could hardly wait to circle back into the previous room, “Studio as Theatre,” to take another look. The small painted table and the pewter jug featured in Anemones are on display, as is a Moroccan chair, Haitian window screens, an Egyptian tent curtain, and a Turkish brasero, all of which are featured in various works hung nearby.
I found myself squinting at these objects, looking back and forth between them and the artwork hung nearby, trying to reconcile the surprising emotions they brought to my surface. It’s a profound experience, and one that I’d wish for anyone.
MATISSE IN THE STUDIO. THROUGH 7.9 AT MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS BOSTON, 465 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. MFA.ORG