Had a lovely interlude the other day visiting the Royal Academy – always a favourite place anyway, as it’s directly opposite the duck-egg blue box of treats that is Fortnum & Mason – with a friend I hadn’t seen for ages. We went to see the Matisse in his Studio exhibition.
This was such a fab idea for a show. We all know Matisse’s works, the jolly cut-outs, the white figures against cerulean blue backgrounds, the joyful patterns. Probably only the most sharp-eyed amongst us (and I’m definitely not including myself here) will have noticed the fact that certain props, vases, throws, even chairs, pop up time and time again. In a way, it’s not at all surprising. Vermeer’s sparsely furnished rooms always featured the same chairs, and his models often wore one particular yellow fur-trimmed cape. Artists don’t have limitless funds and, once they’ve nailed drawing one particular object, it must be tempting just to carry on with it.
But, for some reason, the objects in the Matisse exhibition all seemed like old friends. I hadn’t particularly noticed or cherished them over the years, but I must have clocked them at some level because it was really lovely seeing them at close quarters. I particularly loved the green glass vase that was one of the first exhibits. With its hand-blown, slightly irregular curved handles on either side, and its deep, rich green shade, I suddenly understood that I really knew it very well. It pops up in all kinds of pictures by Matisse. I’d thought the irregularity of the ear-like handles was part of Matisse’s exuberant style – turns out it was fact.
I also loved the photos, of Matisse in collar and tie, sitting behind his desk for all the world like a prosperous suburban bank manager. Not for him the chaos of a Francis Bacon-style paint-splattered studio, but an orderly procession of treasured objects, waiting their turn to play a part in his next idea.
When we got to the quirky chair with many struts at the back, and I realised this was where Matisse’s model had sat for the portrait right in front of us, I actually found myself very moved. I felt much closer to the artist than I ever have. I can’t really explain it, it’s a curious alchemy of having the real solid objects, in front of the product of Matisse’s hand and eye, all together in the same room that makes it seem a lot more possible to understand his act of creation and to feel, in some small odd way, a part of it. Go and see it, if you can, and see if it works for you. Clever old Royal Academy.