Matisse in the Studio

A new exhibition shows not only the paintings but the things that were painted, reports John Westbrooke

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The surprise of the Royal Academy’s unusual new exhibition is just how many of the objects that became Matisse’s subjects are still around.

Visitors to his studio (he died in Nice in 1954) were often startled at the amount of sheer stuff he had, on tables, mantelpieces, wherever there was space. Photos blown up on the RA walls show they weren’t exaggerating.

Art works, religious objects, souvenirs, bric-a-brac – if anything attracted or intrigued him he would take it home, look at it, move it around, study it, take it with him to the next home. Many of them found their way into his painting.

For instance, there’s a translucent green glass vase he picked up in Spain. Perhaps it reminded him of the clear light of the south. It turns up full of flowers, standing on a table and looking out at the sea (some of it a similar green) in “Safrano Roses at the Window”. Perhaps it also reminded him of other things: seen here it looks a little like a woman seen from behind, hands on hips.

The most striking object on display is an ornate wooden Venetian chair. Its seat and back take the form of an open seashell on animal legs. Its arms are snaky, but have the heads and tails of fish. Matisse drew and painted it over and over, getting to grips with its sinuous curves and its uniqueness; several examples are on show alongside the seat itself.

And who ever made a study of the chocolate pot in art? But when you look, there they are. Two of Matisse’s are on show here, along with paintings and drawings of them. He drew them for the shape, or filled them with flowers and painted them for their colour. He sketched one along with several other favourite objects, cut them out separately and moved them around to see how best they would interact, before finally painting them all together.

As he noted: “An object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.”

But sometimes his objects were more than just bit-part players, they were keys to a new means of seeing. In 1906 he bought an African sculpture, which sparked a lifelong interest (he passed it on to Picasso) in what was then seen as primitive art. For him, it pointed the way to a less superficial representation of the true nature of things.

A face behind a mask might tell you more about the owner than if it had been depicted in the traditional European way. One mask he acquired clearly influenced the impassive face of the subject of “The Italian Woman”, its hair somehow expanding into a veil covering her right shoulder; they’re hung side by side.

The development of half-tone printing gave a boost to photo magazines like L’Humanité Feminine, which had photos of women from exotic lands, without their clothes on. Matisse’s “Standing Nude” took the subject’s pose from one of these, but with heavy black outlines that make it look more like an ebony carving, and with a head derived from a Congolese mask – it doesn’t quite fit, but the painter experimented for years to absorb all these influences and make them work for him.

There’s a room full of Orientalism too, as the painter imbibed the atmosphere of Islamic North Africa, parts of which were under French rule. Again he used his collection as props, such as a decorated chair and table, but also a “haiti” – an ornate Moroccan screen of cotton appliquéd on cloth.

Sometimes he painted seductive odalisques – harem women, for European men to ogle – but in “The Moorish Screen” he places his haiti behind two contemporary young European women in white, one with a tennis racket. They’re making themselves at home, but they look out of place, and perhaps that’s exactly what Europeans in North African colonies were.

This does bring accusations nowadays of cultural appropriation – making a living out of using the culture of other countries or races. It wasn’t an issue then; but we can see that Matisse tried hard to adapt his artistic approach to the cultures he studied rather than the other way round.

Late in life, an invalid after a cancer operation, he refined his vision even further, working on “signs”. He’d had a 19th-century black Chinese panel with four calligraphic characters in gold since 1929; now he worked on simplifying everything in similar fashion, paring things down to what he called their essentials.

The most famous are his cut-outs, the subject of a big Tate Modern exhibition in 2014. By now, though, he was scarcely dealing in objects any more – adapting the occasional pattern from an African textile or a Chinese vase, but that’s about it. One of the giants of 20th-century art had created a remarkable second life for himself, but he’d moved beyond the focus of this exhibition.

Matisse in the Studio runs at the Royal Academy until 12 November 2017. Adults £15.50 including voluntary donation, concessions available.