The red monochrome that changed the history of painting: this is how Matisse anticipated abstraction | Culture

The red monochrome that changed the history of painting: this is how Matisse anticipated abstraction | Culture
The red monochrome that changed the history of painting: this is how Matisse anticipated abstraction | Culture

It cannot be considered an abstract painting, but neither is it fully figurative. The red workshoppainted in 1911 by Henri Matisse, represents the atelier of the French artist in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a country town at the gates of Paris. Inside there are a dozen works of art and a handful of decorative objects. So far, everything is in order: it could be any work centered on the workspace of a mid-century painter. Except that this workshop is immersed in a red monochrome that was ahead of its time, an almost supernatural antimatter that turns what could have been a canonical canvas into a radical experiment. “I like it, but I don’t quite understand it. I don’t know why I painted it exactly like that,” Matisse confessed when finishing it.

More than a century later, the painting continues to fascinate for its abundant mysteries. It is a flat and almost conceptual image, which frees painting from its narrative function and its obligatory representation of reality, abolished in the name of a still unconscious abstraction. More than a painting, it is a manifesto on the use of color, an artistic element that had already gained autonomy a couple of decades before with the emergence of the impressionists. A new exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, Matisse: L’atelier rougeinvestigates the history of that painting, not always known, and brings together the works that are represented in it (except one, which was destroyed).

A visitor in front of ‘The Young Sailor (1906), by Matisse, exhibited at the Louis Vuitton Foundation exhibition in Paris.MOHAMMED BADRA (EFE)

The result, which can be visited until September 9, is a kind of journey inside the painting. It also allows us to relate the artistic evolution of the painter in the first decade of the last century: with this reddish interior, Matisse put an end to his Fauvist period and entered decisively into new pictorial adventures. In the painting, 1.80 meters high by 2.20 meters wide, the painter’s lair – a prefabricated structure, as was styled in those times of incipient hygiene – takes on the appearance of an improvised art gallery, with oil paintings , bronzes, plasters and terracottas mixed with his grandfather’s clock, a chair, a box with pencils and chalk, a half-full (or half-empty) wine glass and a ceramic plate.

Among the hanging works is a little-known oil painting, Corsica, the old mill (1898), painted in Ajaccio, where the sun blurs the contours and details, as Matisse had already understood a few years before, during a stay on the Breton island of Belle-Île, which Monet also frequented. Even so, the Mediterranean suited his artistic project more, as he discovered in Saint-Tropez with Signac, and in Collioure next to Derain. The gray skies of northern Europe paralyzed the creativity of this son of a seed merchant, born near the border with Belgium. Two most famous works, The young sailor (1906), portrait with a light palette and free brush strokes, and He luxury (1907-08), the first experiment with the matte surfaces of tempera, also influenced the magnum opus of this exhibition.

Matisse’s workshop is immersed in a red monochrome that was ahead of its time, a supernatural antimatter that turns what could have been a canonical canvas into a radical experiment.

A master of synesthesia, Matisse believed that green was not suitable for painting grass, nor blue for outlining the sky. In 1905 he signed woman with hat, portrait of his wife, Amélie, in hallucinatory color ranges, such as indigos, turquoises and yellows. When they asked him what color his wife was dressed in, the painter replied: “Evidently, she was wearing black.” With the same iconoclastic spirit, he colored the painting of his atelier of a Venetian red, the favorite color of Tintoretto and Titian, but also that of the Altamira painters. It was a sudden impulse at the end of the process, when he already had the painting almost finished. Matisse let it rest for a month and then applied that color “almost in one sitting,” even though it did not conform to the physical reality he had before his eyes. In the initial version, the walls were blue, the floor was pink and the furniture was ocher, as some traces of color on the edges make clear. It was discovered a few years ago by the MoMA in New York, owner of the painting and co-producer of this exhibition focused on just a handful of canvases and far from the blockbusters which present an endless succession of works in the rooms, allowing for greater concentration and attention to detail.

The red workshop He had an unequal fate. At first, she was misunderstood and sometimes ridiculed. Her patron, the Russian industrialist Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, a great collector of the avant-garde and who had supported Matisse in all of his experiments, did not hesitate to acquire Dance and Music when its primitivism was still not well understood—he did not want to buy it, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the small revolution that this painting represented. “Now I prefer his paintings with figures,” he politely justified himself in a letter to the painter. The work was exhibited in London a year later, in 1912, as part of a post-impressionist exhibition. Criticism of the time shows that it was poorly received, as would happen at the Armory Show in New York just a few months later, where it was also the object of relative ridicule.

The sculpture ‘Nu débout, très cambré (1906-1907), by Matisse, in the exhibition rooms. It is one of the works represented in ‘The Red Workshop’ (1911).
MOHAMMED BADRA (EFE)

The work did not find a buyer until 1927, when David Tennant, owner of the Gargoyle Club, acquired it to place it in the ballroom of that meeting place for London high society. It ended up in the hands of a New York gallery owner, Georges Keller, at the end of World War II, when MoMA began to show interest in the work, under the impulse of its first director, Alfred Barr Jr. The purchase was closed in 1948. The painting was presented to the public in the middle of the following year with the title by which it is known today (Matisse had preferred the more prosaic red panel) and became a founding act of the pictorial modernity of the 20th century. The work powerfully influenced a new generation of art critics and future figures of abstract expressionism or minimalism, such as Mark Rothko, impressed by the expressive power of that red, or Ellsworth Kelly, protagonist of a retrospective simultaneous to that of Matisse in the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which translated the French painter’s use of monochrome into geometric abstraction.

The red workshop It marked a turning point in the history of painting, but also in Matisse’s own production. The exhibition demonstrates this with paintings such as Red fish and sculpture (1912), signed only a few months later, distinguished by its use of a similar monochrome, only in cerulean blue. Or, decades later, his Big red interior (1948), which took up Cervantes’s method of the work within the work and reproduced some of the painter’s paintings. It would be a turning point in his career. Right after, Matisse got involved in his latest project: the famous cut-outscutouts of white paper painted with gouacheto whom he dedicated the final stretch of his life before dying in 1954. It was the last example of his endless audacity.

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