Some famous paintings seem to forcibly pull you into them.
Mark Rothko crystallized why this is so when he observed,
"The reason I paint them [large pictures]... is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereo-opticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command."
Henri Matisse. The Red Studio, 1911. Oil on canvas, 5' 11 1/4" by 7' 2 1/4". The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund.
And so it is with The Red Studio, one of the most remarkable Matisse paintings, and for me, one of the most stunning paintings in the whole of the history of painting.
Braque, Picasso and other Cubists had been experimenting with the geometry of pictorial space since 1906, five years before Matisse completed Red Studio. His brilliant exploration of this geometry, though, makes The Red Studio a milestone in the history of painting.
On the one hand, the theme of The Red Studio - the artist's studio - is conventional and had been repeatedly explored by other famous painters. Handled by Henri Matisse, though, Red Studio becomes a unique exploration of redefining space by manipulating line and color.
The Red Studio interior is a uniform shade of red that blankets floor, table, and ceiling. Volume is hinted at subtly with angled lines and with delineation of where the floor meets the wall. There is no such definition in the corner, whose existence the viewer must deduce from the angles of paintings tilted against the wall. That corner is, oddly, an immediate focus in this work - realizing its absence, you search for how this famous painter conveys volume and depth.
You're in the painting, just as Rothko said. It's pure brilliance.
The white lines are not painted; instead, Matisse has allowed slivers of underpainted yellows and blues to show through. Furniture is captured this way, conveying its immateriality compared to what is of value here, the Matisse paintings, sculptures, and tools. (In the upper right hangs Le luxe (II), part of the recently concluded Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago and MoMA).
The book accompanying the Matisse exhibition describes The Red Studio as "radically spare", but I don't find this Matisse painting spare in any sense. Instead, Matisse offers proudly the fruits of his creativity, differentiating them from the flat, red expanses and from the ghost-like white lines of objects. With the handless grandfather clock, he's intimating that time stands still in his magical, personal room.
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