At the Royal Academy

Peter Campbell

A photograph from a 35 mm film, shot with a normal 50 mm lens, matches up pretty well to what you think you see when you glance at a place or a room. An image printed from a bigger piece of film holds more information: you may, for example, be able to take a magnifying glass and read titles on the spines of books which would be too far away were you standing where the camera stood. Records of rooms and buildings made before miniature cameras became commonplace can have a preternatural sharpness. Thirty-five millimetre reportage, when it was a novelty, seemed to show a new world because, even though it told you less about what was out there, it was better at letting you know what it would have been like to be there. The late years of the great painters of the School of Paris, tracked down to their apartments and studios (particularly those who had, by the late 1940s and 1950s, become more a School of the Côte d’Azur), made wonderful subjects for this kind of photography when it was in its lively prime. The pictures of Matisse’s rooms in the exhibition Matisse: His Art and His Textiles (at the Royal Academy until 30 May and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 23 June until 25 September), many of them by Henri Cartier-Bresson, are especially beguiling. The painters’ lives were more troubled and difficult than the photographs suggest but, in the cases of Bonnard and Matisse in particular, one feels delightfully intimate with the painters and their subject-matter: these are the rooms, the models, the furniture one knows from the paintings.

For all that one seems to be offered glimpses of similar private paradises, the relation of work to workplace was different in each case. Bonnard looked about him and made paintings from the facts of domestic life: a tiled floor, a woman in the bath, a breakfast table, a view through the window. He looked, drew and then painted. Matisse, on other hand, invented, chose and arranged, setting up the image before he painted it. His starting point – the objects on the table, the model, the clothes she wore, the flowers, the furniture and, above all, the printed and woven textiles which surrounded her and lay on the floor in front of her – was, like Monet’s flowerbeds and lily pond, created not found.

Matisse was thus, in his studio practice, oddly close to the 19th-century academic painters whose traditions he had rebelled against. He clothed models in harem trousers, transparent tops, peasant blouses and fashionable frocks from the studio dressing-up box much, one imagines, as Gérôme did. There is no reason for the exhibition to include Matisse’s most radical pictures – those don’t include textiles – so there are no dancers here or landscapes and the show is necessarily dominated by studio pictures of decorative girls with blank faces sitting down or lying about. It was paintings like these which led critics to question the direction Matisse’s art was taking in the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition lets one test the issue and see if his prettier pictures aren’t closer to his more difficult, grander, less ingratiating ones than canonical histories of modern art allow. It promotes the view that if you take more account of the drapes and less of the girls, Matisse’s genius as a pattern-maker emerges as a factor common to all his work. Take that on board and the other break – between the abstract and near abstract collages, stained glass, church vestments and wall decorations of his last years and his lusciously decorative still lifes, odalisques and ladies-in-frocks – also proves to be less sharp.

The exhibition’s first case establishes textiles as a source of visual pleasure. It contains books of samples from Bohain-en-Vermandois – swatches of the silks woven by people from the town Matisse grew up in. His early exposure to pattern and colour in an otherwise artistically impoverished and physically bleak world is thus demonstrated. These samples are not, however, representative of the textiles Matisse collected. The first of those, a length of toile de Jouy printed in blue, was something he noticed in a junk-shop window from the top of a bus in 1903. It became, as Ann Dumas puts it in the catalogue, ‘a crucial ally in his struggle to demolish the ancient canons of perspective, tonal values and three-dimensional illusion’.[*] It went from a first showing as the tablecloth in a still life to become the background of a figure study. In Harmony in Red (a painting commissioned by the Russian textile manufacturer Sergei Shchukin as Harmony in Blue) it spreads over the entire wall – transformed not just in scale, but in colour, from blue on white to blue on red. It is still to be seen in photographs of his studio taken in 1946. The fabrics and costumes he collected were neither an aesthetically coherent group nor intrinsically fine: their value lay in the uses he found for them. That they attracted him as resources to be used in the bower-bird-like decoration of his rooms – rooms which were also his subject-matter – was enough. The range of kinds (pieces of bark cloth, ethnic costumes, couture dresses, rugs, embroideries, hangings and so on) and of sources (the Pacific, Africa, China, France, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Russia) is very wide. They were a library, tools of the trade, and necessary to sustain an appetite of heroic proportions for colour, texture and pattern.

People who visited the rooms shown in the photographs spoke of the blissful exuberance of the colour. The black and white images which are now our best record of them do not, for some reason, make me hanker after it. Matisse’s drawings and lithographs from the late 1920s – a period when he was doing little oil painting – are, like the photographs, colourful without being coloured. You read colour into the drawn patterns of the fabrics which nudes lie on and other women are dressed in. The character of the drawn decoration – no matter that it is in black and white – makes you assume colour is there. Some of the lithographs pay homage to the ‘ancient canons’ of tone and perspective – there are shadows and figures recede – but the most economical of them, drawn in simple, firm lines in pen or chalk, abandon shading and recession. Shapes in space are made into patterns on a flat sheet. In this case, however, the pattern is taken from life. There are marks outlining folds of flesh and establishing the position of limbs which, unlike those in the etchings of Picasso’s Vollard Suite, say, make you feel (for all that they don’t attempt to follow profiles pedantically) that they must be observations not inventions.

To put light in a picture you must have some way of establishing its absence – shadow. In Matisse’s pictures, Hilary Spurling writes, ‘light is not so much reproduced as emitted or in Matisse’s own words “provoked”’. He did not find colour combinations of more or less equal tonality and saturation which, none the less, read as bright and shaded. That is what Bonnard did, and the Impressionists before him. Matisse, true to his decorative instincts, lets shapes and colours argue it out on the surface rather than suggest depth or the fall of light. In his career the trade-off of form for pattern and of light for colour was a personal struggle. No one in a later generation – perhaps few in his own – has inward knowledge of the sense of transgression that following his instincts produced.

The pictures and the textiles, seen together, make one newly aware of Matisse’s ability to absorb, and then to pass on, his pleasure in his subject-matter: not just girls, flowers, rooms and textiles but his arrangements of them. If the basis of his art was a kind of window dressing or stage design, its realisation raised that craft to new heights.

The exhibition is a revelation. Most exhibitions, even the most interesting, tend to confirm things rather than reveal them, but here, with the materials of his subject-matter alongside the paintings, one understands how everything Matisse made had its origins in something around him. Even the collages of shapes cut from sheets painted in bright, flat gouache can be related to some of the apparently least sophisticated textiles he collected – an appliquéd 19th-century North African wall hanging, embroidered raffias from the Congo and tapa cloths (painted bark) from the Pacific.

[*] Royal Academy, 215 pp., £40, October 2004, 1 903973 46 5.