Matisse in the studio
Royal academy ★★★★ It's easy to criticise Matisse's celebration of pretty objects during Europe's darkest years as superficial, or dismiss his portrayal of women as objectifying or accuse him of cultural appropriation.
But usually if something's easy it's not worthwhile. And whilst you might be able to argue the case for all three (yes you), their validity does not detract from the unquestionable, often arresting beauty of the works Matisse created, many on display in this exhibition.
Call it escapism, fantasy, whatever, no artist before or since has used colour to such effect. He transforms reality, like upgrading your old tv to HD, turning the saturation up to 11 and maybe dropping some hallucinogenics for full effect.
I enjoyed the fact this exhibition had loftier aims than the go-to "retrospective" today's galleries are so fond of. It offered a window into the creative process and explored familiar themes of what exactly is art? Was the chocolate pot Matisse pored over art ? It clearly inspired him - but was it the objects beauty or did he just really like hot chocolate ? For answers to these questions and more, read on.
Matisse was particularly enamoured by African and Middle-Eastern art, which featured in many of the works on display. Today it might be tempting to put on our post-colonial berets and label his use of "exotic" objects as reductive or maybe as cultural appropriation, but in reality Matisse celebrated the universality of these objects at a time when much of the West viewed them as rudimentary and artistically irrelevant.
The foreign artefacts Matisse collected heavily influenced his work, and whilst he may not have been well versed in their anthropological significance - perhaps it's ok to be fascinated by something and not know the thing's precise intended function, isn't that what art is after all?
The inclusion of a couple of Matisse portraits was enough to dispel the notion the man was nothing but a senile sultan fascinated with banal bric-a-brac and sedated seduction. The atmosphere and emotion in his Italian woman 3/4 length portrait rivals anything his mate / enemy / collector Picasso produced.