New York Review of Books
June 20, 2017
Daily, I slice bread with my maternal grandmother’s bread knife. Neither beautiful nor valuable—its handle scored white melamine, its wide serrations still sharp—it connects me to my mother’s hands (that used this knife) and to my grandmother’s hands (smaller than my mother’s, arthritic already when I was born); to my grandmother’s kitchen, beloved in my childhood; and to the long-ago morning light that filtered through the sunroom into that kitchen, in a long-sold house, in a far-off city. All this is present when I take it up and tackle a loaf. No other knife will do.
Matisse, unsurprisingly, had similar feelings about the objects of his daily life. They delighted, inspired, or confounded him, in their humble ordinariness and in all that they evoked: a chocolate pot, a green glass vase, a pewter jug, embroidered hanging cloths (haitis) from North Africa, masks and figurines from sub-Saharan Africa, a brazier, a marquetry coffee table, a low-slung chair. Present in photographs of his studios over the years, they appear, too, in countless drawings, paintings, and sculptures; and they can now be seen in “Matisse in the Studio” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, alongside the works that draw upon them, in a dance of recurrences and self-referential variations, spanning, chiefly, Matisse’s mature years.
These mundane items, the organizing principle for this exhilarating show, served as sparks for Matisse’s art. Assembled in the gallery, they also provide an occasion for fresh reflections and analyses by the exhibition’s curators. Essays gathered in the catalogue—by Ellen McBreen, Helen Burnham, Jack Flam, and others—illuminate various threads of Matisse’s oeuvre, including his interest (shared with Picasso, as well as with contemporaries such as Brâncusi and Man Ray) in African masks and sculptures, specifically the simplicity and directness of their forms. This fascination emerges in his paintings—notably, for example, in his painting Seated Figure with Violet Stockings (1914), a nude that, in style and stance, closely resembles a Fang-region reliquary figure that he prized; and in his heartbreaking portrait of his wife Amélie, the last for which she sat for him, although they were married for another twenty-seven years before separating. In this portrait, the mask-like set of Amélie’s features and her hollow black eyes echo the tribal masks he collected. He explored the mask effect also in his sculptures, as in the series of Jeanne Vaderin (a frequent model for Matisse around the time of World War I), her features ever more abstracted, their planes in each iteration fiercer and more simplified.