Reminiscing toward the end of his life, Henri Matisse described the importance of his studio collection — a cherished assortment of African sculptures, Spanish vases, Egyptian textiles, French chocolate pots, and medieval sculptures that had inspired him over his long career.
“I have worked all my life before the same objects,” Matisse recalled in 1951. “The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.”
That’s the animating idea behind “Matisse in the Studio,” a lush, career-spanning exhibition that opens April 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts. Pairing nearly 40 of the artist’s beloved possessions with some of the artworks they inspired, the exhibition explores how Matisse used these sometimes humble objects as artistic fodder, depicting them variously through the years.
“Matisse really looked carefully and closely at these objects again and again at different points in his life, seeing something new each time he looked at them,” said Ellen McBreen, an associate professor of art history at Wheaton College who co-curated the show. “Looking at what Matisse was looking at is an excellent way to get a concrete understanding of his thought process.”
Co-curated by McBreen, MFA curator of prints and drawings Helen Burnham, and Ann Dumas, a curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the show presents a host of the artist’s major works from various periods of his career, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and cut-outs.
With work that spans roughly 50 years, the show is organized thematically, in five sections, including “The Object Is an Actor,” “The Nude,” “The Face,” “Studio as Theatre,” and “Essential Forms.”
By pairing Matisse’s artworks with the objects that inspired them, the show provides insight into the artist’s progression, showing not only how he returned to specific items throughout his career, but also how those pieces influenced him artistically, emboldening him to take liberties with color and form.
“He acquired things not because of their material worth, but because of how they spoke to him,” Burnham said as she toured the exhibition. “He has this passion for certain things and returning to them. I think somehow it’s helping him work out relationships formal and conceptual throughout his life.”
The show’s opening salvo, “The Object Is an Actor,” presents an Andalusian vase with curving handles and a voluptuous body that Matisse procured in the early 20th century. The vase is flanked by two still life paintings — executed in Nice roughly a decade after its purchase — where Matisse anthropomorphizes the vessel, treating it almost like the subject of a portrait.
“The vase is a constant character in a lot of the Nice interiors,” said McBreen, author of “Matisse’s Sculpture: The Pinup and the Primitive.” “In these two pieces it plays a primary role, almost replacing the body of the model with those arms almost resting on the hips of the vase.”
The vase, like many of the studio objects in the show, is a loan from the Musée Matisse in Nice. The exhibition, which also presents roughly 80 of Matisse’s artworks, represents the first time many of these items from the artist’s studio collection have been exhibited outside of France.
Perhaps the most famous of these objects is a small African figure (on loan from a private collection) Matisse bought at a Paris shop in 1906. When he later brought the sculpture by the home of Gertrude Stein, he showed it to another guest, Pablo Picasso, who by later accounts was mesmerized by the figure.
“That is the object that started it all,” said McBreen. “Picasso gets all the credit, but Matisse was the one who was really smart about looking at African art. He’s able to say this is a sculptural tradition with important visual lessons that European artists can learn from.”
Those lessons are on pointed display in works like “Reclining Nude I,” a 1907 sculpture where Matisse employs positive and negative space to render the muscular figure with aggressive angles and unlikely lines.
They are present in the 1914 painting “Seated Figure With Violet Stockings,” whose elongated torso and neck recall a reliquary figure from Gabon or Equatorial Guinea. And they are evident in a series of portraits, where the sitters’ stylized eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes recall a number of African masks on display.
“All of this is about formal and conceptual connections,” said Burnham, who added that Matisse was also a “man of his time,” and harbored a set of assumptions about the spirituality and eroticism inherent in African art. “I think he’s seeing something he really likes, and he calls it ‘intuitive geometry.’ It gave him a certain feeling of freedom that he can be more intuitive, too — more free with liberties or exaggerations he might take with the human body.”
The curators said they hoped the show, which runs through July 9 before traveling to the Royal Academy, will raise questions about the role of cultural appropriation in Western art.
“Matisse clearly shows us that 20th-century abstraction arguably wouldn’t have happened without a relationship [to non-Western art],” said McBreen. “I hope people will think about that: What do we do with the fact that much of European art was based on an interrogation of objects whose makers were invisible?”
The heart of the show is “Studio as Theatre,” which presents objects and artworks from the artist’s Nice period. Drawing on colorful textiles, Matisse would use his studio almost like a set to create glowing works such as “The Moorish Screen” (1921) and “Purple Robe and Anemones” (1937).
Though both works feature human subjects, the riot of color and layered backgrounds in both works nearly subsume the models.
“One of the things he’s playing around with is the importance of the model versus the background,” said Burnham. “The background no longer seems like background: It surrounds and it becomes as important as the model.”
Rounding out the show is a section devoted to Matisse’s cut-outs. These works, which Matisse created toward the end of his life, play off some of the show’s textiles, whose appliqué processes they seem to mimic.
“The classic trajectory for Matisse’s development is that he moves to Nice after the war and his paintings become more relaxing, less abstract, less challenging,” said McBreen, who added that she hoped the exhibition would partially dispel that notion.
“He doesn’t unlearn anything from the earlier more experimental period,” she said. “It’s going to be a surprise to a lot of people who think of Matisse as a painter of easy bourgeois pleasures.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay