Matisse’s Red Room and a tale of Neuilly

If you (a) like Matisse and (b) are in Paris, don’t miss the exhibition of his revolutionary painting, The Red Studio, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton which runs until September 9.

The exhibition is popular and my friend and I were horrified to discover that we had reserved on “family day at Louis Vuitton” which meant long lines and a big crowd, mostly of parents and young children. But the queues moved quickly and once inside we were surprised how much space there was to contemplate Matisse’s startling (at the time and for some, even now) creation. He himself didn’t fully comprehend what he had done. Speaking of the painting to a friend, he remarked: “I like it, but I don’t quite understand it; I don’t know why I painted it precisely the way I did.”

Matisse wasn’t alone in “not understanding” his creation. Others didn’t understand it either, starting with Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin who had commissioned it but turned down the finished work Matisse presented to him in 1911. Things didn’t get much better: A year later, The Red Studio was exhibited at the Armory show in New York where reactions ranged from “epileptic” to “demented” and “primitive”. In 1927 the owner of the exclusive, members-only Gargoyle Club in Soho acquired the work for his artsy, avant-garde clientèle. The happy end of the story: after the painting moved to New York where it was hung in a private gallery for a few years, the MoMA acquired it in 1949. It had, at long last, found a home.

As I gazed at The Red Studio, I could almost imagine Matisse in his atelier in the town of Issy-les-Moulineaux south of Paris, taking in the room, glancing at his empty canvas, picking up his brush and painting the furniture, the floor and the walls and other objects in a range of colours. And then….covering it all in red!

But Matisse was an anti-conformist and the leader of the Fauves (which in French means “wild beasts”), a short-lived movement of artists including Georges Rouault, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, who used wild, even harsh colors in a new, free way of expressing themselves. Although Matisse had an academic painting background, he exercised this freedom in several paintings with, notably, The Red Studio, which, according to the sign on the wall next to it, is “a significant manifesto that makes color an artistic element in its own right, liberated from any narrative or representational function.”

Whether you like The Red Studio or abhor it, whether it “speaks” to you or not, it is undeniable and understandable that it created shock waves in its time. Red is revolutionary and overpainting a painting in red was doubly so!

Since I was plunging into the past with Matisse’s painting, before arriving at the Fondation,I decided to plunge into my own as I was in the heart of the neighborhood in Neuilly we lived in for eighteen years. That neighborhood is light years away from where we live now. Neuilly is leafy green and affluent, quiet and residential. You see suits. The majority of people in Neuilly vote for conservatives. The neighborhood where I live in the east of Paris is “gentrifying” but jcrowded, traditionally multi-ethnic, and buzzing with activity with cafés everywhere. I can’t remember the last time I saw a suit. The Left wins the elections. Well, it may not be as simple as that but it’s close. And to close the comparison, while the east and west of Paris are diametrically opposed geographically, economically, politically and sociologically, they each have, as the French say, their qualités.

Arriving at the Fondation early and looking desperately for my morning coffee, I headed for a stand I used to go to regularly when strolling around the Lac Saint James. I wasn’t even sure it was still there so I stopped a fellow on his morning stroll and asked him, explaining that I used to go there almost daily but that we had moved from Neuilly and I had not been back for some time.

“You dared to move away from Neuilly?” he asked in a teasing voice. “Yes, I did” I replied.”and right at this moment I’m trying to figure out why.”

I said that as I took in the almost unreal scene: joggers and dog walkers on immaculately clean paths, majestic, high trees, green grass, and the lovely, pristine lake that was every bit as beautiful as in my memory. At the café, I saw that nothing had changed. Just as it was back in the day, there were more dogs than humans. I watched the dogs and their antics as I sipped my morning coffee at my table facing the lake and drinking in the peacefulness. Fleetingly, I wondered why we had moved far away from this little Paradise. But no real regrets. The grass is always greener….

Then, too soon, it was time to find Matisse.

A final note: The information on The Red Studio comes from an art magazine called Beaux Arts, the description of the painting on the wall in the museum, and two art books I have on hand at home: H.W. Janson’s History of Art which dates from my university days, and E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.

4 thoughts on “Matisse’s Red Room and a tale of Neuilly”

  1. Written as a true art historian, my dear! (Ah Janson and Gombrich!)
    So happy all was as before in your Neuilly walk. Rare that!

    1. So you see, you ARE now a subscriber! Thanks for the compliment. My art history talents are entirely due to the scholars I cited. So much to learn when contemplating a work of art.
      Thank you for being my ever-faithful supporter.

  2. Written as an art historian! I am so happy your Neuilly of yore has not changed. Few can say the same when they “go home” to their past.

    1. Thanks, Nancy. So nice to know that you are on board as a subscriber which accounts for your TWO comments!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *