Friday, October 2, 2015

Harmony in Red by Henri Matisse

Harmony in Red, 1908
Oil on canvas
180 x 220 cm (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)

The painting Russians call “The red room” is considered by many to be Matisse’s crowning achievement. When introduced in 1908 such a quantity of red had never been seen in European painting before. It features a maid putting fruit on a table in a room draped in red wallpaper. The color and patterns on the decorative tablecloth and the wallpaper are the same, flattening the picture plane. The view outside the window looks like a painting hung on the wall of the same room and hints at an array of organic patterns and serpentine plant forms outside that share the interior’s theme.

This “decorative panel” was intended for the dining room in the Moscow mansion of the famous Russian collector Sergey Shchukin. Eventually prerevolutionary art collections that include works by Picasso and Matisse were shut down by Stalin in 1948 as ideologically suspect. The painting emerged from Moscow cellars only after Stalin’s death.
The painting was not always red. Originally named “Harmony in Blue” Matisse painted over it to intensify the feeling of flatness. He was pushing the boundaries of the norm and advancing the avant garde. (The old man was a “bad-ass”) as the kids would say.
It’s been suggested that the dining-room is really a view of the artist inside his studio and that the maid is an alter ego of Matisse himself arranging the table in the same manner that the painter arranges a canvas. Now, if Matisse wore his hair in a bun I would say it was an uncanny likeness. But frankly, I’m not seeing it.

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