A flowered dress. A naked teenager. A Russian millionaire. A fancy room that hides secrets.
Sounds like promotional copy for a true-crime drama, but I recently spotted its plot in an icon of modern art, “The Red Studio,” painted in 1911 by Henri Matisse. That huge canvas, portraying the fancy atelier Matisse had just built for himself and the artworks that hung in it, is the subject of a brilliantly focused exhibition now at the Museum of Modern Art. My colleague Roberta Smith described “Matisse: The Red Studio” as “spectacular” when it opened in May, and I couldn’t agree more. Art lovers will want to catch the exhibition, or catch it again and again, before it closes on Sept. 10.
I’d seen “The Red Studio” before — it has lived at MoMA for decades — but it took me three visits to this latest show to winkle out a story that, for something like 100 years now, has lain camouflaged beneath the painting’s red surface.
Almost since the day it was painted, that surface has been seen as the heart of the work. It was supposed to teach us to leave behind the deep space of old master pictures and love modern art’s flatness instead. Starting somewhere around 1900 — and partly thanks to Matisse — paintings started to be read for the colors, lines and shapes that are right there for us to see, rather than for any scene that we might look beyond them to understand. In the excellent catalog for the MoMA show (those who can’t visit should buy it) the curators Ann Temkin and Dorthe Aagesen talk about “a bold new planarity” that turns “The Red Studio” into “an indisputable landmark” in the modern trend toward abstraction. Matisse himself originally titled the picture nothing more than “Red Panel,” as though color and flatness were its true subject.