Why did Henri Matisse not play chess? It’s a question, perhaps, that few have ever pondered. Yet the great artist provided an answer, which is quoted in the catalogue to Matisse in the Studio, a marvellous new exhibition at the Royal Academy. He did not care, he explained, ‘to play with signs that never change’. It’s a revealing reason in several ways.
For one thing, it underlines how different Matisse was from his younger contemporary Marcel Duchamp: the most celebrated chess-player in art. Duchamp loved logic, so his work tended to turn into a series of theorems. Matisse, in contrast, lived and worked in a beautiful muddle, surrounded by clutter that included textiles, ceramics, an old chocolate pot, African sculptures, a wooden panel carved with Chinese calligraphy, jugs, vases and a bizarre Venetian chair that he’d picked up in an antique shop. As a title, Matisse and his Bric-à-brac would not have worked so well on posters, but it’s the theme of the exhibition — and a rich one.
In 1946, Matisse had a picture taken of an array of these bits and pieces lined up in rows on a tabletop, like pupils in ‘a school photograph’ as Ellen McBreen writes in the catalogue. On the back he wrote: ‘Objects that have been of use to me nearly all my life.’ The exhibition is about the role these odds, ends and bibelots had in the creation of modern masterpieces.
These items played various roles in his pictures, like actors. From one work to another — and even in developing stages of the same work — they may change in scale, colour and surface texture. That chocolate pot was a present to the painter and his wife Amélie on their wedding in 1898 from a fellow artist, Albert Marquet. It featured in a sequence of pictures over the following four decades — sometimes bigger, others smaller; now shiny, now not.