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Q & A – Tell us about one of your favourite paintings

I very much love The Dessert: Harmony in Red (The Red Room) by Matisse

I first saw this at the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition was called ‘Matisse to Malevich’: subtitled ‘Pioneers of Modern Art from the Hermitage’: 6 March – 17 September 2010

The exhibition included 75 paintings selected from the Hermitage – St Petersburg, which is home to an extraordinary collection of early twentieth century French paintings. Alongside artworks by Matisse the magnificent display included contemporaries of his such as Van Dongen, Derain, De Vlaminck and Picasso

‘Matisse spent a considerable time on his paintings. The red room underwent a particularly rigorous transformation during its production. Matisse had initially started the canvas in blue, the colour best suited to Shchukin’s dining room for which the work was intended. Shortly before the picture was to be exhibited, however, Matisse painted it over in blue, without consulting his patron, as he thought it ‘not decorative enough’. You can still see traces of blue paint around the edges. The picture is the first work of art to be so emphatically dominated by red and represents an important step in Matisse’s exploration of painting’s decorative capabilities. It is to Shchukin’s credit that he immediately recognized its significance’

I knew the painting already from my text books at art school, the art history books, and I had seen reproductions of the painting, but until then I never saw the real thing. I knew it was a big painting but when I actually saw it and was standing in front of it, I was surprised by how big it actually was, the grandeur of it, how overwhelming, how red it was, a very powerful red.

And that was in a museum. Imagine how it would look in a house. Imagine how shocking it would be to see it in a house in those times. I read about the history of paintings, of course, and I enjoy that and find it interesting but I can’t really imagine what it would have been like to see such a painting in a house all those years ago, what it would have felt like then, so I really I value the experiencing of a painting, with my modern sensibility, experiencing it through modern eyes

Also I experienced it as such a benign and happy painting, and the greatness of it, the impressiveness of the size, bigger than human size, overwhelming. And the roughness of the painted surface. In reproductions in art books one doesn’t necessarily see this quality, the painted surface seems smooth, but actually when one stands in front of it,  one sees that it is rough, raw and unpolished. The brush strokes are quite coarse, not dainty, and I love that about this painting, how primitive it is.

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