Q&A: Mette, art historian at Matisse: Red Studio exhibition at SMK

Media In Denmark met with Mette Houlberg Rung, one of the leading people behind the Matisse exhibition in SMK (The National Gallery of Denmark) to learn more about the famous painting The Red Studio.

Here is what we found out:

Tell us a bit more about who you are and what you do at SMK?

I’m Mette Houlberg Rung, an art historian. I work at SMK as a researcher and art interpreter, mainly involved in the large-scale exhibitions that run every Spring and Autumn.

How have you been involved in the Matisse exhibition?

In close collaboration with my colleague Dorthe Aagesen, the Matisse exhibition has been in the works for around 4 years. I have been writing text, producing film and working alongside an exhibition designer to develop the overall design of the exhibition, ensuring it reflects the story being told by the paintings.

Many people have heard about Matisse, but don’t know a lot about him. Tell us, why should they come to this exhibition?

This is a great opportunity to see one of the major pieces of work by Matisse — The Red Studio. Normally in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Red Studio along with the rest of the collection on display today, very rarely travels.

This exhibition tells a very particular, unique story. We have the opportunity to look at Matisse’s work through a small lens and see the story of The Red Studio, the artwork shown in The Red Studio and also related works.

This exhibition allows you to not only see the fantastic works of Matisse but also the history about Matisse in 1911 and how he was one of the first painters that rethought and developed a whole new way of painting in the beginning of the 1900’s.

Henri Matisse. The Red Studio. 1911. Oil on canvas, 181 x 219,1 cm. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Succession H. Matisse/VISDA 2023

Can you explain what’s so unique about The Red Studio? Why is it so famous?

The Red Studio is a small corner of Matisse’s own studio in Issy-les-Moulineaux, which is a small town outside of Paris. What you see is a studio space with furniture and 11 of his own works on display. What is so striking about this piece is that he decided to paint the walls, the floors, and all the furniture red and you are left with a painting where you can see 11 paintings floating in this red surface. You can also see that the furniture is outlined — as though you are looking through the red surface to the image below.

During the 1800’s, paintings were supposed to show a realistic, naturalistic space. You should be able to recognise what you see. In 1911, Matisse challenged this by making his paintings more abstract. He was not interested in making a presentation of the studio, no, instead he was interested in the decorative elements of painting. He is trying to reach an essence of the studio space and he does this by applying this red colour.

Do you know why Matisse chose the colour red?

As a painter and an artist Matisse had his breakthrough in 1905. It was during this time that he was part of a group called The Fauves (The Wild Beasts). This group was known for their violent paintings with rough brush strokes and vivid colours — something unseen before this time. Matisse was already using red in his paintings at this stage, and he carried it to a new level when he painted the studio red.

A 110-year-old painting like The Red Studio, must have a lot to say. What have you been looking at in this particular painting?

In the research project that informs exhibition, we have been trying to understand the painting – What is it? Does it relate to the actual studio space in Issy-les-Moulineaux? The works in the painting, were they the actual worlds that were found at the studio at that time? Was anything left out? Why red? There are many questions that you would think have been answered already but with one answer comes many more questions.

For example we discovered that just below the red surface there is a naturalistic depiction of the studio space with pink floors and blue walls. It was about a month after he made the naturalistic presentation that he decided to paint it all red.

Of course, we don’t know why he decided to paint it red. What we do know is that he painted it in the Autumn of 1911 and in November, he went to Moscow to visit an art collector that collected many pieces of his work. It was here he saw icons which had a flat red coloured background. These could be what inspired him to paint it red, but it is only 1 possibility of many.

Final question, what other major exhibitions besides Matisse have you been working on personally?

One that comes to mind was a couple of years ago. I worked on a big exhibition about Kirchner and Nolde. It was different to Matisse as this is a type of French expressionism while the Kirchner and Nolde exhibition was about German expressionism.

You can see the Matisse: Red Studio exhibition at SMK, Copenhagen in Denmark from 13 October 2022 – 26 February 2023. For more information, visit: www.smk.dk/en/exhibition/henri-matisse-the-red-studio

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