Tate Etc

Thomas Demand on Matisse

For issue 31 of Tate Etc., we asked three contemporary artists to talk about their personal fascination with Henri Matisse. Here, Thomas Demand reflects on Lydia Delectorskaya’s photograph of Matisse in his studio

Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1952 Henri Matisse (1869 -1964) Photographer: Lydia Delectorskaya

Matisse at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1952

Photographer: Lydia Delectorskaya
© Succession Henri Matisse

I have carried around this photograph of Henri Matisse in his studio for nearly three decades. To me, it embodies inspiration. The light, the detail, the colour… every element is ready to be part of something: it might be a bad idea or a good one, a shape or a coincidence, a pairing that led to another possibility or ruined it. In fact, it’s all about composition, as the elements and drop-outs are already an image, even if they could end up as yet another one - one we know and admire for its equilibrium. It’s also about the material as an object, not a medium. The shapes in his hands are still forms, not a leg or a plant. As he is not working on a wall or a flat surface, their figurativeness may still shape up, but is as yet undefined and unrefined at the point the image was taken.

The situation seems pretty untheatrical, immersed in a moment which has no climax, but is focused. The old man sits on the chair; he has to, but that’s something the onlooker is bringing towards the image. He himself seems unconcerned.

The space is inhabited, some domestic features are visible on the edges, a sunny room (we know it’s in Nice) with direct, overexposed patches of light on the parquetry. I presume it’s afternoon light. The photographer is either very tall, or stands on a chair or some other piece of furniture (the ladder is in the picture) to catch the environment in its totality. The old man seems not to be bothered by the set-up, which on one hand shows his imperturbable composure, while on the other lets the girl on the side appear more posed than she would be without the camera in the atelier, pointed down on her.

Right next to her, there lie the shreds. They appear to be negative shapes, antonyms of flat silhouettes and repetitive patterns, which were met with an incredulous shake of the head by critics for their blunt decorativeness. But the leftovers on the floor might get back into the game, and even if not, they are equally notable because they are what often turns a studio into the suspended world it can be. If a process is intact, especially if that process is meandering around notions of simplicity and beauty as it is here, all steps, all sides, the not needed, the scraps and the abandoned will communicate this beauty - as much as the work which will eventually leave the atelier. To form something from nearly nothing, to obtain meaning by shaping, is what this picture promises.