Give me silence, water, hope.
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.
The pirate radio stations of the 1960s are part of British pop folklore, but America had its equivalents broadcasting from the border with Mexico. And its most celebrated star DJ was the near-mythical Wolfman Jack.
Every DJ has their “radio persona” – a larger than life personality created to reach across the ether and plant itself in the imagination of the listening faithful.
Immortalised in George Lucas’ breakthrough movie American Graffiti, the Wolfman derived from an era when radio’s disembodied voice could be almost mesmeric.
His influence on radio today can still be heard… you just need to know what to listen for.
Of course, Wolfman Jack wasn’t born with that name. He was born Bob Smith and he grew up in the tough New York neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Neglected by his parents he sought succour and inspiration from the voices he heard on the radio at night beaming up from the Mexican border.
When you heard him you knew you’d unlocked the door to a really secret world.
In his 20s he landed a number of DJ jobs on local radio stations where he experimented with a variety of bizarre and eccentric DJ personas.
Finally in the late 1950s, determined to take on border radio – the American-equivalent of Britain’s off-shore pirate radio stations – he made his way down to Mexico to the great “border station” XERF and bought himself a show.
Amongst Bob Smith’s heros were disc jockey Alan Freed, aka Moondog, and blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, whose names formed the inspiration for his own alias, Wolfman, a name which debuted as early as the first show.
“There was nothing as exotic, as mysterious and as forbidden as when I first stumbled across Wolfman Jack broadcasting from the border,” says Nic Patowski, a teenager when he first tuned into station XERF. “He was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
“You had no idea who he was or what he was but you knew whatever he was doing it was probably wrong. When you heard him you knew you’d unlocked the door to a really secret world.”
“When I first heard him… I was thinking of old recordings of the blues singer Howlin’ Wolf. He had this incredible confidence.”
|His landscapes are always unusual, mostly eccentric, and sometimes psychedelic. Nevertheless, he originally was «noted more for his poetry than his painting, Kodojin set the tone for his landscapes through his inscriptions. Self-taught in painting, the eccentric poet-painter created landscapes in a variety of unusual styles.» (Paul Berry, Literati Modern, p. 152).|
The poem which sets the tone for this landscape was first published in 1912 as one of a set of four poems in Kodojin’s verse collection, Seisho’s Mountain Studio Collection:
“beyond failure or success”
Only white clouds moving,
My spirit returns to a point of ease.
Transcendent – beyond failure or success,
Sitting alone viewing the empty mountains.
Fukuda Kodojin (1865-1944)
The hallowed tradition of kora playing in Sona Jobarteh’s family passed down the male line. One of her teachers dismissed it as “an ethnic thing.” But it has brought her international acclaim.
By Aina J. KhanSept. 17, 2021
MANCHESTER, England — The ethereal sound of the kora, a centuries-old West African instrument, reverberated as Sona Jobarteh, a virtuoso from one of Gambia’s most celebrated musical families, plucked its strings with her forefingers and thumbs.
Under purple stage lights at the Manchester International Festivalin July — her first performance since the pandemic began — Ms. Jobarteh added her velvet voice to the crisp sound of the kora, a 21-string instrument that combines the qualities of a lute and a harp. She sings in Mandinka, a language spoken by one of Gambia’s many ethnic groups, and the words descended like rainfall on the audience in northern England.
Like her father and relatives stretching back generations, Ms. Jobarteh is a griot — a musician or poet whose tradition is preserved through the family bloodline. And in West Africa the griot fills a far broader role: not just as a kora master, but also as a historian, genealogist, mediator, teacher and guardian of cultural history.
“The griot is someone who is a pillar of society, who people go to for guidance, for advice, for wisdom,” said Ms. Jobarteh, who is 37.
Until Ms. Jobarteh, kora masters had one other notable characteristic: They were always male. By tradition, the playing of the kora is passed from father to son, but for many years Ms. Jobarteh was her father’s only child. “Whatever I do, it’s always in the awkward box,” she said, laughing.
She initially shunned the label of first female kora master, preferring to be appreciated for her abilities rather than her gender. “I hated it with a passion,” she said. “I felt like no one would listen to what I was playing, that all they would do is observe what I am.”
But she has come to embrace that status, in part because her achievements have inspired young female students. “It’s much bigger than just being about me,” she said. “It’s about instilling that seed of inspiration in girls.”
The kora was also what brought her parents together.
In 1982, a year before Ms. Jobarteh was born, her mother, Galina Chester, who is English and who had never left Britain, flew to Senegal. She was traveling with Ms. Jobarteh’s half brother, Tunde Jegede, a British-Nigerian who is now a multi-instrumentalist and composer, to connect him with his African heritage.
Toting a piece of paper scrawled with the name of a kora master, Ms. Chester drove across the desert to Gambia, where there was no airport at the time, to the house of Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, whose influence was so broad that he served as an adviser to Gambia’s first president.
There, she met the kora master’s son and primary student, Sanjally — who would go on to become Ms. Jobarteh’s father. “That’s how she met my father, and how my story began,” Ms. Jobarteh said.
Ms. Jobarteh’s childhood straddled two worlds: Britain, where she was born, and Kembujeh, her grandfather’s village in Gambia, where, enveloped by the warmth of her extended family, she found her “cultural grounding.”
Griot women are typically taught to sing, but her grandmother Kumunaa encouraged her to sit with her grandfather and listen to the kora.
A few years ago, Ms. Jobarteh’s mother shared letters with her daughter in which Kumunaa had predicted that the girl would become a griot and pleaded that her lineage be nurtured.
“I just wish she was alive for me to ask her what was in her mind,” Ms. Jobarteh said. “She knew I was a girl. She knew it was not acceptable.”
Ms. Jobarteh’s first kora teacher was Mr. Jegede, her half brother, whom she began playing the instrument with at age 3. (Although Mr. Jegede is a virtuoso in his own right, he is not a griot, coming from outside the Jobarteh bloodline.)
She later became determined to carve out a path in classical music. At 14, she took composition lessons at the Purcell School for Young Musicians, outside London. Yet her initial instrument remained in her periphery: The school library displayed a kora that Tunde had donated as a student there. Drawn to it, she tuned and played it, and the school eventually gave it to her.
A year later, she enrolled in the Royal College of Music, where she learned the cello, harpsichord and piano. But her personal musical legacy wasn’t welcome. One instructor dismissed the kora as an “ethnic thing,” she said, and another said of the instrument, “If you want to succeed, this is not a part of it.”
Three years into her education there, Ms. Jobarteh deliberately failed her annual assessment in piano and cello. “I was shaking,” she said. “It felt so wrong, but I just knew, ‘I can’t do this to myself anymore.’”
The college declined to comment for this article.
Ms. Jobarteh instead asked her father to officially teach her to play the kora, and went on to train with him for several years. He told her, “I have a duty to give you what is mine,” she recalled.
Some families say the instrument dates to the establishment of the griot tradition in the 13th-century Mandinka empire. The first written account of the kora, by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park, appeared in 1797, according to Lucy Durán, a professor of music at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Its popular origin story, Ms. Jobarteh said, is that it was stolen from a jinn, a supernatural being mentioned in Islam.
The Mandinkas and griots attracted widespread interest after the writer Alex Haley traced his ancestry to a Gambian village in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Roots.” But their ancient melodieshad made their way across the Atlantic centuries earlier, aboard ships carrying enslaved Africans, and morphed into the early American blues.
The kora, with its improvised, oral tradition, can take decades to master. “You learn with your ears, not with your hands,” Ms. Jobarteh said.
For years, she was reluctant to perform in Gambia, where a professional female kora virtuoso had never been seen onstage. But her stage debut with her family, in 2011, was met with adulation.
The release of her debut album that year was also a leap of faith, as Ms. Jobarteh sang in Mandinka rather than in English, which could garner more commercial success. “I thought, ‘This is it. I’ve just put my life down the plug hole,’” she recalled.
The album propelled Ms. Jobarteh’s music around the world, from the United States to New Zealand. And that brought her something far more meaningful than royalties.
“It makes Africans feel something, to see that someone is being respected to sing in their own language, dress in their own clothes, play their own music,” she said. “That is a message not just for Gambians — it’s for the whole African continent.”
Although preserving her heritage is Ms. Jobarteh’s passion, she says her real purpose is educational reform in Gambia — a broader mission that aligns with her role of griot.
In 2015, she opened The Gambia Academy in Kartong, a coastal town, in part to prevent a brain-drain of young people seeking better prospects abroad. “I don’t want the next generation to have to do that,” she said, “where you have to have the privilege of having European connections or titles to be able to succeed in your own society.”
With a curriculum that centers on West African traditions, the school now has 32 students, including her 14-year-old son, Sidiki, and 9-year-old daughter, Saadio. That has helped her pass down her family tradition, too, and onstage in Manchester Sidiki played the xylophone-like balafon and Saadio percussion.
They are learning the griot repertoire — not from their father, but from their mother, a guardian of seven centuries of tradition.
A group of older Cuban musicians recorded some of their favorite songs in 1996, and the album became an unlikely blockbuster. How do we hear it a quarter-century later?
Sept. 16, 2021
“Buena Vista Social Club,” which was recorded 25 years ago and released in 1997, was the unlikeliest of blockbusters: a collection of decades-old Cuban songs, featuring musicians in their 60s, 70s and 80s, that has now sold in the millions worldwide.
The album was named after a long-defunct club in Havana where Black musicians had once gathered. With its release, Buena Vista Social Club also served as the name of the collective of musicians who performed on the album and, later, became an imprimatur for all sorts of projects connected to them.
Recorded in one week in Havana, “Buena Vista Social Club” led to concerts, tours, a 1999 Wim Wenders documentary centered on a triumphant Carnegie Hall show, and extensive solo and group projects over the next decades, bringing international recognition to the musicians. On the 25th anniversary of its recording, the album is being reissued in a deluxe package that includes an additional disc of tracks from the original sessions.
The album itself grew out of a setback. Its executive producer, Nick Gold of World Circuit Records, and the guitarist and producer Ry Cooder went to Cuba with a musicological concept: uniting an older generation of Cuban musicians with some of the West African musicians, from Mali, who had been influenced by Afro-Cuban music. The Malians didn’t get visas, so the Cubans and Cooder had the studio to themselves, and they turned to playing some favorite songs — some they had written themselves, some that had become Cuban standards, nearly all of them dating back before the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
Somehow, the album found an audience far beyond niche so-called “world music” listeners and devoted revivalists. As both a music and commercial phenomenon, “Buena Vista Social Club” has turned out to be a complexly layered symbol and expression of rediscovery, vindication, historical memory, translation, nostalgia and Cold War politics. Now, 25 years later, we can add more layers: nostalgia for the moment of “Buena Vista Social Club” itself. This is an album that’s far more than its voices and instruments.https://www.youtube.com/embed/o5cELP06Mik
Here, critics from The New York Times discuss how the album comes across a generation later.
JON PARELES Indulge me with an anecdote. In 2000, I visited Cuba for an utterly amazing festival of rumba. It was three years after the release of “Buena Vista Social Club,” well into the album’s commercial explosion. A typical Havana tourist, I wandered through the old city center, where it seemed like there was a bar with live music on every corner. What I remember vividly was a host outside one club, who knew an American when he saw one. “We have old guys!” he announced.
ISABELIA HERRERA I like your anecdote, Jon, because it captures how the concept of nostalgia is key to understanding the legacy of “Buena Vista Social Club.” The aura around the project (as well as the images in the reissue’s packaging) evokes these “old guys” smoking cigars in black-and-white photos, or playing instruments on the street near colorful vintage cars — a particular, antiquated image of pre-revolutionary Cuba in the American public consciousness.
It’s a notion that almost fetishizes the idea of isolation: one that suggests that Cuban musicians and listeners are totally separated from contemporary popular culture, frozen in time during the so-called “golden era” of the 1940s and ’50s. Notably, the liner notes of this anniversary edition open with a quote from Cooder: “The players and singers of the ‘son de Cuba’ have nurtured this very refined and deeply funky music in an atmosphere sealed off from the fall out of a hyper-organised and noisy world.”
Framing “Buena Vista” within the context of isolation diminishes its achievements and those of Cuban music before and after it. As the scholar Alexandra Vazquez has written, the uptick in compilations of and guides to Cuban music that followed “Buena Vista” helped generate plenty of myths about the island. They contributed to the fantasy that Cuban musicians ceased to innovate after the 1940s and ’50s, and proliferated the idea that you have to visit the island and immerse yourself in its vintage culture “before it changes forever” — as though Cuba is some kind of hidden paradise to be discovered, rather than a place that people call home.
I say this as someone who grew up in a household that adored “Buena Vista Social Club.” I have fond memories of my father singing “Dos Gardenias” in the evenings after dinner and a glass of wine, and returning to the album brings me back to a special part of my childhood. But I do think it’s worth pushing against that nostalgia, because the mythology of Buena Vista Social Club has tended to eclipse the actual music and its history. This is especially true in the way that it presents its musicians as being “rediscovered” or “saved” from erasure, when singers like Omara Portuondo enjoyed plenty of international success before this project (for one, she toured the United States with the group Cuarteto D’Aida and performed with Nat King Cole in the 1950s).
PARELES You’re so right, Isabelia: The illusion that Cuba was somehow frozen in time, like the 1950s cars in old Havana, was definitely part of the aura of “Buena Vista Social Club.” It’s one of the many agendas that I doubt the album’s makers fully anticipated. For one thing, the old repertoire turned out to align, aesthetically and for some people politically, with nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Cuba, a complicated thing.
There was also something about the sonics of “Buena Vista Social Club.” It was recorded in Havana’s venerable Egrem studio in real time, on analog tape on a rickety recorder (which needed repairs on the first day of sessions), and without fancy post-processing, all of which also gave the music an extra patina. In 1996, you’d never get that piano sound in a studio in Los Angeles.
So in some ways, there was a sense that the album was a time capsule. But it wasn’t, exactly; if you wanted a time capsule, you could easily listen to actual vintage recordings. “Buena Vista Social Club” was also self-consciously retro. As elegant as the musicianship was, the singers’ voices were weathered with age, and they were crooning about romances from decades past. No one was pretending that the years hadn’t gone by; part of the appeal was that the performers and songs had mellowed with age. The reissue includes some alternate takes of songs, and to me, it sounds like the original choices were the more relaxed, cozier ones.
GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO Jon, I have a different memory that feels like a nice counterpoint to yours. I was in South Africa at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, a good 15 years after your visit to Cuba. One of the featured performers, on the largest of five stages, was the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. It had some “old guys,” of course, but also younger musicians who had come into the band well after its founding in 1996, as it continued to tour — a sign of the strength of the Buena Vista Social Club brand of nostalgia, but also of Cuban music. They commanded the audience. But a lot of what they played didn’t sound like what was on the original album; it felt like a decidedly broader, and more decidedly danceable, sampling of traditional Cuban music.
On “Buena Vista Social Club,” the tempos are slower and the horns far scarcer; it’s guitars and voices mostly, the sound of musicians throwing something together in a Havana courtyard or around a kitchen table. So to your point, Jon, about this record not exactly being a perfect time capsule, it sounds a bit like these musicians remembering these songs (a number of which are decades-old originals by the group’s members). That’s why it’s so rewarding to watch the documentary: You can see these musicians, as they perform, bask in what these songs represent to them.
Isabelia, to your point, I do think American audiences can often be guilty of thinking about listening to “world music” as an attempt to pin down or understand the music of a foreign place, which leads to an impulse to freeze things, and ends up in the kind of nostalgia you alluded to. I can never help thinking of “Buena Vista Social Club” in a lineage that runs through Alan Lomax and David Attenborough — of recordings that propose, dubiously, to provide a keyhole view into an entire musical culture — as much as I think of it as a “Cuban” record.
PARELES Gio, you brought up what to me is the album’s defining element: memory. The Cuban elders — along with younger admirers like Juan de Marcos González, who tracked down the musicians, led the backup group and maintained it as the Afro-Cuban All Stars; and Portuondo, who as Isabelia said had her own career in motion, but happened to drop in to the “Buena Vista Social Club” sessions — were playing songs they remembered, fondly but without forgetting all that had happened in between. Listeners outside Cuba could bring their own memories — or romanticized fantasies — of pre-revolutionary Cuba. And now, with the reissue, we have memories of memories.
We’re also looking back on what became a turning point in how the outside world perceived Cuban music — and, also, how other cultures decided to treat the music of their own elder generations.
Buena Vista Social Club became a useful, widely extended brand. And the “Buena Vista Social Club” template — gather the survivors of previous eras into a collective — got applied in other regions. Tex-Mex border music got Los Super Seven, with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jiménez. Southwest Louisiana swamp-pop got Lil’ Band O’ Gold, with Warren Storm. There were latter-day reunions of great African groups like Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.
Buena Vista Social Club wasn’t the only impetus for projects like those; they were also encouraged by rare-groove crate-diggers (like Cooder, who had collected old Cuban music). But the astonishing commercial run of “Buena Vista Social Club” certainly encouraged gatekeepers to look back on music that spoke of an idealized past.
But did it point a way forward as well?
HERRERA Revisiting this album as an adult, I am immediately drawn to the warmth and intimacy of these recordings. On the alternate take of “Pueblo Nuevo,” you can feel a sense of conviviality. In this version, the atmosphere of the studio itself is audible: the spoken conversation in the background, or the playful, whistled melody that follows Rubén’s González’s sprightly piano keys as he transitions from a danzón to a mambo style.
All of those details are in conversation with the actual music, and they remind us of the humanity of this recording: the fact that it is communal and collectively shared. It puts me in the studio, but it also puts me in my family’s basement, with all of my father’s CDs and records, immersed in the theater of emotion, anguish and joy this music renders.
It speaks to what you were saying Jon, about this anniversary as a memory of a memory. And listening as a young adult, I feel it demands immediate reverence and respect — for these elders, who were masters of improvisation and innovation, and whose music deserves to be celebrated.
RUSSONELLO What’s funny is that in actuality, this music doesn’t really stand in for Cuban music, writ large, as Isabelia pointed out, it’s often asked to do. Much of it is rooted in son and trova, African-derived folk musics dating back to the 19th century that form the backbone of a lot of Cuban dance music. But it’s really something adjacent to the up-tempo dance styles that are so central to Cuba’s musical identity, and were huge just before the revolution.
The other albums that some of the Buena Vista Social Club’s members put out separately (many after 1997) gets you closer to the sound of Cuban dance music. One great example: “Mi Oriente,” a lively, easily streamable collection of dance sides that Ibrahim Ferrer, a Buena Vista vocalist, recorded in the 1950s and ’60s with Chepín Y Su Orquesta Oriental.
Listening to the new collection, I appreciated the opportunity to listen to a new set of music from these mythic sessions — without the ring of familiarity but, in many cases, the same level of catchiness. Also, there are a few tunes that are simply so infectious, they easily could’ve made it onto the original album, like “Vicenta” and the equal parts tender and full-blooded “A Tus Pies.”
PARELES Gio, you’ve picked the two most finished songs among the outtakes, and you’re right — they could easily have joined the original album. One thing that strikes me about the other tracks is how casual the sessions sound. They clearly weren’t thinking “mythic” at the time.
On three tracks featuring Rubén González on piano — “Mandinga,” “El Diablo Suelto” and “Siboney” — he’s playing with his usual puckish elegance, and the tape was running, but people are chatting nearby. (González, who according to the liner notes hadn’t played piano in years before Buena Vista Social Club was assembled, was the most enterprising of the “old guys”; he also got a superb album of his own, “Introducing…,” out of these sessions.)
Most of the other outtakes are clearly rehearsals, not that I mind; 25 years later, it’s a fascinating glimpse at how the music came together. Listening to the album now, I also have a stronger sense of Ry Cooder’s presence than I had noticed on its release. For Cooder, Buena Vista Social Club was one among many projects — like “The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band Featuring Ry Cooder,” “Talking Timbuktu” with Ali Farka Toure from Mali and “A Meeting by the River” with V.M. Bhatt from India — that gave him a chance to collaborate with far-flung musicians: listening respectfully but definitely joining in. He’s tucked into the original album’s arrangements, most recognizably on slide guitar. And the last track on the expanded “Buena Vista Social Club” is a trio version of “Orgullecida” — Cooder and Compay Segundo on guitars and Manuel Mirabal on trumpet — that moves the song into ragtime, one of Cooder’s home territories.
HERRERA Jon, you asked earlier if “Buena Vista Social Club” pointed a way forward. It is hard to avoid the reality that the project follows in a long line of musical projects that ended up “reintroducing” or “summarizing” musical cultures for foreign ears — even if the recording initially emerged as a happy accident. Ultimately, I am so glad these musicians achieved the success they did, and that new markets were opened to them, because they were well-deserving of compensation.
Today, there is such a vibrant community of Cuban hip-hop, and dozens of other Cuban musicians that I hope get a similar level of recognition on an international scale. At the very least, “Buena Vista Social Club” offered more curious, thoughtful listeners an entire new musical world. But a more ideal way forward would undo the colonial logic that underpins the legacy of “Buena Vista Social Club” — the requirement for Western support in order for “foreign” music to be valued — so these artists could be appreciated on their own terms.
Isabelia Herrera is an arts critic fellow. She covers popular culture, with a special focus on Latin American and U.S. Latino music. She was previously a contributing editor at Pitchfork and has written for Rolling Stone, Billboard, GQ, NPR and more. @jabladoraaa
Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles
NPR’s Rachel Martin talks to music journalist Judy Cantor-Navas about Cuban music’s impact on the Buena Vista Social Club. The group’s popular album came out 25 years ago this month.
In a coming exhibition, MoMA will feature the artworks within this famed painting. Two of them will be on public view for the first time in 50 years.
Sept. 12, 2021
When Henri Matisse painted “The Red Studio” in the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux in 1911, he not only let the viewer into his work space, with its box of crayons, ceramic plate and grandfather clock. He also captured tiny versions of his own paintings propped against the walls, and his sculptures perched on stools.
Now, for the first time since they left Matisse’s studio, those pieces of art will be displayed alongside “The Red Studio” at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition that opens next May.
“You will see ‘The Red Studio’ and you will also see in real life the paintings and sculptures that he miniaturized and reproduced in the painting itself,” said Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, co-organizer of the exhibition. “This is one of the great artists playing with the concept of art within art, presenting his own work within his own paintings. He painted a show of his work and we’re realizing it.”
Temkin collaborated on the exhibition with Dorthe Aagesen, chief curator and senior researcher at the SMK, the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen, which owns three of the paintings — “Le Luxe II” (1907-08), “Nude With a White Scarf” (1909) and “Nymph and Faun” (1911). After the show closes at MoMA on Sept. 11, 2022, it will travel to the SMK for four months, starting that October.
“It’s a key to understanding what Matisse was aiming at in that important moment in his career,” Aagesen said. “We’re reconstructing every move that led to the creation of that painting.”
This is the first time these works will be shown as a group — the last time they were all together was in Matisse’s studio, when he painted them in this masterwork.
Of the 11 pieces created between 1898 and 1911 that are represented in the picture, two are privately owned and will be on public view for the first time in more than 50 years. One was destroyed many decades ago (“Grand Nu à la Colle”). The other eight are in museum collections in Europe and North America.
Also featured will be Matisse paintings and drawings that relate to “The Red Studio” — namely “The Studio, Quai Saint-Michel” (1917) and “Large Red Interior” (1948) — as well as archival materials such as photographs, catalogs, letters and press clippings.
The exhibition exemplifies how a generation of scholars is moving away from big retrospectives toward digging into more focused topics that pay attention to a specific moment in an artist’s career.
“You don’t want to gather things that have been gathered together all over again,” Temkin said. “You also want to introduce audiences to close looking, the idea that you can spend a lot of time thinking about one work of art and have a deeper experience.”
The painting was unusual for its time — representing identifiable objects awash in a flat monochrome surface of Venetian red, combining the figurative with the abstract and dismantling the illusion of depth.
“He’s leaving his own artworks to be revealed, but everything else in the room is covered by this red,” Temkin said. “It’s a very radical way of depicting a three-dimensional space he was standing in as a two-dimensional picture, taking a very traditional subject from centuries of art history — the artist’s studio — but creating an absolutely modern pictorial space.”
“Any depiction of a studio is by definition a meditation on what you do as an artist,” Temkin added, calling it “a revolutionary moment in the tradition of studio paintings because of the way it transforms that tradition.”
The red, as it happens, was an afterthought; Matisse finished the painting before deciding to cover it in that color, an evolution revealed by research over the last 20 years. A section of the exhibition will explore that conservation history.
“He had a whole painting made and then it was a late-stage decision that he would add this red,” Temkin said. “The idea of the artist’s process is that when you start you may not know where you’re going. You may think you do, but the painting takes over — and on some level the artist is listening to the painting or following the painting’s instructions about what to do next. This is an exceptional case of a painting becoming a different painting in the process of making.”
Six feet tall by seven feet wide, the canvas was among a series of works commissioned by Matisse’s early patron, Sergei Shchukin, a Russian textile businessman, for whom the artist made his “Dance” and “Music” paintings.
Yet Shchukin declined to acquire it for reasons unknown (he did purchase the painting’s predecessor, “The Pink Studio”). “He may have told Matisse he liked his paintings with figures better, but at the same time he bought other paintings without figures, so I think he was just being tactful,” Temkin said. “But if you think of what this painting must have looked like in 1911, you can imagine it was incomprehensible.”
“No one had made a monochrome picture before,” she added. “Here he jumped into a territory of abstraction and a plane of color in a way that was certainly unrecognizable.”
So Matisse kept the painting for more than 15 years, during which it traveled to the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1912 and to New York, Chicago and Boston for the 1913 Armory Show.
“The Red Studio” was eventually bought in 1927 by David Tennant, the founder of the Gargoyle Club in London, where it hung in the mirrored ballroom until the early 1940s, after which it was purchased by the Bignou Gallery in New York, and then acquired by MoMA in 1949. Finally, in the 1950s, people took notice.
“This painting that for several decades had not been fully appreciated — suddenly art history caught up to it,” Temkin said. “So you have somebody like an Ellsworth Kelly or a Mark Rothko or any number of artists in Europe and the U.S. seeing this painting as such a landmark.”
“It’s a really beautiful example of how art history is full of works that are ahead of their time and that find their place several decades after they were actually made,” she continued. “It’s the exact same thing that happened to Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’: They were made in the teens and ’20s and completely ignored and scoffed at as the work of an old Impressionist whose eyesight wasn’t very good anymore. And then when Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman started making color fields, there was interest in the ‘Water Lilies’ 30 or 40 years later.”
Although “The Red Studio” was made 110 years ago — and the show has been in the works for four years — Temkin said it has particular resonance in today’s world, when the pandemic has prompted reassessment and introspection.
“Here is an artist going outside his comfort zone,” the curator said. “It’s Matisse attempting something even he did not completely understand. And that is such a model for art making in any field.”