Artful Practices for Well-Being

Henri Matisse. The Red Studio. Issy-les-Moulineaux, fall 1911

Oil on canvas, 71 1/4" x 7' 2 1/4" (181 x 219.1 cm). Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2023 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Christopher Bailey: Hello, my name is Christopher Bailey. I'm the Arts and Health Lead at the World Health Organization, and I'm really happy to be here at MoMA at the special exhibition of The Red Studio, Matisse's famous painting. I have to say, it's a little bit like seeing an old friend because when I lived in New York I had a postcard of that painting on my wall.

In the many years since, many things have happened, including I lost my sight. I have terminal glaucoma and I've lost 95% of my vision. Much of how I experience the world is a muting of colors. It's like looking through a dirty lace curtain. So my memory of the painting is very different than my current experience of it.

I'm very much interested in the emotional effects of color. And one of the things that anyone who has been seriously ill or been injured in some way, physical or emotionally, has experienced is this notion of dissociation. And when I look at The Red Studio, I'm struck by the fact that the color red has been dissociated from the interior environment.

And red itself is fundamentally a color of warning and a color of life. When humans evolved the ability to see color in our early history, because we were originally nocturnal animals, the wavelength of what we saw was in the ultraviolet and in the reds, and red was the first color that we were able to see because it was the color of food and it was the color of danger. It creates this visceral emotional reaction when most of us see it.

But for me, it's also a bit of an awakening, because my optic nerve is easily overwhelmed with white light. Not unlike Matisse, actually, in late life when he was doing the paper cutouts had to wear sunglasses in order to manage the intensity of the colors and the light, I, too, wear colored glasses.

There is one small window during the day when my experience of light is something close to normal and that's sunrise and sunset where the spectrum reduces to the reds. So when I look at this painting and I see the strong lines that he has created so clearly, and see this interior world of red, for me, it is one of the few paintings in this museum that is visible and actually comes alive for me. It's a moment of magic. And so my own personal appreciation of this experience is deeply emotional and profound.

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