Matisse: Life & Spirit

Was there a more prolific maker of unforgettable images than Matisse, at least in the twentieth century? The number of exceptional works he created, in painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking and his own medium of the paper cut-out, is astounding. He coaxed a wealth of aesthetic qualities from his materials and evolved a huge inventory of motifs.

But perhaps what is most affecting of all about Matisse is the coherence of the search from which all of his work issued. A Matisse survey gives us the journey and the sense of arrival, the resolve of his late works adding significance to the remarkable list of works that come before. Of how many artists can we say that their concentration on a project was maintained across sixty-five years, with a final chapter that marked a new beginning?

Matisse: Life & Spirit will bring almost one hundred of his paintings, sculptures and works on (and with) paper to the Art Gallery of New South Wales from November 20, 2021. It will be Sydney’s largest ever survey of the artist, with the majority of exhibits coming from the heart of the French state’s holdings of his work, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It will re-unite those who have visited the Pompidou with some of the collection’s most significant works.

But if there is one group of people to whom a preview of an upcoming Matisse exhibition should speak, it is those who have never stood in a room of his works. To them, the message is very simple: go to the exhibition.

Go, because although Matisse is one of the most reproduced artists of all time, the sweat and graft that are intrinsic to his artistry can only be known in front of the works themselves. Go, because although the name Matisse may seem untouchably remote, you will encounter an artist who stands vulnerable before you every time he sets to work.

Amongst the paintings that are on their way, Le Luxe I, 1907, and Les poissons rouges (Interior with a goldfish bowl), 1914, show the transition from the opening phase of his career to maturity. The younger Matisse can, at times, be seen overreaching and revising, or simply abandoning an idea. It is one of the endearing traits of his painting that he does not tidy away the doubts. In this pair of early masterpieces however, all of the parts fall together. We see two poles of his creative personality, Le Luxe I being realised with raw energy while the interior – one of Matisse’s most popular works amongst painters – presents a more measured harmony of tone and colour.

The Nice period’s wonderfully contradictory Decorative figure on an ornamental background, 1925-26, will be present, as will the complete series of Backs, 1909-30, four massive bronze sculptures of the standing female nude seen from behind. Executed over twenty-one years and encapsulating his changing idea of the human form, Matisse himself did not live to see all four castings presented together.

The exhibition will culminate in a group of late works that reflect his grand ambition for colour composition: Large red interior, 1948, Blue nude II, 1952, and the large cut-out The sorrow of the king, 1952. Matisse’s colour can only really be experienced in the original. Sometimes it is layered and nuanced, at other times direct. He was exceptionally sensitive to the range of touches with which a colour could be given specific meaning, whether in oil paint, gouache, printers’ ink, stained paper or textiles.

While his colour does express worldly sensation, his paintings nevertheless give us pause for contemplation, their illusory structures undoing themselves before our eyes. Matisse casts reality and its representation into a dialogue that could be taken in more than one way. A doorway is not only a doorway; it can suggest a space as vast as the sky, but the painting’s poetic mystery depends on the allusion to a doorway being made.

The idiosyncrasies and ambiguities of his work were not mere provocations aimed at the French bourgeoisie. They reflect his synthesis of the formality of many periods of art, with constant reference to life as he found it. Every pictorial order prioritises some aspects of reality over others, but his has the rare quality of perpetual freshness. How is it that our perception of life can still be extended by an artist born in Picardy 150 years ago?

For a populace worn down by the pandemic, the thought of getting to know Matisse and each other, in real space, will return us to a sense of normalcy tinged with the most welcome novelty. Matisse is an artist who conjured a sense of human presence through his choice of subjects and with every mark he made; Matisse: Life & Spirit promises us immersion in his universe.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.

Matisse: Life & Spirit
20 November 2021 – 13 March 2022
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

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