There's a painting in the Art Gallery of NSW's new blockbuster exhibition Matisse: Life & Spirit that could appeal to a modern audience. Decorative figure on an ornamental ground (1925-26) depicts a nude female figure adorned with decorative carpets and wallpaper; it's lovely, but it puts the lady merely as an object – even decoration – like so much art from the period.
Henri Matisse and his contemporary Pablo Picasso, according to prominent feminist art scholar Linda Nochlin, "binge on the female nude but denigrate actual women." "Matisse himself said that the figure is decorative, the background ornamental," co-curator Jackie Dunn tells me when we meet at the show.
The event, which is co-presented by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, is the greatest exhibition of the French artist to be seen in Sydney, with over 100 paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Matisse Alive, the companion show, re-contextualizes, challenges, and complicates the work and legacy of the modern master.
Matisse is recognized for his dramatic and expressive use of color, as well as his competition with Picasso in pushing the boundaries of painting, which is shown in this exhibition by his favorite subject matter, ladies and still lifes. Paintings, sketches, and a series of huge bronze sculptures of backs depict naked women's bodies — bathers, dancers, and models.
The exhibition's main emphasis, however, is the greatest collection of his late "cut-outs" ever presented in Australia.
Matisse was 72 years old and suffering from stomach cancer in 1941. He was incapacitated for months after a complex operation and never regained his ability to stand and paint. Instead, he resorted to paper cut-outs, which he created by slicing designs onto colored paper with scissors.
A trip to Tahiti in 1930 influenced him significantly; the brilliant blues of the works were particularly inspiring. The 1946 paintings Polynesia, the Sky and Polynesia, the Sea depict Matisse's experience of swimming in a lagoon off the coast of Tahiti and the interplay between the sky above him and the sea beneath him.
"Matisse lived through difficult times, but his lightness lifts people's spirits and souls," says Justin Paton, co-curator. Matisse's late self-portrait The sadness of the king (1952) and a reproduction of his last masterwork, The Chapel of the Rosary in Venice, France, which was finished in 1951, demonstrate this.
Matisse, on the other hand, perpetuated the French history of Orientalism by depicting scenes from French colonies that represent white male fantasies and enslave women from North Africa and the Pacific in his paintings. Orientalism, according to cultural analyst Edward Said, is part of colonialism's huge governing mechanisms, and a supporting display, Matisse Alive, on the level below the main exhibition aims to untangle some of the complexity of his legacy. Four modern women artists, Robin White, Nina Chanel Abney, Angela Tiatia, and Sally Smart, have been commissioned to create pieces for the exhibition.
Nina Chanel Abney's vibrant artwork 2 Step (2021) catches your eye as you go down the escalator. Her big painting is overflowing with her strong, angular figures. Paton describes Abney's work as "easy to swallow but difficult to digest": "brimming with color and energy, it explores the African American experience while also offering a strong critique of police violence."
Abney was born in Chicago and now resides in New York City; in another painting, Framily Ties (2021), she focuses on her chosen family of friends. Her figures are genderless and angular, and they occupy a totally different subject position than those shown above by Matisse. However, her use of color and scale is reminiscent of Matisse's dancing murals, and both artists' work exudes a feeling of poetry and energetic excitement.
Angela Tiatia's mesmerizing video piece The Pearl (2021) is the outcome of a recent research trip to Tahiti. Tiatia is a Sydney-based artist of Samoan descent who was born in New Zealand.
In The Pearl, brilliant candy pink plastic clam shells open and shut to a crescendo of drums while hyperreal, computer-generated water foams and rushes over them. Tiatia retells the legendary narrative of Venus's birth, using Matisse's Venus in a Shell (1930) as a starting point.
"[Tiatia] want to address the stance of artists and others who are traveling to the Pacific and looking at the female body in a certain manner... "She's talking about it from a very contemporary perspective," Dunn adds, "the capacity to be sexual, vital... and inhabit the world without the constraints of the colonial view of the Pacific."
Sally Smart's collaged, fabric work highlights Matisse's female helpers' labor in creating his cut-outs, which can be seen in images throughout the exhibition.
Meanwhile, Robin White's barkcloth interior scenes depict imaginary dialogues with Matisse in the Pacific, with the artist represented by symbols such as a hat, shoes, and chair.
The exhibition also includes a stunning display of tivaevae, which are embroidered quilts manufactured all across Polynesia and showcase bright, pared-back motifs that indicate the direct line of inspiration Matisse received from them. He returned to France with two tivaevae.
Matisse Alive signals a commitment to look more broadly, and critically, at the complex hierarchies within art history, and the role our institutions play in deconstructing them for the future, with four contemporary artists – two with ties to the Pacific – responding to Matisse nearly 70 years after his death.
Thanks to Kathleen Linn at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.