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There is something particularly idiosyncratic about the art of Henri Matisse, even amid the explosion of experimentation that came once impressionism opened up the “art of seeing” in France. Unlike Cézanne, with his dogged pursuit of a new synthesis of colour and form, say, or the almost violent precociousness of Picasso’s arrival on the scene, Matisse patiently served his apprenticeship after coming late to art as a distraction during convalescence.
He moved through a series of influences, and by the early 1900s was flirting with the styles of artist friends. In 1904, for example, Signac’s pointillism led Matisse to study that painter’s “divisionist” theory of making art. A year later, Derain led him more purposefully into the spatial quirks of fauvism.
In 1906, Matisse’s brightly coloured painting The Joy of Life startled visitors at the Salon des Indépendants, which was already working without the approval of the French Academy. Even Signac thought the artist had “gone to the dogs”. Others in the Parisian art world disagreed: the painting set Picasso to work on his own groundbreaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Matisse had found his own path.
The Art Gallery of NSW’s Matisse: Life & Spirit is a chronological examination of the artist. It is exciting to have so many paintings, sculptures and drawings from the Centre Pompidou, but this is much more than a simple show of the works. The exhibition leads the viewer along Matisse’s passage from a student of convention, through the wildness (the “fauve” in fauvism) of the early 20th century, to an eclecticism that reflects his temperament and interests.
Matisse’s intense decorative period rests far from any possible accusation of frivolity, and his late work with cut-outs far from any hint of oversimplicity or childishness. His odalisques – including Odalisque in Red Culottes (1921), which has come to Sydney – are more accounts of women luxuriating in their own comfort than sexualised representations (unlike Picasso’s dissected and weakened depictions, seemingly poised for molestation).
The early works exhibited appear dour, even gloomy. But after 1906 everything changes. The paintings include several famous examples from the decorative period, including Decorative figure on an Ornamental Background (1925–26) – in which a semi-naked woman sits between a bowl of lemons and a Chinese ceramic planter pot, with a background that seems to place floor and walls on the same plane – and the elegant but visually busy Portrait of Baroness Gourgaud (1924). The pictures rustle with floral carpets and wallpapers, flowers, plants and pieces of furniture.
A small room in the show marks another transition. It contains Matisse’s Abduction of Europa (1929), a serene portrayal of a woman and the beautiful white bull that Jupiter transformed himself into, and the equally calm Seated Pink Nude (1935–36), in which the subject is reduced to simple but sketchy black outlines over a mash of pink and cream skin tones, and is seated on an equally cloudy blue-green chair. After this, even his decorative works calm down into swathes of monochrome surrounding his emblematic pieces.
Matisse later suffered from intestinal cancer, and an operation for it in 1941 left him in a wheelchair. Soon he began producing his famous cut-outs. In 1947, the book Jazz came out, with pages of the artist’s colourful cut-out designs prepared as stencils and placed by assistants for printing. Included in Matisse: Life & Spirit is the book’s cover, which features Matisse’s signature and a truncated body with blood-red claw marks. Despite the exuberance of the pages, full of circus figures, the images point to the fragility of life and Matisse’s own experience of mutilation.
Beyond a room of full-sized maquettes of Matisse’s cut-out designs for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence lies the artist’s final self-portrait: a large-scale work called The Sorrow of the King (1952). A reference to Rembrandt’s David Playing the Harp before Saul (1629), in which David plays to assuage the melancholy of the king, Matisse has portrayed himself as a black and abstract form surrounded by emblems of music, dance and femininity. He died two years later at 84.
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