Matisse: Life & Spirit and Matisse Alive

Joe Frost, Artists Profile, March 4, 2022

The Art Gallery of New South Wales's headline summer show, "Matisse: Life & Spirit," is accompanied by contemporary works in "Matisse Alive." Joe Frost explores the enduring relevance of the modernist master, and the Matissean ripples felt by artists today, as articulated by the Gallery's program.


Without his touch, Matisse would not exist for us. We can recognise his work by its radical composition, the lyricism of its colour and the utter clarity of the artist’s final phase, but before these qualities could blossom there was an initial impulse, born of the liberated touch of the late nineteenth century.


The freedom to stipple, hatch, or strike the canvas, or take a turps-soaked rag and wipe the colours back to grey and re-build from there, propelled Matisse towards a unique visual expression. The trust he placed in his own intuitive faculties, in spite of how cack-handed his work seemed to many observers, is one of his inspiring legacies.


It is probably clear that I’m a fan of Matisse, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s Matisse: Life & Spirit was enough to bring me back through the doors of a building that, I admit, I rarely feel compelled to visit these days. The show summarised his development beautifully. 


From a first room of early work to a palpable sense of arrival in the paintings and sculptures of the 1910s, then onward through each phase, Matisse: Life & Spirit offered an impressive assembly of works that can unequivocally be called “major,” even though they reflect an unselfconscious spirit of play. A spellbinding painting like Intérieur, bocal de poissons rouges (Interior, goldfish bowl), 1914, manifests monumental surety, yet leaves flashes of abandon exposed between its dark slabs of blue. The cracking in the upper left of the canvas is evidence of how hard Matisse pushed to achieve the elastic, representational mystery of this painting.


Having known his work for decades, I still find enough perplexing elements to challenge my understanding. Lingering before the Backs, the four monumental sculptures of a female body seen from behind, I wondered again about the bulbous, left shoulder of the first figure and its abstraction into the second. Seeming awkward from an anatomical or aesthetic standpoint, this particular feature of a grand sculptural work obliged me to decide how much of my own judgment to relinquish out of respect for a beloved artist. Matisse does present these quandaries, which have only enriched my relationship with his work.


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