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.
Yet in the cut-outs there are few quandaries to be found, as the elderly artist works with apparent ease. That Matisse’s career culminated in the invention of a medium that was transcendent in his hands and has also proven amenable to pre-schoolers says much about the nature of what he created.
On leaving the final room I was no doubt supposed to be pleased by the discovery of an entire suite of solo and group exhibitions, spread across the Gallery under the heading Matisse Alive. But the title rang warning bells.
What did it mean? That Matisse, as we encounter him in his paintings, sculptures, etc. is not already a living presence? There was no mistaking the genealogy of the title. It pointed worryingly to (Lexus presents) Van Gogh Alive, the interactive show that has played to the world and is currently touring Australia. With chambers of Vincent-esque environments and video projections, Van Gogh Alive has found a public for whom a moving bastardisation of a famous drawing or painting is not only a tolerable stand-in for the original, but probably preferable.
Without descending so far, part of the point of Matisse Alive was to look lively through the inclusion of installation (Sally Smart) and video (Angela Tiatia) and to break the masculine, modernist mould. No sooner was Matisse invoked in the wall texts as a venerable precursor than excruciating apologies were being made for the fact that he was a man who enjoyed drawing women. The observation was made that Nina Chanel Abney’s paintings “update” his contribution to art, an astounding claim for works whose depth of synthesis can barely be compared to Matisse’s. Simplistic composition is not the same thing as simplicity in painting.
But Matisse Alive had better moments. Robin White’s tonal compositions of interiors, made from paperbark, and the tifaifai and tivaevae of the Cook Islands quilters, possessed a visual logic and sense of touch that stood well beside Matisse. A generous selection of pictures and objects from the Gallery’s collection, loosely Matissean in spirit, offered many surprises. Who knew that the Gallery owned a John Bratby interior from the 1950s? Who is Kathy Butterly, and how did her intriguing ceramic vessel arrive in the collection? It was refreshing to encounter unfamiliar works from the vault, and a relief that the tendency to impose a moral hierarchy was held at bay.
Grateful though I am to have enjoyed a summer with Matisse, the question persists of how uncomfortable a suppression of the curators’ own intelligence – or indeed spirit – it required to bring an excellent selection of his works to Sydney, present them with the utmost sensitivity, then gesture towards an updating of the artist though the exhibitions of Matisse Alive. As an extra offering, it fell well short of a serious consideration of his work’s ongoing influence. An oeuvre such as Matisse’s elevates the viewer to a higher state of aesthetic reflection. It is self-sufficient. Why muddle the experience?
Matisse: Life & Spirit; Matisse Alive
20 November 2021 – 13 March 2022
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney