Upon your first steps into the new Matisse: Life and Spirit exhibition opening on Saturday, November 20, 2021, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a series of sketches from 1900 are clustered together – a nod to the first moments Henri Matisse began to explore his inimitable draughtsmanship. They sit opposite Le Luxe, his 1907 painting of nude bathers, inspired by recent trips to Italy where earth tones are layered with milky pastels and serene blue skies. Both feel monumental to witness for the first time in Australia. Immediately, we bare witness to the sheer span of his life's work as one of the most beloved artist of the 20th century, and the joy that it instantly evokes. This is what Matisse: Life and Spirit was always going to be about.
"It's a show where we wanted to really use those terms, life and spirit, to consider the life of Matisse," Curator Jackie Dunn tells me over the phone less than a week from the opening. "This sort of journey of over six decades of making work, but also the spirit that he felt was present in everything. He sought it when he tried to look at an object, or a person, or landscape. It was to really search for what it was that gave him the sensation of those things."
Created in partnership with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the spiritual home of some of Matisse's most prolific works, Matisse: Life and Spirit is the single greatest exhibition of Matisse works to ever be shown in Sydney. "The Pompidou has a very particular collection, which is kind of an intimate one," Dunn says. "Many of them are gifts from the Matisse family over the years from different members of the family. And they also have these beautiful pieces, which are the maquettes or studies for the Vance chapel, which was really the kind of culminating work of Matisse and his life."
This intimacy is key to the exhibition itself, filled with vibrant colour-playa and dynamism as Matisse's world unravels before you, his practice spilling over the edges into well over 100 works. It reaches, in the first room where Le Luxe sits, from his fauvist explorations, through to his work in sculpture and bronze casting which is positioned opposite Figure Décorative Sur Fond Ornamental – an explosion of colour and pattern so joyful and light reflective it makes your eyes water – all the way to his distilled designs for the Vence Chapel and finishing on his famed cut outs.
"That first room is quite wonderful because it is quite densely packed. And you can immediately see that he's just kind of launching himself on this lifelong journey. And that first room is a delight, because you see that transition very, very rapidly. And you see how he's just pushing himself to really become the modern painter that he becomes," Dunn says.
While the whole exhibition feels monumental, it is the start and finish that cement the gravity of such an expansive collection being available to witness. The final room, where Matisse's cut outs are on full display, reference the time he spent in the Pacific region in Tahiti in the 1930s. When he was in hid mid-seventies, still creating, he came back to these moments through dreams and developed the cut outs he is perhaps most famous for today.
There is something that feels fitting about such a joyful and beloved artist being on full display at AGNSW throughout the summer. After a specifically joyless year where viewing and experiencing art has been so fickle, Matisse: Life and Spirit brings just that back into Sydney.
"It couldn't be a more fitting one to come out of lockdown," Dunn agrees. "Given everything I've said about his capacity to elicit joy. I think that in itself is just such a pleasure for us, because we're keenly aware of how that kind of plays with people, but I think they also come away, realising that this work of joy, and the cutouts especially, this last moment where he's actually making these incredibly innovative, enormous, unbelievably kind of contemporary and fresh pieces in his 70s and 80s, it is almost inconceivable that somebody could be that refreshed at that age."
"It represents this kind of second life after he recovered from a serious illness. And so I think for people to come away and realise that this is somebody who always feels effortless – it is the ease of drawing, it is the beautiful colours – I think the show will actually leave people realising that he worked anxiously and restlessly, unbelievably hard throughout his life, and that this was a constant pushing of himself so that he never stayed in a rush.
There are these sort of undertones of toughness, and then counterpointed with effortlessness and the joyfulness, which is counterpointed by poignancy and trauma and his own life. So I think the end result is that people will see a much more complex Matisse than they'd first imagined."
Matisse: Life and Spirit will be on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from November 20, 2021 to March 13, 2022.