Speaking back to Matisse: Art Gallery of NSW dazzles with comprehensive, complicated show

Henri Matisse

The major survey features the most Matisse cut-outs ever shown in Australia – but it’s downstairs at the sister exhibition where the real conversation happens

Matisse: Life & Spirit
Matisse: Life & Spirit is co-presented by the Centre Pompidou, and features more than 100 works of painting, drawing and sculpture by Henri Matisse. Photograph: Mim Stirling/AGNSW

Kathleen LinnFri 26 Nov 2021 19.00 GMT

Among the Art Gallery of NSW’s new blockbuster exhibition Matisse: Life & Spirit, there’s a work that may stand out to a contemporary audience. Decorative figure on an ornamental ground (1925-26) features a naked female figure embellished with ornate rugs and wallpaper; it’s beautiful, but like so much art from the time, it casts the woman solely as an object – even decoration.

Prominent feminist art theorist Linda Nochlin has said of Henri Matisse and his contemporary Pablo Picasso that they “binge on the female nude but denigrate actual women”. When we meet at the exhibition, co-curator Jackie Dunn tells me: “Matisse himself said that ‘the figure is decorative, the background ornamental’.”

Decorative figure on an ornamental ground (centre) at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Decorative figure on an ornamental ground (centre) at the Art Gallery of NSW. Photograph: Mim Stirling/AGNSW
Odalisque with red culottes (Odalisque à la culotte rouge) (1921), by Matisse.
Odalisque with red culottes (Odalisque à la culotte rouge) (1921), by Matisse. Photograph: Centre Pompidou/AGNSW


Co-presented by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the show is the largest exhibition of the French artist ever seen in Sydney, featuring more than 100 works of painting, drawing and sculpture. In its accompanying exhibition, Matisse Alive, contemporary artists re-contextualise, challenge and complicate the modern master’s art and legacy.

Matisse is known for his dramatic and expressive use of colour, and for his rivalry with Picasso in pushing the conventions of painting – played out amid his favourite subject matter, women and still lifes, which feature prominently in this exhibition. Naked women’s bodies – bathers, dancers and models – are rendered in paintings, drawings and a series of monumental bronze sculptures of backs.

But they’re offset by the exhibition’s major focus: the largest display of his late “cut-outs” to ever be shown in Australia.

The sorrow of the king (1952) and Polynesia, the Sky and Polynesia, the Sea (1946), at Matisse: Life & Spirit.
The sorrow of the king (1952) and Polynesia, the Sky and Polynesia, the Sea (1946), at Matisse: Life & Spirit. Photograph: Mim Stirling/AGNSW


In 1941 Matisse was 72 years old, and ill with abdominal cancer. Following a complicated surgery, he was bedridden for months and never recovered the ability to stand and paint. Instead, he turned to paper cut-outs: drawings made with scissors, directly into coloured paper. He was particularly inspired by a trip he took to Tahiti in 1930; the vibrant blues of the works Polynesia, the Sky and Polynesia, the Sea of 1946 evoke Matisse’s experience of swimming in a lagoon off Tahiti, and the relationship of the sky above to the water beneath him.

Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

“Matisse lived through heavy times but his lightness lifts people’s spirits and their souls,” comments co-curator Justin Paton. This comes through in vibrant, playful works such as Matisse’s late self-portrait The sorrow of the king (1952), and a recreation of his final masterpiece, The Chapel of the Rosary in Venice, France, the building of which was completed in 1951.

The sorrow of the king (La tristesse du roi) (1952).
The sorrow of the king (La tristesse du roi) (1952). Photograph: Centre Pompidou/AGNSW

But Matisse also continued the French tradition of Orientalism: painting scenes from French colonies that reflect white male fantasies, and subjugate women from North Africa and the Pacific. Cultural theorist Edward Said described Orientalism as part of the vast controlling mechanisms of colonialism – and on the floor below the major exhibition, an accompanying show, Matisse Alive, attempts to unravel some of the complexities of his legacy. At the centre are commissioned projects by four contemporary women artists: Robin White, Nina Chanel Abney, Angela Tiatia and Sally Smart.

Travelling down the escalator, Nina Chanel Abney’s exuberant painting 2 Step (2021) grabs your attention. Her bold, angular figures overflow their large canvas. Abney’s work can be easy to swallow but hard to digest, Paton says: brimming with colour and energy, it explores the African American experience and offers a strong critique of police violence.

Abney was born in Chicago and lives in New York City; in another painting, Framily Ties (2021), she turns her attention to her friends, or chosen family. Her figures are gender fluid and angular, and occupy a very different subject position to those portrayed by Matisse upstairs. But her use of colour and scale parallels Matisse’s dance murals, and a sense of lyricism and kinetic joy is palpable in both artists’ work.

Nina Chanel Abney’s works at the Matisse Alive show.
‘A sense of lyricism and kinetic joy’: Nina Chanel Abney’s works at the Matisse Alive show. Photograph: Diana Panuccio/AGNSW


The Pearl (2021) is a mesmerising video work by Angela Tiatia, the result of a recent research trip to Tahiti. Tiatia is a Sydney-based artist, born in New Zealand with Samoan heritage.

In The Pearl, bright candy pink plastic clam shells open and close while hyperreal, computer-generated water foams and flows over them to a crescendo of drums. Tiatia retells the classical myth of the birth of Venus, taking Matisse’s own Venus in a shell (1930) as her starting point.

Angela Tiatia and her ‘mesmerising’ video work The Pearl.
Angela Tiatia and her ‘mesmerising’ video work The Pearl. Photograph: Diana Panuccio/AGNSW

“[Tiatia is] wanting to address the position of artists and others voyaging to the Pacific and looking at the female body in one way … She is speaking about it from a very contemporary position — the capacity to be sexual, vital … and inhabit the world without the constraints of the colonial view of the Pacific,” says Dunn.

Sally Smart’s collaged, cloth installation draws attention to the labour of Matisse’s female assistants, who created his cut-outs – visible in photographs shown through the exhibition.

The tivaevae display.
The tivaevae display. Photograph: Diana Panuccio/AGNSW
Soon, the tide will turn (2021), a work on barkcloth (masi) by Robin White with Ebonie Fifita.
Soon, the tide will turn (2021), a work on barkcloth by Robin White with Ebonie Fifita. Photograph: AGNSW


Meanwhile, Robin White’s interior scenes painted on barkcloth feature imagine conversations with Matisse in the Pacific, with the artist represented by symbols: hat, shoes and chair.

The show also features a beautiful hang of tivaevae: embroidered quilts made throughout Polynesia, with bold, pared-back designs that reveal the clear line of inspiration Matisse drew from them. He took two tivaevae back to France with him.

With four contemporary artists – two with ties to the Pacific – speaking back to Matisse, nearly 70 years after his death, 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.

 Matisse: Life & Spirit and Matisse Alive are both showing at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney

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