Henri Matisse remains unique among 20th Century artists and, because of the magical quality of his work, he will surely remain unique into the future.

Matisse in his studio

The Matisse exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is – despite its lame corporate comms title, ‘Life and Spirit’ – is a fine show. I have seen a lot of Matisse, including the comprehensive 1982/83 survey in Düsseldorf and Zürich, and the AGNSW’s is a real contender.

Most of the work comes from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, one of the world’s great Matisse collections. In their loans for this exhibition they have been generous both in quantity and quality and the show is simultaneously a fine introduction to Matisse for art-starved denizens of the Antipodes and a welcome re-acquaintance for local afficionados.

L – Tahiti II/Window in Tahiti, 1936. R – Blue Nude II, 1952. Photo Paul McGillick

The paintings provide an excellent overview, the sculptures (including the astonishing four ‘Back’ bronze reliefs) give an insight into Matisse’s important sculptural work and there is generous coverage of the cut-outs, including ‘Jazz’ and ‘Blue Nude II’ from 1952 – famous, of course, for being endlessly reproduced, but it needs to be seen ‘in the flesh’ to appreciate the textures and layers. The exhibition has been beautifully designed by Richard Johnson with his re-imagining of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence a highlight – built around Matisse’s studies for the Chapel, Johnson has created a genuine sanctuary, filled with soft, immanent light, with a truly contemplative ambience.

From Themes and Variations, 1943. Photo Mika Nishimura

If the show has a weak spot, it is the lack of prints – just a clutch of early woodcuts and one linocut from the NGA’s ‘Pasiphaé’ (1943-44) set. But this is balanced by the opportunity to see the ‘Themes and Variations’ (1941-42) drawings (dessins), arranged to replicate the way Matisse had them pinned to his studio wall in Nice.


The French term for drawing, dessin, has a polysemic ambiguity, simultaneously suggesting drawing, design and sketch – hence so appropriate for Matisse’s extraordinary legacy of graphic work. Executed during his convalescence from duodenal cancer surgery, ‘Themes and Variations’ is a magical insight into the sources of Matisse’s art. “The importance of an artist,” he said, ‘is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the language of art.” The quote is from Louis Aragon’s wonderful two-volume book on Matisse, Matisse: A Novel, where Aragon beautifully expatiates on Matisse’s theory of signs in art.

In these drawings – and in some ink drawings of female nudes from the mid-1930s also in the show – we see the fluency of Matisse’s line where a single graphic gesture represents, for example, a particular mouth and all mouths, a particular woman’s hip and all female hips.

Sculpture installation. Photo Paul McGillick

The ‘sign project’ runs throughout Matisse’s career, but becomes most prominent in his late period (1941-54). Its achievement, paradoxically, was an image enriched by being reduced to its essence – and the decorative revealed as an expression of the fundamental aesthetic value of art.

The four relief sculptures, ‘Back’, executed over the period 1909 to 1930, are a breathtakingly haptic exploration of themes Matisse was otherwise exploring in two dimensions. As Anne Théry and Marjolaine Beuzard comment in the catalogue to the show, the reliefs (by the time they achieve the fourth and final state) are “the three-dimensional equivalent of the effect he was always searching for in his painting”.

Back IV, 1930. Photo Mika Nishimura

The four reliefs depict the progressive reduction of a naked female body seen from behind, her back dissected by a long plait of hair, to its abstracted essence. While technically three-dimensional, these low-relief sculptures project a gripping ambiguity as the viewer struggles to resolve the tension between the three-dimensional sculptural modelling and the two-dimensional graphic quality of the pieces.


Matisse never fully surrendered to abstraction – perhaps he was too visionary an artist?! Rather he recognised that abstraction and representation were equal parts of visual perception as the human eye seeks to make sense of what it perceives – matching what the eye sees with what the brain knows, guessing, testing, hypothesising.

French Window at Collioure, 1914

The closest Matisse ever came to ‘pure’ abstraction was with his 1914 painting, ‘French Window at Collioure’, and an important inclusion in this show.

It may at first glance appear that this rectilinear, reductionist image has nothing in common with richly decorative paintings like ‘Odalisque with Red Culottes’ (1921) or ‘Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background’ (1925-26), but closer examination shows a commonality in the painterly quality, the colourist flair and layering of colour and texture along with the marriage of line, modelling and spatial ambiguity.

Large Red Interior, 1948. Photo Mika Nishimura

Similarly, ‘Large Red Interior’ (1948) is simply another way of exploring decorative assemblies as in ‘Jazz’, the two large-scale Polynesian cut-outs (1946) or ‘The Sorrow of the King’ (1952).

Matisse worked in series, thoroughly exploring various propositions and often returning to the same propositions years later because he felt that he had not fully exhausted their potential. Exploring the potential of the pictorial sign was such a project. Sustaining the unity of the picture plane by setting up a tension between figure and ground was another project, placing Matisse at the heart of the great Western tradition of easel painting.

Red Culottes, 1921. Photo Mika Nishimura

But apart from the early realist paintings and flirtations with Divisionism and Fauvism, Matisse was always his own man, pursuing his own vision and never owing any dues to the endless stylistic fads which, during his lifetime, broke ceaselessly like waves on the beach of international art.

This essential autonomy makes Matisse the unique and magnetic figure he is in modern art – along with the discipline of the studio and his concentrated focus on the project at hand. Hard as it is to believe when we look, for example, at the fluent, decorative jouissance of the cut-outs, Matisse never really had great natural facility as an artist.

L – the Sorrow of the King, 1952. R – Polynesia, the Sky, 1946. Photo Paul McGillick


It was all hard work. There were no damascene moments, only relentless hours in the studio. Many of these hours were spent alone. But many were spent with his models and his several female assistants (especially in the years of his physical infirmity) who were surely vital to the whole process – if not as actual collaborators, then as compagnons de route.

It is not insignificant that Matisse’s figures are predominantly female because the feminine, both in physical form and in spirit, was central to his artistic preoccupations. He spent his whole life, both in the studio and out of it, surrounded by women. To mix languages, it was truly a case of Goethe’s das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan (the eternal feminine draws us on), where the feminine is the life force itself – made manifest in Matisse’s pictorial forms.

It might not be stretching the point too far to say that Matisse’s immersion in the feminine is reflected in his trajectory from sculpture and painting to the final decade’s absorption in the decorative – a journey from an expressive mode to one of inner experience.

Chapel of the Rosary Installation. Photo Charmaine Zheng

Matisse – Life and Spirit

Art Gallery of NSW,

November 20, 2021 – March 13, 2022