Henri Matisse burst onto the French art scene like a bombshell at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. Faced with paintings in vibrant colour, the public was scandalised. The 36-year-old Matisse and his colleagues were christened “les Fauves” – the wild beasts – and accused of being madmen and confidence tricksters. Although the show was an act of provocation, the violence of the response, and the relentless ridicule, was too much for most of the artists. Fauvism proved to be one of shortest-lived art movements in history.
It would be wrong to say Matisse was undaunted. He was penniless at the time, wild with anxiety and feeling as if he were being assaulted on all sides. But while his friends decided to abandon the experiment, he would stick doggedly to the path he had laid down.
Two years later he had painted Le Luxe I (1907), a work so raw and confronting he sacrificed what little sympathy he’d retained among critics and artist friends. It’s still a shock to encounter the picture 104 years later, at the Art Gallery of NSW, in the exhibition Matisse: Life and Spirit. In a crowded first room, filled with colourful paintings, it’s the large scale, the roughness of the paintwork, and the radical simplification of the figures that makes it stand out.
What’s actually going on? No-one knows, or really cares. An unknown allegory is being enacted in the hills above the fishing village of Collioure, by three nude women who may have some connection with the classical, Mediterranean past. Like so many of Matisse’s works, the subject is not important, but the manner of painting is electrifying.
This exhibition is drawn almost exclusively from the holdings of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, supplemented by items from Australian public and private collections. In the space of 100 works we travel from the cautious, tonal painting, The reader (1895), to the spectacular, large-scale, coloured paper cut, The sorrow of the king (1952). On the way we sample many phases of a career that started late but would eventually dominate the art of the 20th century.
Matisse’s unique sculptures and the late paper cuts are well represented in this survey, but one could wish for a greater selection of paintings. As is so often the case with touring ‘blockbusters’, the show is padded out with works on paper. Although masterly in their own right, prints and drawings are an inadequate substitute for oil paintings.
No show in Australia was ever going to come close to the landmark Matisse retrospective held in New York and Paris in 1993, but the AGNSW has chosen its claims carefully, saying this is “the greatest single exhibition of Matisse masterworks ever to be seen in Sydney.” Let’s not dwell on the show seen in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne in 1995 that included more than 270 works; or the 300 works on paper that featured in the huge Matisse drawing survey held at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2011. It could be argued that Sydney has been starved of Matisse until now, in which case there’s no point complaining about pictures returning from the 1995 show. This is the biggest selection of the artist’s work we are likely to see at the AGNSW for two or three generations, so we may as well enjoy it while we can.
One can be thankful for important pictures such as the brilliantly coloured Algerian woman (1909), or French window at Collioure (1914) – a minimal arrangement of vertical planes of blue, black and grey that would prove inspirational to later schools of abstract art. Yet even allowing for the strength of such works, Matisse: Life & Spirit provides a fragmentary portrait of the artist – which may be the inevitable result of borrowing almost the entire show from one museum.
Although the Centre Pompidou may have impressive holdings of Matisse’s work, it’s far from comprehensive. We don’t get an exhibition with a strong thesis. Instead, it’s a bunch of things. As we’re talking about a recognised modern master, those things are remarkable, but a successful show needs to be more than the sum of its parts.
One would never guess that the Matisse we see at the AGNSW was the most reviled figure in French art when he was painting with the greatest freedom and boldness. We see the confident decorator but catch only a glimpse of the conflicted experimentalist who championed an art of calmness and tranquillity while tearing down every painterly convention. Many who met Matisse for the first time were surprised to meet a rational, articulate thinker rather than a crazed anarchist.
This exhibition, heavily weighted towards the late, elegant paper cuts, makes Matisse seem as calm as he ever aspired to be, but misses the ferocious energy with which he staked his claim to future greatness in the years leading up to World War One. The French were slow to recognise Matisse’s importance, and the outstanding paintings of that period have ended up in Russia and the United States. What we see in this collection from the Pompidou is enough to make any Australian museum envious, but it’s also a testament to the Biblical idea that no man is a prophet in his own country.
Matisse: Life & Spirit,
Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris
Art Gallery of NSW, 20 November – 6 February, 2022
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November, 2021