Matisse: Life and Spirit – Art Show Review

If you live in Sydney, Australia, the artist of the moment is Matisse. It’s been a while since we could all get out and gallery hop so don’t miss out of this celebration of light, colour and joy at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris

To steal the intro line…. this show is filled with brilliant colour, dynamic energy, visual joy and emotional power, it’s an inspirational journey through the life and art of this ceaselessly inventive and life-affirming painter. You’ll get to see over 100 works by Matisse spanning six decades. Borrowed from the Centre Pompidou in Paris you can get a snippet of a European gallery jaunt in a Covid friendly way!

The show travels through 8 rooms illustrating the progressive steps of his art career in drawing, sculpture, painting and installation.

ROOM 1 – Towards Fauvism (1895–1909)

This room explains how Matisse started his art life and what influenced him. In 1892 he moves to Paris to start his art career. Aged 22 he studies under the direction of symbolist painter Gustave Moreau who encourages his students to experiment with new materials and concepts. Away from academic structure he finds freedom to explore new ideas of the time. New colours and the energy of others experimenting in new ways to paint enhanced his own art making. Towards the dawn of a new century, the advent of the camera and colour straight from the tube artists were seeking out new reasons to keep painting alive. It could no longer survive if it was to just represent a subject, photography would soon do that. There had to be more.

Other artists were excited too about the new possibilities. Paul Signac was developing Divisionalism which would later be referred to as Pointillism, whereby brilliant spots of colour were placed next to each other to build up a shimmering surface of form and light. African masks were becoming a collectors item. The concept of creating icons of spiritual meaning fascinated many artists as did the simplification of form and shape.

Matisse travels to Collioure near the Spanish border in the summer of 1905, with artist friends André Derain, Albert Marquet and Henri Manguin. The light and colour there helped them produce paintings that would shake the art world. An ‘orgy of pure colour’ these works would define the group as the ‘wild beasts’ of colour. And so the ‘Fauvists’ were born.

Travels became important to Matisse in responding to the landscape in new ways. ‘Slowly I discovered the secret of my art. It consists of a meditation on nature, on the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality.’

Still life with chocolate pot (1900)

ROOM 2 – The radical years (1914–18)

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 sends many artists and dealers either to war or into hiding. Matisse at 45 after failing to be accepted into the service throws himself into his work. Lots of experimentation in developing his ‘decorative’ concepts. He works tirelessly at developing his concepts of harmony and balance within a space. He devotes special attention to the subject of his own studio – a space of provisional calm and fragile wholeness in a war-torn world. Mask-like faces surface in his work, ghosts of African art and his attempt to capture the ‘spirit’ of a soul rather than a likeness of visual features. Colour choices become emotional icons for mood and modernity.

Interior with a bowl with red fish (1914)

ROOM 3 – A parallel search (1909–30)

It’s not all about colour! Matisse’s sculptures brilliantly describe his process of simplification and structure. His four piece bronze work ‘Backs’ as with the other three dimensional works show his process. We can see the ‘order of his thoughts’. They show us his ambitions to simplify, abstract and monumentalise. These pieces are not replacements for his paintings but extensions of his ideas.

‘Sculpture does not say what painting says. Painting does not say what music says. They are parallel ways, but you can’t confuse them.


Figures and interiors (1918–29)

Matisse works on the light, air and decoration that he finds after moving to Nice permanently. His ‘rococo salon’ was adorned with richly patterned carpets, screens, hangings and other props from Algeria, Morocco, and Parisian dealers. Her the odalisque figure makes an appearance in his work. The icon of exotic freedoms and ideas, pattern filled rooms become the backdrop for his drawings. In this room you get a glimpse into his process and steps of developing an artwork. From observation and charcoal sketch to multiple ink drawings. He calls this ‘The cinema of my sensibility’ and claims that drawing is like a ‘tuning fork’ that helps sensitise his eye to what’s important

ROOM 4 – Expansion and experiment (1930–37)

What makes a great master is that they are fiercely self-critical. Developing new methods and styles separates you from the pack. Being a pioneer can be a lonely road and working that harmony into your mindset is often harder than it looks. Matisse experienced  intense periods of doubt and creative anxiety.

‘I continually react until my work comes into harmony with me. Like someone who writes a sentence and, rewriting it, makes new discoveries …’

ROOM 5 – From Nice to Vence (1938–48)

The late 1930s and early 1940s Matisse’s life is fraught with personal difficulties. He separates from his wife, moves again to Vence and has surgery for duodenal cancer. He is distraught at the capture and torture of his ex-wife Amélie and daughter, Marguerite toward the end of the war. His drawings become themes and variations of existing ideas and interiors. His ailing body pushes him to experiment with paper cut outs.

ROOM 6 – Chapel of the Rosary, Vence (1948–51)

In this space you experience constructions of artworks that form part of his design for the chapel. Conceived for the Dominican nuns, it was shaped by Matisse’s desire to create a ‘grande composition’. Matisse wanted visitors to the chapel to ‘experience a lightening of the spirit. So that, even without being believers, they find themselves in an environment where the spirit is elevated, where thought is clarified, where feeling itself is lightened.’

And he does this spectacularly with light and colour. But here we see it merge. Space and decoration, the translucency of colour swim around the space. There is air and light, harmony and wonder and you get a sense of what he was really trying to do with his radiant colour and simplified shapes. Of course those lovely leave shapes in stained glass were a night mare for production but it is that very point, flow using rigid materials that makes it a break through in modern thinking.

Executed in three colours – yellow, blue and green – the final windows for the Chapel of the Rosary bathe the sacred space in coloured light. He claimed it was this space that gave him ‘the opportunity to express himself in a totality of form and colour.’ ‘I believe my role is to provide calm. Because I myself have need of peace.’

ROOM 7 – Tahiti, journeys and memories (1930–46)

Matisse departs for Tahiti in search of renewal at the age of 60. ‘I have often travelled in my imagination, and since the main goal of my work is clarity of light, I asked myself, “What must it be like on the other side of the hemisphere?’

After arriving and finding ‘everything marvellous’, he admitted that ‘the country doesn’t speak to me, pictorially’. He turns his attention to the sea and the views from the island out, into the big blue.

Polynesia, the sky
(1946). Collages, gouache and stretched on canvas.

The cut-outs (1930–1954)

In his final years he focuses on his paper cut-outs. He is more fragile after his operations and often confined to bed or a wheel chair. But this doesn’t stop him. He builds colour and composition with a pair of tailor’s shears through sheets of paper prepared with brilliant gouache. I especially love the sample of his working thoughts where we see his pinned paper shapes, and the process of testing colours and compositions.

In this room you will see pages from the artist’s book ‘Jazz’. Reinvigorated by the new medium Matisse said that creating these shapes gave him the sensation of flying.

Two dancers (1938)

By creating these cut-out and coloured papers, it seems to me that I go happily ahead of what is to come … But I know that only later will people realise just how much what I do today is in harmony with the future.”

And here you are left completing the show viewing his ‘Blue Nude’ from 1952. Is it his greatest work? You decide. I see it as more of an icon for his ideas, hopes and dreams – that the spirit of harmony and light could be captured in the simplicity of some blue paper cutouts is possible. That his lifelong search for a purity in art making was important. To himself and to the evolution of art history. This is what we admire and have to thank him for.

It is as if history repeats itself, the process of art, be it the maker or appreciator, is a search for meaning, a way to sort the world out for ourselves, a way to make sense of it all. A contradiction of such… Matisse shows us that his desire to create a quiet candescence is possible. That life and spirit, are still the drivers of our existence and the basis for creativity.

Blue Nude II (1952)

So what’s the big deal about Matisse?

In my younger years (as with many of my younger art students) I didn’t really get what was so great? It looked more like graphic design done badly? There was a looseness but everything was so flat. It looked like he could never decide on a colour and he didn’t even try to hide that he changed a colour in certain spaces.

I went off and did my homework. Turns out the very things that annoyed me about his work were the exact elements he was going for! He was a bit of a rebel and I think that’s why so many painters have such respect for his work. At times it’s not so much the actual work, but what it stands for that makes it so important. His paintings were the bi products of big ideas and its his dedication to these big ideas that makes him such a master.

Here’s a 10 insights that might help you appreciate and connect with what Matisse was aiming for in his art process.

1. Creativity can start at any age
At the age of 20 Matisse get appendicitis. His mother gives him a set of water colours to entertain himself while stuck in bed to heal.
The moment I had this box of colours in my hands, I had the feeling that my life was there. Like an animal that rushes to what it loves, I plunged straight in … Before, nothing interested me; afterwards, I had nothing on my mind but painting.

2. Picking art will always disappoint some.
Upon discovering the magic of art from that paint box, Matisse decides that his future should be as an artist and not as a lawyer. He had been training to be in the legal profession up to the point of his appendicitis event. From then on he continues to devastate and disappoint his father forever more.

3. Seek out those who inspire creative ideas and experimentation.
Matisse was great at seeking out others who could teach him how to explore ideas. From his radical art teacher Gustave Moreau, to the likes the rambunctious Australian painter John Russell, he sort out those who bravely went against the norm.

Yes, Australian artist John Russell was one of the first artists to introduce him to the joy of vibrant colour.  On visiting Russell in 1896 on the island of Belle Île off the coast of Brittany, he is shocked, yet excited by his unruly use of colour. Russell was an Impressionist painter; Matisse had never previously seen an Impressionist work directly, and was so shocked at the style that he left after ten days, saying, “I couldn’t stand it any more.” The next year he returned as Russell’s student and abandoned his earth-coloured palette for bright Impressionist colours, later stating, “Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me.”

On his first visit Russell tells him to check out what Van Gogh is up to and gives him one of Van Gogh’s drawings (Russell met Van Gogh in Art School). Matisse also seeks out Pissarro for his colour experiments who suggests that he should go to London and check out William Turner’s artworks.

Matisse was also known for seeking out and buying artworks created by artists of new thinking’. He even goes into debt for it. He purchases Cezanne’s Bathers and places it on his wall for over 30 years to remind himself to focus on the intention of his art.

4. Don’t stick to just one lane
Thinking creatively doesn’t just happen with a paint brush, if you are bored creatively you will usually have ideas that you could do in other mediums. Sculpture, paper cut outs, theatre design, stretching your concepts into new areas will only help develop and mature your ideas. Matisse was a master of reinvention and development.

5. If you want to do something different you are going to be misunderstood by most.
These new radical ideas of what a painting should be were not welcomed by the public. Much of the time his work was considered juvenile and incomplete.

e Art critic Camille Mauclair claimed that the work of these new ‘fauve’ artist was as if  “A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public”. In 1913 Nu bleu (1907) is burned in effigy at the Armory Show in Chicago. 

In the art world, he was even despised by fellow rebels. The battles between Picasso and Matisse as to who was more radical and modern are well documented throughout their entire careers.

6. You only need a few cheerleaders to help you keep going.
There were many, many moments when Matisse had no supporters. Thanks to a few who understood what he was trying to do and saw the potential in collecting artworks about new ideas.

Two such people were:

Sarah Stein, sister in law to Gertrude Stein (famous art collector of living artists and who thought nothing of Matisses work) Supported and popularised his vision. Beginning with the first purchase of Woman with a Hat at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. Sarah and her husband Leo, took Matisse’s work to America, and later took occasional commissions to secure other examples of his works for American collectors. She persuaded Matisse to open a school of painting. When Matisse was in considerable economic distress, Sarah made him her hero, and many of her evenings at home with guests defended the artworks, convinced, that Matisse was a great master.

Sergei  Shchukin Russian businessman who became an art collector, mainly of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. He believed that Matisse was part of the modern revolution in painting and took his work back to Russia where decorated his mansion and commissioned him to paint the famous, La Danse. He would invite socialites over for long intellectual dinners. On arrival they would all hate these works by Matisse but after discussing at length the importance of his work, they would all be wanting one for themselves. (Oh how we all drew of having own own Shchukin!)

Seeking out people who will be your cheerleaders can make or break your progress. Surrounding yourself with skilled supporters who help drive your progress rather than put speed ups in the way is important for all creatives.

Woman with a Hat (1905)

7. Decoration is not a dirty word.
Matisse was trying to create a new way of looking. He was trying to get away from realism and creating a three dimensional sense of space. His ambitions to make a decorative paint are often misinterpreted. What he meant by this is that he believed every space in the painting should get equal billing. There is no one place your eye should go. Colours and shapes should sit harmoniously in the composition. Interiors with windows became a great vehicle to workshop the idea. The inside and the outside are equally balanced. There is no focus point. It is a celebration of light, colour and balance.

8. Your dedication can be annoying and fascinating at the same time.
Dedicating yourself to a cause, in Matisse’s case: colour and shape is admirable but it means you come of a little possessive and your skills in other areas might not be so good. In truth Matisse would have been a nightmare to live with. His wife found it so hard she left him a few times before finally pulling the plug. He always said he needed to work in complete silence and never really contributed much to the family dynamic financially or emotionally, spending much of the time away working in silence in other regions to complete work.  In saying that it did not devoid himself from the guilt of never providing enough for his family.

The Conversation (1908-1912)

9. Don’t let your disability get in the way of creating
Even after an op to remove duodenal cancer and being assigned to a wheel chair or bed he never put down his ideas. He just reinvented them to fit into his changing conditions. Put your charcoal on a stick, draw on a wall, start to colour with cut-outs. If you are a true creative you’ll find a way to keep creating.

10. Art should be comfortable
“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”


PS. Is it just a coincidence or did Matisse influence the new branding for the Art Gallery of NSW. Blue was Matisse’s favourite colour.


An added bonus is the ‘Matisse Alive’ show celebrating vibrant and energetic artworks and installations.






This blog will discuss art shows and art events that I have visited. All comments are purely personal opinion and no words are ever intended to offend in any way. My aim is for readers to get ‘Arting About’ and build your own dialogue to what you have seen and experienced.
Comments are warmly welcomed… let’s keep the conversation open!

“ARTSHOW REVIEW” is written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on
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