How Matisse’s Legacy Takes Up a New Lease On Life at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Installation view of “Matisse: Life & Spirit Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 20 November 2021 — 13 March 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Mim Stirling. Image courtesy of the artist and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Living Space in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Open Space in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Installation view of Sally Smart’’s The Artist’s House (2021) in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Installation view of Angela Tiatia’s The Pearl (2021) in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Installation view of Nina Chanel Abney’s works in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Installation view of Robin White’’s work in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Installation view of Tivaevae in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

At Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, “Matisse Alive” and “Matisse: Life & Spirit” brings alive the legacy of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century with fresh eyes.

TEXT: Chloé Wolifson
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

As curator Brook Andrew highlighted in last year’s Biennale of Sydney, “NIRIN”, the edge of one person’s universe is the centre of someone else’s. The Art Gallery of New South Wale’s (AGNSW) current suite of exhibitions, “Matisse Alive” and “Matisse: Life & Spirit” is an exploration of the rich conversations to be had in the spaces where universes overlap and intersect.

 

Installation view of “Matisse: Life & Spirit Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 20 November 2021 — 13 March 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Mim Stirling. Image courtesy of the artist and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

Even before pandemic-induced border closures, Australian audiences have often been reminded that down here in the antipodes we should be grateful for the opportunity to view historically significant art collections from Europe and the United States. While the subtitle of “Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris”and its billing as “the greatest single exhibition of Matisse masterworks ever to be seen in Sydney” follows this template, the exhibition of more than 100 works by the modernist master, tracing his artistic development across the decades, is part of a broader project which uses the French artist’s legacy, in particular the life-changing period he spent in Tahiti in 1930 at age 60, as jumping-off points to reconsider where the ‘centre’ of an art world can be.

 

Living Space in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

Open Space in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

“Matisse Alive” is a gallery-wide “festival” which encompasses several exhibitions—the collection shows “Open Space” and “Living Space” (featuring works by artists other than Matisse from the AGNSW collection), “Tivaevae”and four newly commissioned “Solo Projects” by contemporary artists New York-based Nina Chanel Abney, Robin White from New Zealand, Australian artist Sally Smart, and Sāmoan-Australian Angela Tiatia. Sightlines between these free, unticketed shows (“Life & Spirit” is ticketed) are open which encourages movement of visitors and cross-pollination of ideas. The conversation begins in the gallery’s entrance hall with “Open Space”, a presentation of a handful of large canvases whose makers share Matisse’s passion for painting as an expressive space for light, colour and form. “Living Space” considers his fascination with the domestic setting (seen in paintings throughout “Life & Spirit”) through small thematic arrangements of mainly small-scale works. “Open Space” and “Living Space”are two distinctive activations of the Gallery’s collection (27 of the 70 works in “Living Space” have never been hung in the Gallery before) which successfully place Matisse at home in the AGNSW, and the AGNSW at home with Matisse.

The level between “Open Space” and “Living Space” houses “Matisse: Life & Spirit” in the temporary exhibition galleries. It is worth noting that this is the final time these particular galleries will be used as a temporary exhibition space before the AGNSW’s new campus, Sydney Modern, opens in late 2022. Though Sydney Modern has attracted robust criticism, when considering the evolving ways museums develop exhibitions and manage collections, a project like “Matisse Alive” makes a strong case for the potential of such an expansion.

The commissioning of contemporary artists’ solo projects highlights the important role museums have to play not just as custodians of their collections but as supporters and champions of new work. Abney, White, Smart, and Tiatia were invited to consider Matisse’s contemporary significance and respond to his aesthetic and conceptual questions. Each artist’s approach casts connective threads between Matisse’s work as seen in “Life & Spirit”, and their own.

 

Installation view of Sally Smart’’s The Artist’s House (2021) in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

Installation view of Angela Tiatia’s The Pearl (2021) in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

Installation view of Nina Chanel Abney’s works in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

Smart’s collaged textile installation The Artist’s House (2021) embodies the choreographic labour of Matisse’s female studio assistants, who can be seen climbing ladders pinning cut-outs in footage in “Life & Spirit”. Tiatia’s The Pearl (2021) seeks out the modest bronze nude Venus in a shell (1930) on display in “Life & Spirit” and responds with a sensuous, immersive video collage which upends the aesthetics of Pasifika kitsch. Abney’s works recapture the playfulness of Matisse’s iconic cut-outs via a warm and reverent portrait of her ‘framily’ and explores, like Matisse did, the possibilities of the figure as a decorative device, but free of the gendered shackles of the female nudes that appear throughout “Life & Spirit”.

 

Installation view of Robin White’’s work in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

White lived on the island of Kiribati for 17 years and her project imagines Matisse returning to the Pacific. White’s intricately patterned works on painted barkcloth (a traditional Pacific medium) unlock a portal between the two exhibition projects. Its key is Matisse’s complex interiors that often guide the viewer through a series of doorways and windows—many of which are on display upstairs in “Life & Spirit”. The view from the windows in White’s work VAIOLA (2020) echoes that depicted by Matisse in the billowy 1936 composition Fenetre a Tahiti II (on show in “Life & Spirit”), but it is White’s vertical composition of black-on-black, Hufanga’anga (2021), which stands as a reverberating threshold between Matisse’s historical presence and his contemporary legacy. Hufanga’anga, whose title refers to a sanctuary, draws the mind to the light-filled space of contemplation created in the temporary exhibition galleries to house the window designs for Matisse’s Vence chapel in “Life & Spirit”, and simultaneously to the dark central slice in the painting French Window at Collioure (1914), also on show upstairs.

 

Installation view of Tivaevae in “Matisse Alive” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022. © AGNSW. Photo by Diana Panuccio. Image courtesy of the artists and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

With the final room of “Matisse: Life & Spirit” presenting the artist’s renowned paper cut-outs, it is the inclusion downstairs of an exhibition of “Tivaevae”, or ‘Polynesian quilts’ made by members of the Sydney Cook Island community, that is the primary revelation of “Matisse Alive”. These works, made over recent decades, share an unmistakeable connection with Matisse’s cut-out works. Their vibrant colours and bold shapes explore floral, vegetation and marine motifs and are executed with exceptional skill. Matisse brought home two tifaifai, as they are known in Tahiti, from his 1930 visit there. The final room upstairs features Matisse’s 1946 diptych Polynesia, The Sky and Polynesia, The Sea, which echo the Pacific textiles in form, colour and scale. Nearby, video footage shows Matisse at work, long scissors in hand, slicing through paper with fluid focus. “Matisse Alive” and “Matisse: Life & Spirit” act as twin blades on scissors slicing through time and place, opening up aesthetic and conceptual windows into art history, and allowing fresh air to pass through.

 

Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris
20 November 2021 – 13 March 2022
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Matisse Alive
23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

 

 

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