ARTSPEAK: Bold and brilliant

Published January 11, 2022, 11:17 AM

by MB Lifestyle

A Matisse exhibition to welcome the new year

By Ramon E.S. Lerma
Ramon E.S. Lerma

What better way to usher in the New Year with an overflow of positivity than to see an extraordinary exhibition that brings together over 100 works by the great French artist Henri Matisse from the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris!

“Matisse: Life & Spirit” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until March 13, 2022 is “an extraordinary immersion in the range and depth of the art of… one of the world’s most beloved, innovative and influential artists.” It is also arguably the most ambitious exhibition to be mounted anywhere in the world dedicated solely to the influential Fauvist, as it delves deeply into the life and times of this relentlessly inventive master whose creative output spanned painting, sculpture, collage, and printmaking.

Across several galleries, viewers are immersed into six decades of mostly joie de vivre as you move from the artist’s early academic work to his flirtation with Symbolism and Gustave Moreau, to the evolution of the exuberant compositions that made his pieces iconic—the orgy of colors (a stylistic trait that he shared with the likes of Andre Derain and Albert Marquet) that earned the group the moniker “Fauves” (“wild beasts”).

If there was any greater influence on Matisse than the burgeoning vanguards of modernism in the City of Light, then his travels must take foremost credit, dazzling sensory feasts for his mind’s eye, which he would transmute on to canvas and later into his cutouts. Moving from Brittany to the Mediterranean coast, a visit to the then French colony of Algeria with its riot of sounds, colors, and eclectic profusion of objets would later find their way to his Collioure studio resulting into his utterly dazzling 1906 “Les Tapis Rouge” (“The Red Carpet”) where a chromatic storm of kilim rugs piled on top of each other serve as the backdrop for an ironic still life bedlam of furniture and fruits—altogether forming a larger tapestry of “pure decoration.” Sumptuous doesn’t even begin to describe it.

View of the gallery with Matisse’s works for the Chapel at Vence

Matisses are in the permanent collections of every museum of note, and this is of course not the first time that seasoned art viewers would be encountering his works. But there is something refreshingly engaging about his works: A wide-eyed, almost innocent, earnestness permeates Matisse, who expressed the pure beauty that he saw in the world and the electric energy that seemed to emanate from its core and which he sought to harness, leaving us utterly transfixed. Indeed, one can see Matisse’s works again and again, and still be disarmed.

I adored his 1907 “Le luxe 1 summer,” a pastoral confection depicting three figures—clearly an allusion to the Greek mythological Three Graces—their stolid, simplified, almost sketch-like forms reminiscent of African statuary, and their blue surroundings almost surely Matisse’s reflection on Giotto’s murals at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, which he marveled at on an Italian sojourn.

I was also completely taken by the works that he produced during the outbreak of World War I, where paintings largely of his studio took on a solemn and reflective tenor, the intensity of his palette and the forms that dwelled within it subsumed by thick black outlines, enveloping his interiors’ usual effervescence with a feeling of ennui. Canvases such as his 1916-17 “The Painter and His Model” look coolly detached: Safe harbors to shelter in amid the conflict and conflagration at the time, yet also brave and bold statements of artistic defiance. We only see Matisse’s compositions recover their full vigor in his 1925 masterpiece “Decorative figure on an ornamental ground.”

This idea of subversion is best reflected in what many believe to be the apogee of the artist’s body of work: his cut-out decorations for the Chapel at Vence. The setting for this part of the exhibition—a light-filled, high-ceilinged cathedral-like space, showing his stained-glass window and vestment designs—is a triumph. The uplifting feeling that one gets is, naturally, nothing short of spiritual.

In what can be considered as the absolute New Year’s treat for museum visitors, the most important work from the latter period of Matisse’s career, his “Sorrow of the King” of 1952, is here. It’s a brilliant witness not only to the artist’s mastery of gouaches découpés, but also a powerful testament to the innovative verve of the master who, having been forced into a wheelchair and no longer able to stand to paint owing to severe arthritis and a debilitating bout with cancer, decided not to let his creative fountainhead be shut off but instead started to cut pieces of colorful paper and glue them onto larger pieces. Here he is the central black figure, surrounded by yellow blossoms, green dancing forms, fuschia pink blocks, and the perennial blues representing happy vistas. This magnum opus is, for all intents and purposes, an imagining not only of the self but also of supreme desire—a monumental expression of faith and hope, of a world formed in Matisse’s image and likeness, the perfect picturing of a life in its twilight illumined by the timelessness of his art.

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