It’s hard to overstate the artistic legacy of modernist painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954). “Whenever you step into a gallery today and see a bright pink sky or a blue nude or a blazing orange bouquet, Matisse is probably hovering somewhere in the background,” says Justin Paton, head curator of international art at Art Gallery of NSW and the co-curator of a new landmark exhibition, Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Matisse was born in 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, “a textile town in the cold grey north of France,” says Paton. “That affected his art in two ways – he had a lifelong love of textiles, decoration, pattern and exuberant visual energy, and he also found himself drawn to the light and warmth of other places – the south of France, North Africa, and later in his life, Tahiti.”

In 1891, Matisse moved to Paris to study art. He discovered impressionism – reportedly introduced to him by Australian painter John Russell – and soon began experimenting with colour. “He cut his teeth as an artist in the Parisian art world where he was painting toe-to-toe with other rule-breaking members of the Parisian avant-garde such as Picasso,” Paton says.

With fellow artist Andre Derain, Matisse is credited with developing fauvism, a modernist movement characterised by bold use of colour, wild brushwork and abstraction. “They used colour with a freedom and intensity and vibrancy that hadn’t been seen before,” says Paton. “It was almost as if the power of colour had undone the world they were looking at. This rocked the art world of the time and changed painting forever.”

Why was Matisse’s art so radical?

Matisse wasn’t interested in realism; rather, he sought to capture his emotional response to his subject. “Colour for him was a way of imbuing the world he was painting with emotion, feeling, memory, sensation,” says Paton. “Fundamental to his art is the idea that a painting isn’t a dry record … It’s a small world with its own energy and life; it’s a living organism unto itself. It should fill you with that sense of joy and spirit and love that Matisse felt when he was looking at the things that inspired him in the world.”

Matisse paintings, such as The open window, Joy of life, Woman with a hat, and Le luxe I, which appears in Matisse: Life & Spirit, shook up the art world. “He was simultaneously regarded with suspicion by those who considered his art to be too daring and insufficiently respectful of tradition, and he was also deeply revered and respected,” says Paton. “He was one of the older members of the avant-garde milieu in which he moved. He was seen by many younger painters as a touchstone, a leader, someone whose vision was honest and hard-won and incorruptible.”

Matisse’s work continued to evolve throughout his career. “He was a ceaseless self-questioner,” says Paton. “There are many moments when he deliberately sought to break open his own habits and find new ways of looking at the world.”

One source of renewal was travel. “He would take himself to a new place in order to soak in novel and unusual sensations in the hope this would bring a new energy to his work,” Paton says. Another was to put pencil to paper. “Drawing for him underpinned all of his practice. Often when he was trying to clear the decks creatively and return to first principles and find a new way forward, he would draw prodigiously.”

In 1941, Matisse nearly died when he underwent surgery for duodenal cancer. He referred to the period after his operation as his ’second life’. Unable to paint, he worked from a bed or wheelchair to create his gouache cut-outs with scissors and paper, such as Blue nude II and Sorrow of the king, masterworks that appear in Matisse: Life & Spirit. Despite his ill health, he remained committed to his artistic practice until his death in 1954.

What makes Matisse relevant today?

Paton draws parallels between the tumult Matisse witnessed in his lifetime – two world wars and traumatic surgery – and the present moment. “Matisse speaks to us today because the life and spirit and beauty and optimism that he captured in his artworks was often realised in times of great crisis and trouble,” he says. “His art is always arguing for the importance of joy and optimism and positivity in a troubled world.”

His optimism, however, was shot through with notes of melancholy. “Although he’s known as a sunny artist … he was an exceptionally anxious artist who once remarked that he couldn’t sleep more than five hours at night because he was so worried how the next day’s creation would go,” says Paton. “There are wonderful tensions in his work between the lightness and joyousness he brought to his art and the creative anxiety that he brought to the studio.”

Paton says the Sydney- exclusive exhibition highlights the tension between light and dark in Matisse’s art. “We have wonderful images of Matisse at work, and the show is structured in such a way that you are introduced to these moments of breakthrough, consolidation, followed by a feeling on Matisse’s part that he had to refresh his language, renew his resources, find a new way of looking at the world.”

Paton believes Matisse’s work will resonate with Sydney audiences. “Matisse is in many ways the missing modernist for us at Art Gallery of New South Wales. Many other major modern French painters have had their time in the sun in Sydney. We have long dreamed of doing a Matisse exhibition. We always felt his light-soaked, colour-rich practice would be greeted happily by Sydney audiences, and we feel that even more now as we emerge into summer from what have been a couple of very challenging years.”

The pandemic has proven a difficult period for art museums like the Art Gallery of NSW. “Our capacity to do the thing we love to do most, which is connect real-life viewers with real-life artworks, was radically compromised,” Paton says. “But happily, we have fabulous collaborators in the Centre Pompidou – the willingness and commitment to do the show never wavered. It was just a case of finding a moment when we were sufficiently in the clear to welcome Matisse to Sydney, and, wonderfully, that moment has arrived.”

Accompanying the Sydney International Art Series 2021–22 exhibition, Matisse: Life & Spirit, is Matisse Alive, a free gallery-wide festival of Matisse featuring an exhibition of contemporary art , which Paton says “affirm[s] that Matisse is alive to contemporary artists and audiences”.

“He’s not a monument locked in the past; he’s someone whose work sustains and speaks to people – artists and viewers – in the present tense.”

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the Art Gallery of NSW.