After spending months in lockdown, Art Gallery of NSW’s head curator of international art Justin Paton is thrilled to be back in the gallery, where he can look at artworks with his own eyes, rather than via a screen.

And when your day job involves hanging an exhibition of French painter Henri Matisse’s masterpieces, it’s easy to understand why you’d be excited to be back at work.

Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris is an exhibition featuring more than 100 artworks spanning six decades – the largest collection of the master’s work to be shown in Sydney.

Paton has relished the opportunity to examine Matisse’s artworks up close. “One of the things that makes Matisse modern is he wants to show you how it was made – that’s part of the poetry of the work,” he says. “You can see where he turned the brush around and scratched into the surface with the brush end. You can see how decisions and counter-decisions accumulated on the surface of the work.”

Here, Paton talks Broadsheet through five Matisse masterworks that appear in the Sydney International Art Series 2021–22 exhibition, Matisse: Life & Spirit.

Le luxe I (1907)

Le luxe I is “an exceptionally important work”, says Paton. “It’s a work that is classic Matisse in the sense that it is deeply respectful of painterly tradition and also assertively, audaciously modern.”

The subject – naked female figures pictured in an idyllic landscape – wasn’t new to art in the early 20th century, “but Matisse brings an energy and an attitude to the subject which was startling and unsettling to viewers at the time”, says Paton.

Inspired in part by the murals of the Italian Renaissance painter Giotto, as well as African sculpture – two important influences in Matisse’s work – the “abstract simplicity” of Le luxe I shows that he was willing to push the boundaries of modern art. “What we have ... is an artist who is saying, ‘I’m part of a tradition, I want to connect with the great themes and subjects of painting as I know it, but I’m also a renovator and an innovator, and I want to recharge and light up those traditions with non-Western sources and with a new, brave feeling of simplification and condensation,’” says Paton.

Interior, goldfish bowl (1914)

Interior, goldfish bowl is “a beautiful work” with a special resonance for the contemporary viewer. “It’s a really rewarding work to look at in the age of Covid, when we’ve all spent a little bit too long our own private spaces. It’s a work that reminds us that those private spaces can be rewarding in their own way,” says Paton. “It’s a painting about privacy; it’s a painting about creative time … it’s a painting about the way our inner worlds are connected to outer worlds.”

The painting is notable for its use of blue, “which reverberates at different pitches throughout the scene”, says Paton, and, of course, the goldfish, “two beautiful slices of orange which hover in the bowl in the middle of the space. That bowl with these exquisitely poised slices of colour is like a summary of what Matisse believes a painting can be: a floating world that the viewer can spend time in and draw sustenance from.”

Decorative figure on an ornamental ground (1925–26)

In this painting, Matisse again depicts a subject familiar to the world of art – an odalisque (a woman belonging to a harem) and a decorative interior – but with a distinct twist. “[It’s] a painting like no one had ever seen before. It’s explosive, it’s incandescent, it’s almost hallucinogenic … it’s an absolute riot of patterns and planes of colour,” says Paton. “The longer you look, the more eruptive it becomes.”

Gaze at the painting for a long time, and a “wonderful pivot” occurs, says Paton, where the woman begins to look like “an artwork, like a carved sculpture, possibly one inspired by the African art that Matisse admired” and the decorative elements of the scene – the textiles, wallpaper and flooring – come to life. “This is one of those works you must see in the flesh,” enthuses Paton. “Your optic nerve will thank you for it.”

Blue nude II (1952)

Blue was a colour that Matisse revered, says Paton. “He had a lovely quote: ‘A certain blue pierces the soul.’ He loved the blue that he’d seen in Islamic art, and he loved the blue of Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Italy.”

Blue nude II is one of the famous cut-outs that Matisse produced late in his career. “Although this is an image of a nude, it is a work that has a sense of something ethereal and abstract,” says Paton. “The colour of the sky and the sea has entered the body of the bather. In the process, that body has become something distilled and symbolic, and even spiritual.”

Matisse imbues the artwork with a “feeling of farewell”, says Paton, made more poignant by the artist’s death two years later. “Often at the end of their lives, artists’ moods turn dark,” he adds, citing the gloomy paintings produced by Rembrandt and Goya late in their careers. Matisse turned in the opposite direction. “His late work is filled with a spirit of lightness and joy, almost a quality of letting go.”

The sorrow of the king (1952)

Another cut-out dating from 1952, The sorrow of the king is “one of the great late artworks” Matisse counted among his major paintings. “It’s a kind of self-portrait by an artist who is reflecting on all of the things he loved, many of which are present in this painting,” says Paton. “There’s music; there’s dance; there’s pattern; there’s blueness.”

The king – Matisse – occupies the centre of the painting. “You can see that his body is heavy, but his face is still green and eager,” Paton says. The king strums a guitar alongside a drummer, while a dancer twirls to his right. A dark window shows us that night has fallen. “Matisse is effectively saying, ‘Although it’s late, the dance must go on,’” says Paton. “It’s a painting about an artist at the end of his life who want to keep making art, to keep the dance going, to keep the music going. While there’s melancholy in it, there’s also that wondrous colour and an almost childlike sense of playfulness in the way the composition has been put together.”

Measuring three metres across, it’s a “heroically scaled” piece, says Paton. Recognised as Matisse’s final self-portrait, it’s “filled with a sense of play and jubilation, and a very touching sense of vulnerability and farewell,” says Paton. “It’s the climax of the last room of the exhibition and a truly magnificent work to be able to bring to Sydney.”

Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris is on at the Art Gallery of NSW until 13 March. Tickets are timed and available to be booked online.

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