It is a word we haven’t heard nearly enough of lately: joy.

So when Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) head curator of international art Justin Paton spoke today of the joy he anticipated from a major upcoming exhibition, Matisse: Life & Spirit, to be held in a not-too-distant, hopefully lockdown-free future, he spoke for many.

“It’s a real joy being able to share this exhibition with you, remembering the joys of in-person experiences of art, we’re all hankering for it, and this exhibition is going to be just what the doctor ordered over summer.”

Sydney is in for not one but two blockbuster exhibitions this summer, part of Destination NSW’s annual Sydney International Art Series, with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) also announcing the long-awaited rescheduled survey of living American artist Doug Aitken.

Well-known for his ambitious, provocative practice that encompasses objects, installations, photographs and vast immersive multiscreen environments, Aitken lives in Los Angeles’ Venice Beach, but his work takes him from the Namibian desert to the Caribbean, and even beneath the ocean’s surface.

“Themes of movement and transition, alienation and connection permeate the work and I find it particularly pertinent for today’s world,” says the MCA’s chief curator Rachel Kent. “There are also themes of light and reflection, nature, ocean and immersion and sound, repetition and musicality, all of which have always been key to Doug’s work.”

Opening in October, Doug Aitken: New Era is an absorbing journey through Aitken’s diverse body of work. Migration (empire) is part of a photographic series Aitken began in 2007 during a road trip across the US, during which he stayed in stereotypical, non-descript motels.

“Doug withdraws human occupation and introduces wildlife into these strange human settings,” says Kent. The photographs feature bison, albino peacocks, horses and owls running amok in these staid human-made spaces, nature conquering humankind and reclaiming its land.

An immersive installation, Sonic Fountain II, occupies a full room, featuring a large lunar landscape of earth and rubble surrounding a large pool of water set into the gallery floor. Connected pipes above the work continually drip and spray the water back down into the pool, slowly building up a soundscape of volume and rhythm. “It’s like a drumming solo, it becomes very intense and very immersive. It’s one of my all-time favourite artworks,” Kent says.

A passionate marine conservationist, Aitken created Underwater pavilions, a series of strange sculptural objects submerged underwater off the coast of LA. While divers can experience the submerged sculptures, here they’re represented by a large three-screen installation. “It’s taking art out of the white walls of the museum and putting it in a very different context, something Doug has spoken about for many years – the idea of what is art, how do we experience art, how do we access or engage with art?”

Born almost a century earlier than Aitken, French modern master Henri Matisse was equally driven to evolve his artistic practice, and is as revered and relevant today as he was at his peak. Matisse: Life & Spirit draws together more than 100 paintings, sculptures and cut-outs spanning six decades of his work.

On loan from the Centre Pompidou Paris alongside other key loans, they represent the most comprehensive collection of Matisse works to visit Sydney. They span Matisse’s early adventures in colour as a fauvist, including the throbbing colour of Red carpet; various paintings from “the radical years”, when he and his friendly rival Picasso were responding to cubism and new ways of seeing the world; and his seminal and enduring Tahitian period seen in Tahiti II Window.

The renaissance Matisse experienced after recovering from a near-fatal battle with cancer resulted in paintings such as Still life with magnolia, and his extraordinary paper cut-outs, what Paton describes as, “For me the most exciting part of this exhibition, a fuller immersion in the late, great cut-outs than has ever been offered before.” Works include Jazz and the iconic Blue nude II and one of the largest cut-outs Matisse made, The sorrows of the king.

Designed by local architect Richard Johnson, the exhibition culminates with what Matisse described as “his great masterwork” – the Rosary Chapel in Vence, which features two life-sized maquettes, or studies, for the windows of the chapel, Pale blue window.

“Matisse was a radical innovator, someone who was pushing the language of painting, really taking the world he knew ... and seeing how far he could push the recognisable world without ever going to abstraction. Because for Matisse a constant connection to people and the world he loved was essential,” says Paton.

Now in its 11th year the SIAS has brought to Sydney some of the world’s most exciting and revered artists, from Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso Paris and Japan Supernatural at the AGNSW, to Grayson Perry and Pipilotti Rist at the MCA.

Doug Aitken: New Era opens at the MCA October 2021 until February 2022. Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris opens at the AGNSW November 20 until March 2022.