Matisse Alive at AGNSW

Sat 23rd October, 2021 – Sun 3rd April, 2022
Entrance Court, Lower Level 2, Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney
Price: Free
It’s a free festival of modern artworks connected to the famed artist. You’ll recognise his influence – and what influenced him – in the exploratory, vibrant exhibition, which includes four captivating new projects by female artists Nina Chanel Abney, Sally Smart, Angela Tiatia and Robin White.

The huge Sydney-exclusive exhibition Matisse: Life & Spirit Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris has been in the works for close to two years now. The Art Gallery of New South Wales is showing more than 100 works by French artist Henri Matisse from November 20. And to accompany the blockbuster, you can explore colourful, sculptural contemporary works that have a direct or indirect connection with his life and legacy.

Matisse Alive works like a choose-your-own adventure. As you step off the escalators at lower level two, you’re drawn in multiple directions with different themed rooms to explore.

There are striking collage portraits by New York artist Nina Chanel Abney. The artist’s cut-out style and deliberate, decisive shapes are like murals, and it’s easy to see the connection with Matisse’s visual language. Abney’s portraits titled Framily Ties are tributes to the friends we call family. In the 39-year-old artist’s case, that’s portraits of her mates in their homes – joyful, celebratory, gender fluid, multicultural and shape-shifting.

Abney also plays with more abstract imagery, using the idea of Matisse’s famous dancing scenes. The Illinois-born artist brings in conversations of race and symbolic “X” marks that draw darker themes to the surface in what otherwise appears to be joyful.

In the next room, with a nod to Matisse’s tendency towards domestic scenes, is the intricate work of New Zealand artist Robin White and collaborator Ebonie Fifita. The series of tapa (cloth made from bark of the paper mulberry tree) shows imagined worlds by White as though Matisse had experienced them.

The artist lived in Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean for 17 years and her imagined spaces include subtle details that tell big-picture stories about Matisse’s time in Tahiti in the 1930s. There are Matisse’s shoes, freshly brewed coffee on a table, a crawling hermit crab, a straw hat, vanilla beans – each one a comment on what the artist’s life and relationships were like in that period.

All four new commissions by AGNSW asked the artists to respond to the upcoming Matisse exhibition and his experiences in this part of the world. Melbourne artist Sally Smart responded to the assignment with gusto, filling a room with hanging textile curtains. The artist chose to honour the role of female assistants who worked with Matisse in his later life.

Titled The Artist’s House, the collaged curtains are accompanied by a video work of choreographed cutting, plus smocks imagined by Smart as the assistants’ uniforms. Smart has always referred to the historical avant garde in her work – and specifically women working with the historic avant garde. A key motif of the piece is the bed, which she envisions to be Matisse’s.

The French artist in 1941 would engage with female assistants from his sick bed. Visitors should look for the black and white photographs of the assistants’ feet at the bottom of the curtains.

Sounds of drumming and gushing water capture your attention from the next room. The Pearl is a video work by Sydney artist Angela Tiatia, which includes shell-shaped plastic paddle pools that open and close with the beauty of a Busby Berkeley musical. The Samoa-born New Zealand artist is referencing Matisse’s sculpture Venus in a Shell (1930), while also commenting on how the female body in Polynesia has been colonised and ostracised.

The Pacific in Matisse’s imagination is further explored in a display of Polynesian quilting called tivaevae – loaned to the gallery by women from the Cook Islander community of south-west Sydney. The textile tradition profoundly influenced Matisse’s late great works. Each piece of cloth is cut “snowflake-style” into intricate designs, often of flowers.

The exhibition space will also host performances, workshops and late-night programs.

More information here.