Cutting loose with a modern master

From war-time portraits to late-life cut-outs, a collection of Henri Matisse's works spanning six decades goes on show at the Art Gallery of NSW.

With the Art Gallery of NSW about to unveil its summer blockbuster, head curator of international art Justin Paton would have good reason to be a hot mess.

In development for five years, delayed by one and exclusive to Sydney, Matisse: Life and Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris, brings together more than 100 works by the seminal French painter, draughtsman, sculptor and printmaker.

These include two of his most admired late pictures: the cut-outs Blue Nude II and The Sorrow of the King, both from 1952.

Yet Paton, who has co-curated the exhibition alongside Centre Pompidou's Aurelie Verdier and his gallery colleague Jackie Dunn, is cool, calm and considered - adjectives that could equally be applied to aspects of Matisse's formidable body of work, which spans six decades.

All the goods have arrived safely from Paris and elsewhere - there are six additional institutional lenders - and most are up on the walls.

"It's always a bit of a flurry on the last couple of days but it's been pure pleasure, really, hanging this show after so much time spent looking at these works on a screen," Paton says during a break from installation.

"With some shows, you receive wonderful images, then you open the crates and they might not match your expectations."

This exhibition isn't one of them.

"Our expectations were exceeded every single time. They are rich, glowing, rewarding to look at, and they fill the space with energy," he enthuses.

The first work Paton spied when the crates were being opened is one of his favourites - Interior with a Goldfish Bowl (1914), painted in Matisse's Paris studio, near Notre Dame, on the eve of the First World War.

"It's a reflection on the space of shelter and creativity that is Matisse's studio," Paton says, adding that the artist portrayed his studio environment many times throughout his life.

"It's also a harmony in blue, a celebration of a colour that meant a great deal to him.

"And it has the motif of a goldfish hovering at the centre, which is almost a summary of what art was for Matisse - a floating world that you could visit as a reprieve from, and a reflection on, the everyday world of troubles and trials."

Someone once asked Matisse about his penchant for goldfish as a recurring motif.

"And he replied, 'These goldfish are life itself'," Paton says.

"The brilliance of their colour, the ease of their movement, the way they floated in their own element - for him, that was a great symbol of what he was after in his art."

Henri Matisse was born on New Year's Eve in 1869 to a family of seed merchants in northern France. He came to art seemingly by chance, following studies in law.

Recovering from appendicitis at age 21, he was given a box of paints by his mother to pass the time and quickly became obsessed.

He trained first under academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, then the Symbolist Gustave Moreau.

Matisse's breakthrough occurred in the summer of 1905 when he and Andre Derain exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in Paris paintings they had recently made at Collioure on the Mediterranean coast.

Notable for their bright, clashing colour arrangements, the canvases earned their creators the derogatory nickname 'fauves' or 'wild beasts'.

"He pitted colour, used non-descriptively, directly against the expressiveness of form," Verdier writes in the exhibition catalogue.

On the last day of the Salon, American writer and collector Gertrude Stein purchased Woman with a Hat (1905), a portrait of Matisse's wife, Amelie, which led to further sales and helped launch him as an artist to be taken seriously.

Unleashing colour from the requirements of modelling form placed Matisse at the avant garde of European modern art, a position he never really relinquished, given his sedulous, analytical nature and disinclination to rest on his laurels.

"Although Matisse's art is light and joyous, he himself was a tireless worker who never stopped worrying about where he was heading next as an artist," Paton explains.

"His career has an interesting cadence, or rhythm, where he pushes, innovates, arrives at a new stage, then grows dissatisfied, anxious and starts to ask himself new questions and look for new possibilities."

One of Matisse's early and most enduring influences was post-impressionist Paul Cezanne, acclaimed by a new generation of artists for his structural, proto-geometric approach to picture-making.

Matisse acquired Cezanne's Three Bathers (1879-82) in 1899 (now in the Petit Palais in Paris), which partly inspired his own take on three female nudes in a landscape, Le Luxe 1 (1907), included in the show.

With its sparse composition, simplified figures and broken brushwork, the painting caused a stir when Matisse exhibited it at the Salon d'Automne that year.

After Fauvism came further experiments that journeyed to the edge of picture-making, before and during the First World War, followed by the serene odalisques, sensitive portraits and other permutations of 'female figure within interior' that preoccupied him during the 1920s, which the artist spent in Nice.

Matisse was an avid traveller, visiting Algeria, Morocco twice and, significantly, Tahiti and the Tuamotu Islands for two-and-a-half months as a 60-year-old in 1930.

"That journey was important to Matisse at the time, and there are a few artworks that emerged from that moment, but it's more than a decade later that the distilled memories of Tahiti start to rise back up in his art," Paton says.

"There's something quite consoling and reassuring about that.

"We live in a culture where things come fast and we expect to see results quickly but one of the affecting things about taking stock of all that Matisse achieved is to remember that there are some understandings and discoveries that can only be arrived at across time and through long reflection.

"Artists can't make that happen, they can only prepare to receive the gift when it comes to them, and that's really what happens with late Matisse."

Diagnosed with duodenal cancer in 1941, Matisse endured surgery that required a two-year period of convalescence in bed, during which time he mostly drew.

Afterwards, confined to a wheelchair and no longer able to paint, he began cutting up squares of paper painted with gouache, a technique he'd used earlier in his career when designing murals and theatre sets.

As a distillation of his twin obsessions - colour and line - it was a masterstroke.

"He wasn't able to stand in front of a big canvas on an easel and work with a brush but he could glide scissors through paper," Paton says.

Part of the genius of Matisse's cut-outs lies in their very simplicity.

The humble technique facilitated a remarkable 'second life' for Matisse as an artist.

"One of his most productive years is 1952, when he's 83-years-old, two years before he passes away. That is the year he produces The Swimming Pool, The Sorrow of the King and the Blue Nudes. It's an absolute outpouring of creativity," Paton says.

Women assistants pinned the fluttering shapes - branch coral, seaweed, birds, fish - to the walls and helped Matisse create his works.

"He spoke often of this feeling of effortlessness, a sense of things coming naturally and easily towards the end of his life, when he had attained the wisdom and levity and freedom from expectation that permitted him to make such buoyant and playful late works," Paton says.

It's nearly time for the show's co-curator to return to the exhibition galleries and supervise the last few hangs.

Studying the paintings, bronzes, drawings, prints and cut-outs up close, Paton has been delighted by small details.

"There are things you know to expect about Matisse - that he was a searcher, an explorer, relentlessly self-critical - but seeing the physical works, all lined up, you notice other things," he says.

"We found ourselves noticing a particular shade of minty green that he goes back to again and again, how much he likes to use purple underpaint, or the way he'll drop an almost abstract panel of colour on the edge of a painting, as if to usher you into the scene.

"In the same way that we enjoy the grain of a singer's voice or the way a writer lets their sentences roll out, these idiosyncrasies and inflections make up an artist's character and they've been great to get closer to."

Matisse: Life and Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris opened on Saturday and runs until March 13, 2022.

For more information visit artgallery.nsw.gov.au