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  • John Reid

In Essence – Matisse: Life and Spirit.

Walking through the Matisse: Life and Spirit exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW one can’t help being intoxicated by the continual development and notion of essence in Matisse’s work. By this I mean the essence of the image and subsequent life of the work. What is important and what is not.


From his early more traditional works, where paintwork and colour are pushed to represent subject matter, to the sense of infinite space, light and freedom captured in his late cutouts and the Vence Chapel, Matisse’s focus on the painting and not simply the image is evident.

In his early works there is this seeming spontaneity of mark making and yet the paint is still worked in a traditional sense to capture form. The more you push, or work, the paint to secure an image the more weight the painting takes on and this affects the quality of light that is released from the work.


As one moves through the exhibition one sees how form is simplified and yet the brushwork is still of a traditional nature using colour and tone to create mood and with a noticeable working of the paint.

Despite the simplicity of form there is still very much the sense of control to these works.


As the works develop, Matisse’s use of paint changes and the creation of space and light becomes more prevalent.

Colours now have a placement, a individual presence, and seem more concerned with the sensation of wonder as opposed to the creation of mood. They awaken one’s visual senses in a very direct way.


In the cutouts Matisse, scissors in hand, creates free forms out of paper painted with gouache.

The interesting thing to notice here is the paintwork and subsequent presence of the colour.

In these cutouts the painting of the paper sheets is not a descriptive exercise. There is no working the paint. It is applied to cover the paper and one might entertain that although a focused exercise there is a freedom from thought involved here.

When the resulting form is released from the scissors there’s an extraordinary freshness to its appearance both in form and colour. No matter how often Matisse changes its position in the developing artwork its freshness remains.


It is this freshness of colour of these forms and their placement, as well as the use of black as a colour and not a mood that gives these final works an extraordinary sense of light and space. This space is created from a direct colour reaction and not from tonal depth. In this way the painting has less of a gravity in terms of both the light and sense of expansiveness. The painting itself no longer has space and depth but rather these qualities are experienced within the viewer themselves. This also creates an almost sculptural quality to the work where suddenly there is this extraordinary sense of life and vitality in the visual cytoplasm where these forms seem to float and appear free to interact.


Here Matisse is creating an environment and not just an image.

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