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Video clip synopsis – Islamic art, the Tahitian islands and the circus all provided inspiration for French artist Henri Matisse.
Year of production - 2006
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - Betty Churcher, Islamic art, art, artists, design, see all tags

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Matisse & Islam

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About the Video Clip

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Matisse & Islam is an episode of the series Hidden Treasures (15 × 5 mins) produced in 2006.

The National Gallery of Australia has more than 100,000 works in its collection—an extraordinary reservoir of creative vision and cultural history, from decorative arts to photography and sculpture.

Yet on a visit to the gallery, you’ll see only the tip of this iceberg. Carefully stored away are the things that can’t be placed on permanent display.

These unseen gems include works of exquisite fragility, from brilliant hand-painted fabrics to delicate works on paper. From Australia, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, there are masks and carvings, lithographs and linocuts, set designs and stage costumes, sketchpads and handprinted books, marionettes and maquettes, teapots and textiles, and much, much more.

Now in this series of micro-docs, former director of the gallery Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of these 'hidden treasures’.

In the entertaining, accessible style for which she is renowned, Betty Churcher takes us behind the scenes, sharing with us her passion and insights. From her unique vantage point, she makes intriguing connections between a range of different objects and artists, linking them to the stories that surround them.

These are fascinating tales—about the works themselves, the people who created them and the challenge of preserving them—and a tantalising look at some of the ideas and influences that have shaped modern art across the globe.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full program credits

Curriculum Focus

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Students are required to reflect critically on meanings and values associated with particular visual artworks. They use the language and terminology to analyse the style, technique, subject matter and design of artworks.

Please refer to the Curriculum and Assessment Authority in your State or Territory for Study guides and learning standards.

Background Information

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Islamic art was a major inspiration for French artist Henri Matisse, who loved the interdependence of its shapes.

The arabesque in Islamic art stands for the vulnerability of life, which can be bestowed or withdrawn at any moment. The positive forms of the arabesque create the negative shapes of the spaces in between; these empty spaces symbolise that which 'belongs to God'—the permanent but invisible reality of the divine principle. Similarly for Matisse, what remains belongs to God. Of his belief in a higher power he said, 'When I work I feel myself helped immensely by someone…It is as if I were watching a conjurer whose tricks I cannot see through’.

Matisse discovered the opulent colours of Islam in the textile bazaars and souks of Morocco, which he visited in early 1912. His ancestors had been weavers for generations and he was supremely confident with scissors and cloth. So when severe illness in his 70s confined him to bed—away from his paints and brushes—he naturally took to scissors and coloured paper.

One night when he couldn’t sleep, he cut a swallow from white paper and asked his nurse to pin it over a dirty patch on the wallpaper of his bedroom—its dull gold matched his memory of light in the Pacific. Soon two walls were covered with shapes that recreated his memories of Tahitian lagoons, where he had visited 30 years earlier. A tracing was taken and sent to a printer in London who made an edition of 30 screenprints on tough linen. Not all survived but fortunately one edition of Oceania, the Sky is preserved in the National Gallery of Australia, along with a folio of paper cut-outs made the following year, which Matisse called Jazz.

Many sheets in the folio refer to highly practised circus acts that Matisse related to personally. Sword swallowing, the trapeze, knife throwing—all balanced on a knife-edge between success and disaster. And, of course, Pierrot the clown, whom Matisse thought of as the artist’s alter ego. For both, the gift of giving pleasure is hard won but must appear spontaneous, effortless and full of joy—no matter what the cost.

Classroom Activities

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  1. Research and discuss the impact of Islamic arts on western art. Identify the principles of Islamic art.
  2. Research and discuss how Henri Matisse’s artworks were influenced by Islamic art.
  3. Discuss Matisse’s influence on the pattern painting style of the 1970s.
  4. Discuss the meaning of positive and negative space in a work of art, and review the principles of design: balance, emphasis and unity.
    1. Create a collage using cut black and white paper utilising positive and negative space. One colour accent may be added for emphasis and centre of interest.
    2. For both this activity and the next, ensure that you are able to discriminate between foreground and background, and that the positive and negative shapes are balanced.
  5. Matisse created shapes cut out from brightly colour papers and arranged them on another sheet of construction paper. These images were then printed by silk screening techniques. With Matisse’s artwork in mind, use the serigraphy method to create a silkscreen print.

Further Resources

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J. Cowart et al, Matisse in Morocco, National Gallery Art, Washington, 1990
S. Jane, Art Is 2: Making, Creating & Appreciating, Jacaranda, Milton, 1999
D. Saff and D. Sacilotto, Printmaking History and Process, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, Orlando, Florida, 1978
N. Watkins, Matisse, Phaidon Press Ltd, London, 1992

Islamic Arts and Architecture

WebMuseum, Paris: Henri Matisse