This is a printer friendly page
Free for educational use

Matisse & Islam

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 - art, belonging, Matisse, symbols and symbolism, see all tags


Matisse & Islam

How to Download the Video Clip

To download a free copy of this Video Clip choose from the options below. These require the free Quicktime Player.

download clip icon Premium MP4 hidden2_pr.mp4 (36.9MB).

ipod icon Broadband MP4 hidden2_bb.mp4 (17.4MB), suitable for iPods and computer downloads.

Additional help.

About the Video Clip


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

Background Information


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


Pre-viewing exercises:

  1. Use symbols and shapes to draw a visual representation of the following concepts:
    1. Belonging
    2. Connection
    3. Interdependence
  2. Look at the shapes and symbols you created before viewing this video clip.
    1. Write a brief explanation about how each of them represents the concepts of belonging, connection and interdependence respectively.
    2. Compare your representation of ‘Belonging’ with another student’s, and discuss how you portrayed the concept in similar or different way.

Viewing Questions:

  1. In visual design, negative space is used to balance positive space.
    1. Discuss as a class the interdependence of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ space.
    2. Consider your prescribed text. Can you think of any examples where ‘belonging’ is contrasted with ‘not belonging’? Draw up a two column table and write examples of belonging in the left column, with the contrasting example of not belonging in the right column.
    3. In pairs, consider how the screen from the Taj Mahal used as an example of Islamic art may provide a metaphor for the concept of Belonging. Use these ideas to write a paragraph about how Betty Churcher’s interpretation of the screen sheds light on your understanding of Belonging.

Class Debate:

Matisse was influenced heavily by Islamic Art, personally related to the circus tradition – in particular to the performance character of Pierrot, the clown – and also belonged to a family whose ancestors had been weavers and cloth merchants for generations.
Arrange the class into two sides, or nominate two groups of students to stage a formal debate on this the statement “People will always adopt the culture, traditions and practices of the communities to which they belong.”

Creative composition task (40 minutes):

Write a narrative piece that highlights the balance between the positive and negative aspects of Belonging.

Further Resources


Wikipedia – Negative Space