In 1930, Henri Matisse sailed from Le Havre to New York. After a train trip across the United States of America, he embarked from San Francisco on the RMS Tahiti. In voyaging to the South Pacific, he was conscious of travelling in Paul Gauguin’s footsteps made almost four decades earlier. From Papeete, Matisse went to the Tuamotu Archipelago, where he spent 10 days on Apataki Atoll. On this tiny coral island, one kilometre in circumference, he was never bored.
Although Matisse claimed to have ‘done nothing’ in Tahiti, he returned with many pen-and-ink drawings and ‘bad’ photographs. These aide-mémoires and his impressions of the golden light of the Pacific combined to form the inspiration for two large screenprinted wall hangings, Oceania, the sea (Océanie, la mer) and Oceania, the sky (Océanie, le ciel), both produced 15 years later in 1946.
In Oceania, the sea, marine forms are recognisable, as are glimpses of the world above; this is neither sea nor sky but both at the same time. Matisse first called these two works ‘Les méduses’ (Jellyfish) and ‘Fée des eaux’ (Water sprites) respectively, and later ‘Polynésie la mer’ and ‘Polynésie le ciel’. The exchange and overlaps in titles evoke his pleasure in swimming in the lagoon, the shimmering light and merging of space.
When Zika Ascher visited Matisse in Paris in 1946, he found an assistant pinning cut-out paper shapes to the walls. Matisse, a virtual invalid since 1941, worked from bed and had adopted decoupage. Silhouettes of fish, birds, jellyfish and coral, the life of sea and sky, were arranged from dado to cornice on two adjacent walls, and the challenge was to translate this flimsy maquette into more durable form. The London-based textile designer worked to Matisse’s exacting standards. Linen was dyed to match the colour of the apartment walls—an off-white fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s, which had become, with the patina of time, a light beige. The shapes were printed using opaque white ink. Oceania, the sky and Oceania, the sea, published in an edition of 30 in 1948, are a remarkable achievement, both technically and aesthetically.
Oceania, the sea is a generous and insightful gift by Tim Fairfax AM, who recognised the long-held desire to reunite the work with its pair at the Gallery. The panel is in exceptional condition; it is signed and dedicated to the artist’s son Pierre and was acquired from the Matisse family. Oceania, the sky and Oceania, the sea are key works of modern art and masterpieces of Matisse’s late career.
Lucina Ward Curator, International Painting and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 70, winter 2012