In 1930, at the ripe age of 60 and inspired by his love for the work of his compatriot Paul Gauguin, the French painter Henri Matisse boarded a steamer in San Francisco. He was bound for Tahiti because of the light. “I will go to the islands, under the tropics, to see the night and the dawn light that must have another density,” he said. “The Pacific light is a deep gold tumbler in which one looks. I remember that when I arrived, I was disappointed, but then, step by step, it was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!”
Matisse lived in Tahiti—primarily the Tuamotu islands—for two and a half months, drawing, photographing, taking notes, and observing the sea, sky, vegetation, and the Polynesians, whom he likened to sea gods. According to Paule Laudon’s 2001 book Matisse in Tahiti, the artist led a Robinson Crusoe–like existence, getting up at dawn, canoeing, swimming, and diving amid the coral and fish. Although he produced little finished artwork there, the Tahitian sojourn had a powerful influence on his later work.
One of these works—Océanie, la mer (“Oceania, the Sea”)—has just been acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. A large-scale silkscreen printed on linen, the 1946 piece is a companion to Océanie, le ciel (“Oceania, the Sky”), which has been in the gallery’s permanent collection for 22 years.
Featuring cutouts of creatures of the sea and air floating on a golden background, the two Océanie works are the result of a commission from the Czech-born Zika Ascher, who became an innovative leader in British textile design from the 1940s on. According to the website AscherStudio.com:
In the summer of 1946 Zika Ascher went to Paris to try to convince French artists to design for his company. [Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, Sonia Delauney, and Henry Moore were among the 51 contemporary artists Ascher eventually convinced to create textile and scarf designs.] Zika had previously approached Matisse in the spring of 1946, but was not able to get a firm commitment from the artist. When Zika called on Matisse in his studio he was shocked to learn that not only had Matisse embraced the idea of the commission, but he had already laid out two wall panels, which were pinned directly onto the walls of his studio. The challenge was how to reproduce them. After failing to reproduce the compositions using photographic enlargements, the layouts were traced and the maquettes were unpinned and sent to London to make the silk screens. Matisse wanted to match the exact colour and texture of his apartment wall covering. With great difficulty the subtle shade of beige was matched. The panels were issued in a limited edition of 30, half of which were given to Matisse.
The piece newly unveiled by the National Gallery of Australia was acquired directly from the Matisse family. It is signed and dedicated by the artist to his son, Pierre.