Bold and beautiful

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Moira Stansfield admires the collection of stunning fabrics that were inspirational to Matisse

Henri Matisse inhabited a world that pulsed with colour and movement. His bold graphic images fashioned from cut paper are so familiar and seem so youthful and exuberant that it is hard to believe they were the last works of an artist in his seventies, approaching the end of his creative life.

They form the climax to a fascinating exhibition in the Royal Academy's Sackler Wing Galleries. Hilary Spurling, author of a recent biography of Matisse, has curated the exhibition and uses it to trace the artist's inspiration back to his upbringing in the textile town of Bohain-en-Vermandois.

The stimulus and interest of the exhibition lies in its unfolding of the development of the artist's style - one that was considered innovative and daring in its day and still excites with its juxtaposition of bold colour and pattern.

Though never having seen an oil painting until he was nearly 20, from an early age Matisse was surrounded by colour and pattern: examples of the superb technical skill and feeling for colour for which the town's weavers were renowned.

The exhibition begins with their delightful sample books of silk jacquard weaves and figured damask which so influenced his style. Early in life he purchased a piece of cotton, his toile de jouy, which is at the entrance of the exhibition. It soon found its way into his paintings where it started off as figurative representation of a tablecloth or wall hanging, and eventually developed into a more abstract and dominating motif, as one room of the display shows.

The boldness of Matisse's work, its colours and lines, is perennially popular and much-copied. The exhibition looks at the sources for its inspiration, and stimulates the visitor's imagination, too. Matisse's working "library" was his collection of assorted pieces of cloth - even threadbare rugs - from around the world, especially from France, North Africa and Eastern Europe, and they provided him with stimulus and visual enrichment. He added to them throughout his life, but kept faithful to the old pieces over decades.

By using these time and again to form a setting for himself and his models, he created a colourful and ever-changing ambience, magically transforming his cramped studio into a creative environment. He used examples of couture clothing from the Paris fashion shows, embroidered peasant blouses from Romania, and woven and embroidered gowns from India, Africa and Turkey, loving the transformative power of dressing up, as when he clothed his model repeatedly as an odalisque (Eastern concubine).

His openness and enthusiasm for new textiles and new textures allowed him to appreciate and develop the possibilities inherent in decorative craftwork, moving towards more abstract pattern-led paintings. In his later years he said: "Painting seems to be finished for me now... I'm all for decoration."

It was his collection of Kuba fabrics from the Congo, which he called his "African velvets", that inspired him to experiment with cut paper to create the lively, striking and abstract work which is so famous now.

This obvious pleasure in experimenting with texture, pattern and colour can be appreciated by artists of any age and ability. For teachers, there are obvious resonances. At primary level, children's work is often based on the art of decoration, such as that inspired by Mendhi and Diwali, and Islamic architecture; maths and art link in projects which centre on repeating tessellated and coloured patterns.

At secondary level, the exhibition brings home how rich a resource the everyday can be, even through revisiting the old-fashioned still-life.

Matisse's world of ornament could enable the exploration of different fabrics and textiles at GCSE, while researching how different cultures have used fabrics as decoration and also as canvas for artwork has implications right up to A2. Matisse's open and creative spirit offers so many options.

Moira Stansfield is a freelance art educator

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