Re-imagining Matisse's Encounter with Polynesia
Updated: Mar 19
Angela Tiatia's The Pearl (2021) in conversation with Matisse's art after Tahiti
Jennifer Yang, Art History (Honours) candidate
This article was originally written for and presented at the inaugural Eloquence Art Prize Grand Final, held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 23 February 2022. In recognition of her high standard of scholarship and outstanding ability as a public speaker, the author was selected by the judging panel as a University Champion representing the University of Sydney.
Sixteen years after he first set foot in Tahiti in 1930, Henri Matisse created Oceania, the Sea and Oceania, the Sky – two large panels decorated with gouache paper cut-outs of abstracted birds, marine life, and flora. Reflecting on his source of inspiration, Matisse wrote:
From the first, the enchantments of the sky there, the sea, the fish, and the coral in the lagoons, plunged me into the inaction of total ecstasy … It is only now that these wonders have returned to me, with tenderness and clarity, and have permitted me, with protracted pleasure, to execute these two panels. 
It seemed that, more than a decade after his stay, during which he claimed to have done 'absolutely nothing except take bad photos,'  Matisse was able to distil his memories of Polynesia into pictorial form. Begun with the cutting of a swallow from a sheet of paper, pasted to a wall to cover a stain, the Oceania works were designed to be immersive decorative compositions, reaching almost three metres in length and two in height. Matisse’s attempts to visually describe a vision of Tahiti which he had claimed to be impossible to represent achieved their culmination in these large-scale collage works.
This vision is recalled and reimagined in Tiatia’s video installation, The Pearl (2021). Produced using computer-generated imagery and 3D animation and projected onto a concave screen over 14 metres in length, The Pearl conjures an expansive and spectacular tropical vista - speculating on the kinds of Polynesian objects and images which may have inspired Matisse’s experiments with paper cut-outs and collage.
After sitting with the work and wondering how I might possibly condense my thoughts about it into a 15-minute speech for the inaugural Eloquence Art Prize, I decided to concentrate on three key points of reflection.
First, to consider how Tiatia deconstructs a global vision of Polynesia as a paradise, pointing to the role played by transcultural and transhistorical memories in sustaining and defining that idea of Polynesia which Matisse helped to shape.
Second, to think about not only the creative potential of memory, but also its incompleteness, how we might shift the narrative and, as Tiatia does, make room for a feminine subjectivity.
Finally, to reflect on the implications of re-reading Matisse’s work via Tiatia’s re-imaginings, and the extent to which she challenges us to consider notions of mutuality, reciprocity, and multi-directionality as we examine the exchanges that took place as Matisse helped to produce a particular vision of Polynesia, and Tahiti in turn exerted a transformative influence on his life and practice.
In conjuring an immersive digital panorama of cascading, computer-generated water, and 3D projections of plasticky fuchsia clamshell sandpits rendered with a high-gloss texture map, Tiatia constructs a hyperreal moving image which simultaneously points to its own artifice. Even still, the image before us finds ways to anchor itself to someplace; with a ground of serene blue skies, gentle clouds, and glares of sunlight filtering through as our gaze is tilted upward. The final frames of the video focus on a memorial stone - a ceremonial volcanic boulder located at the sacred Taputapuātea Marae on the island of Ra’iatea; the triangle etched onto its surface representing the Pacific Triangle straddling the North and South Pacific Oceans. This physical marker of sacred space and communion is scanned and projected by computers which process, remember, and reassemble the object, and its precise spatial deformations, in digital space and time.
In their own ways, Matisse and Tiatia each transport us to a world formed and distilled through memory and reverie, suspended somewhere along a continuum between a real and imagined geography. Tiatia, however, is especially conscious of the historical conditions and intertwined politics of science and aestheticism which have guided the production of such imaginings.
In presenting what she describes as 'a world of the hyper-real; overly beautiful, hyper-beautiful, hyper-surreal,'  Tiatia entertains a sense of illusory factuality associated with the photographic image, and the historical usage of the camera as a colonial tool for documenting and often inventing culture through the visualisation of difference.
Oscillating between the spectacular and the quotidian, Tiatia’s digital assemblage of Oceanic iconography implicates viewers in the construction and consumption of a fantasy image of an exotic paradise, one well-rehearsed in Paul Gauguin’s idyllic representations of Tahiti, and one re-staged in tourist images, travel writing, advertisements, and postcards from the 19th century until the present. I find it useful here to draw upon the words of the scholar Alison Nordstrom who writes about the effects of travel albums, suggesting that the photographs within them
… served to define, value, commodify and validate the travel experience … these complex photographic objects constructed the journey that should have been, one without boring moments, bad weather, late trains, pickpockets or lost luggage. 
This process of selective remembrance is echoed in a passage from John Klein’s essay on Matisse’s practice following his return to France:
Banished from Matisse's artistic memory were the unpleasant particulars of the trip - the days of boredom, the pain in his legs, his disappointment in Papeete ... 
Photographs, and Matisse’s paintings, serve as aides-memoires, mnemonic devices which concretise an idealised version of a particular space and time. Yet, as we reappraise such objects more critically and carefully, we can see that they lay bare the conditions of their production. Here we witness a tendency in Matisse’s works to frame his view of an exotic world from within his room in a luxurious European-standard hotel. The balustrades of his hotel balcony function as a viewfinder, mediating, moderating, and suggesting the distance between the European visitor and the colony.
Such mythic images of Tahiti resurface in The Pearl. Tiatia, however, ornaments her images with markers of their artificiality: as our field of vision ravels along rippling water and pink, fluorescent shells, we glimpse leis woven with candy and a spit-roasted pig with lollipops protruding from its flesh - objects which disrupt recollections of an untouched premodern paradise, instead bringing us into contact with the dynamic contemporary cultures of the Pacific. Other objects which Matisse encountered and even brought to Europe, such as conch shells, are reanimated not only in moving image but also through sound. The result is an immersive, sensorial world which diverts from assumptions of a totalising colonial gaze and the idea of a pure and eternal Polynesian paradise to be gazed upon. Rather, Tiatia creates a transcultural space for critical but also joyous dialogue, between Matisse’s initial encounter and imaginings and her own lived reality in the present. All while addressing the part played by European colonial images in shaping an ongoing global imaginary of Polynesia.
I would like now to turn to another dimension of Tiatia’s engagement with Matisse - her construction of The Pearl as a visual response to his 1930 bronze sculpture, Venus in a Shell.
Matisse’s Venus recalls a genealogy of nude female bodies in European art history—Manet’s Olympia (1863), Giorgone’s Sleeping Venus (1510), and of course Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1485-6) all come to mind. However, Matisse’s engagement with the subject also coalesced with a fascination for African sculpture, forming part of a grander philosophical pursuit to achieve a 'state of condensation of sensations'  - an undertaking which was nonetheless inflected by Orientalist fantasies that pivoted between feelings of disgust and lust, fear and arousal toward the non-Western female body.
For Tiatia, however, Matisse’s Venus appears to offer some form of respite:
I was really drawn to Matisse’s Venus. She is a woman. Her arms and armpits exposed. I found that quite sexy when compared to how other artists have portrayed Venus. 
Here, Tiatia suggests an alternative way to read Matisse’s work, even if the artist himself had no apparent desire to intervene in the raced and gendered hierarchies of the modern European art world.
In Matisse’s Venus, foreign visual elements - in particular, the gender-neutral treatment of the subject, sense of angularity, muscularity, and geometrised anatomy found in African sculptural practice - are grafted onto Greco-Roman archetypes of femininity, confusing codes of gender and race even as it deploys them. The faceless form of Venus, with arms erect in the air, contrasts directly with the classical ideal of demure female sexuality as expressed in the venus pudica, becoming, for Tiatia, a point of entry into the re-imagining of a Polynesian feminine body, long implicated in the relation between metropole and colony.
The world she crafts in response transculturates European and Polynesian images of femininity - the ambiguous scallop shell on which Matisse’s Venus kneels is transfigured into a plastic kid’s sandpit which opens to reveal a pearl, hinting at the genesis of a perfect oceanic femininity. Yet the first frame of the video, which positions at its centre a hibiscus growing from a sand snail shell atop the fountain of pink clams, draws parallels to Indigenous Polynesian creation stories, referencing the birth of the supreme creator Ta’aroa from a shell. As the lower tiers of the fountain come into our vision, more sandpits open to reveal purple orchids, frangipani, and birds of paradise in bloom, bearing gynoerotic valences alongside conches and cowrie shells, the decapitated head of a ceramic Polynesian doll and bunches of pink velvet bananas - a hardy crop grown for ornamental purposes.
To borrow the words of Natasha Tinsley, a feminist scholar who writes about the poetry of a Haitian aristocrat who lived in Paris in the early twentieth century, Tiatia’s The Pearl seems to provide
a flower-insulated space between public and private, open and closed [offering] possibilities of expression that the hypervisibility of outness could not afford the already-marked bodies of women of colour. 
Indeed, unlike Tiatia’s earlier work, Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis (2010), in which she slowly swallows a hibiscus flower while gazing defiantly at the viewer, there is a kind of self-effacement in The Pearl. Viewers are invited to gaze upon a beautiful spectacle, yet Tiatia refrains from inserting her own body into the display. Instead, her protestation against the eroticised, racialised marking of the female body is expressed symbolically - at the base of the fountain rests the pearl hijacked by a machete, guarded by two statuesque digitally-rendered Polynesian women.
As I now close, I wish to remark on this idea of a space of simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility in The Pearl. More specifically, regarding the alterations made to The Pearl because of the ongoing pandemic, with Tiatia originally intending for the video to include composites of filmed performances of young women from Pacific Islander and Indigenous families.
Thinking back to Matisse’s source of inspiration in the Pacific, I wish to argue that The Pearl and the non-presence of its female performers in its first iteration asks us to look beyond those alluring, but deceptively simplistic concepts of a singular genius or master painter in canonical accounts of art, which still so frequently cling to our evaluations of Matisse.
Over the course of his career, Matisse depended greatly upon the women who modelled for him. Such women did not merely serve as muses, but were to become crucial partners in Matisse’s creative enterprise, with each appearing to open up new pictorial possibilities for the artist at pivotal points in his practice.
In Tahiti, Matisse was closely guided by Pauline Schyle, a local woman and former lover of a French novelist friend. Yet even after 1930, Schyle and Matisse exchanged letters for a period of 23 years, with Schyle often sending him souvenirs, such as vanilla beans, dried fruits, and printed fabric. Contrary to the belief that Tahiti was quickly forgotten by Matisse only to suddenly resurface in his later works, his memories of and affections toward Tahiti were sustained and nurtured through his exchanges with Schyle.
Matisse’s collection of souvenirs also included a kind of Tahitian applique quilt - Tivaevae - gifted to him by Schyle. Tivaevae, a Polynesian word meaning to “patch repeatedly”, is typically a community-centred practice, with quilts often sewn by women’s groups across different villages and exchanged for social and symbolic rather than economic capital. Matisse’s tivaevae were especially significant objects of inspiration for his collage works, which borrowed elements of both design and technique, assimilating them into a specifically French decorative art style.
Reflecting on the absence of women in Tiatia’s work, I am prompted to think about how the hypervisibility of women’s bodies so often belies their labour, which remains invisible. As we now return to Matisse’s Oceania works, I wonder if we might approach them with an eye for that invisible labour, and those invisible connections, collaborations, and exchanges which have been lost to a Eurocentric art historical canon and masculinist valuations of ‘good art’ in terms of originality, individuality, and the gendered myth of artistic genius.
More than beautiful spectacle, Angela Tiatia’s The Pearl is brilliant in that it initiates those conversations and creates a dialogic space for us to re-engage with Matisse and his travels in the Pacific, allowing us to reread his work with new intentions, and to make room for subjectivities and sensibilities that we may have missed on first glance.
Henri Matisse to Anonymous, 1946, in Matisse on Art, ed. Jack D. Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 169.
Henri Matisse to Pierre Bonnard, 1930, in Correspondance (1925-1946): Bonnard/Matisse, ed. Jean Clair and Antoine Terrasse (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), 51.
Angela Tiatia, 'Angela Tiatia Responds to Henri Matisse,' interview by Emma-Kate Wilson, Ocula Magazine (November 3, 2021).
Alison Nordstrom, 'Making a Journey: The Tupper Scrapbooks and the Travel they Describe,' in Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images, eds. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, (London: Routledge, 2004), 84.
John Klein, 'Matisse after Tahiti: The Domestication of Exotic Memory,' Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 60, no. 1 (1997): 56.
See Henri Matisse, Notes of a Painter, 1908, in Matisse on Art, ed. Jack D. Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 38.
Angela Tiatia, 'Matisse’s Tahiti Trip Inspired Angela Tiatia’s Feminist Reinterpretation of His Venus Bronze Sculpture,' interview by Michael Young, Cobosocial (November 9, 2021).
Natasha Tinsley, 'Open Roses, Closed Gardens, and Invisible Women: Queering the Tropical Garden in the Poetrry of Ida Saloman Faubert,' Canadian Woman Studies 23, no. 2 (2004): 52.
Jennifer Yang is in her Honours year of a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in Art History. Her research centres on East and Southeast Asian art, with past works exploring Sino-Malay cultural exchanges in the twentieth century as well as contemporary photographic practice across Southeast Asia. At present, Jennifer is writing an Honours thesis on the contemporary Chinese-Indonesian video artist Tintin Wulia.